Navigating the Sea of Cyberspace Print

Justin Arft, University of Missouri

Justin Arft is currently a visiting instructor in religious studies at the University of Missouri, where he is a PhD candidate in classical studies. He also teaches online courses for Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in major world religions, religious literacy for the professions and public, and classical mythology. In classical studies, Arft’s research focuses on Homer, oral traditions, and the Greek epic cycle. He has a forthcoming chapter with John Miles Foley, “Orality and the Greek Epic Cycle,” in the Cambridge Companion to the Greek Epic Cycle. His recent work in online teaching was also published with Debra Mason and Amy White in “An Online Course in Religious Studies” in Fostering Religious Studies across Campus (New Forums, 2011). He also serves as the managing editor for Oral Tradition.

Old Problem, New Paradigm

Socrates was concerned. By nature, yes, concerned about many things, but in particular he seems to have been concerned with education. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates famously expresses his concern for the utility, power, and dangers of a new teaching technology — not Powerpoint, not blogging, not even Wikipedia, but writing itself. For Socrates and Plato, whose pedagogical techniques for the cultivation of knowledge relied on live-action, face-to-face dialogue, writing and rhetoric presented the particular dangers of forgetfulness and manipulation of truth. Although writing seems to be in it for the long haul, Socrates’s fundamental concern for knowledge and the arena in which it is presented is no less relevant now, especially in regards to the world of online education.

In this short piece, my goal is not to run through the ins and outs of how I build online courses or to scrutinize the countless (and exciting) developing programs for online education; the accompanying links provided on the Additional Resources page can guide you in that direction. My concern here is to speak more theoretically about the arena of the online environment and how it intersects with teaching; in particular, teaching religion. The arena is quite new and still working itself out — it was only around 2002 when the “Web 2.0” phenomenon even introduced the possibility for massive user interaction with websites, and the pace at which online educational opportunities, innovations, programs, departments, schools, and the like are expanding is overwhelmingly fast. Institutions, and educators in particular, may be feeling a fair amount of anxiety about exactly how to enter this arena, and for nontechnological natives, the learning curve feels extremely steep. The challenge is administrative, financial, and pedagogical, and the landscape of the teaching profession is changing as a result of it.

As a young, allegedly tech-savvy educator myself, I have mixed feelings about this incredible new medium, and there is constant pressure to be learning the newest tricks of the trade while remaining true to that age-old concern: knowledge. My own experience in online education and religious studies teaching emerges from a “boots on the ground” kind of training and is deeply rooted in both models — that of the brick-and-mortar classroom where I discovered my own love of teaching, and that of emerging Internet technologies, which I have grown up with and grown into. Since 2000, I have served as a graduate teaching assistant in both religious studies and classical studies, as a visiting and/or adjunct instructor in religious studies for three mid-Missouri institutions, and as a faculty member at a summer intensive gifted program for Missouri high school students. Additionally, I have taught in daytime classrooms, night classes, and online environments at these institutions. In short, even without the new challenges of teaching online, the “playing field” for young instructors already demands a certain flexibility, energy, and agility that mirrors the very pedagogical needs of teaching online. That is, I simply see the online arena as an extension of the already changing educational environment of our globalized infrastructure. This variety of experience has creatively and effectively informed my teaching style.

So, to return to the “old problem,” the online arena is simply a new medium in which we all may offer our “wisdom.” On one hand, this means we are not reinventing the wheel as educators. Usually, what works in the seminar or lecture hall also works online. However, the new framework demands a “good translation” of content so that it may effectively continue to do what it has always done.

The first and most obvious challenge to teaching online is clearly articulating your own teaching goals to yourself. In a traditional fifteen-week course there is some “breathing room” to respond to the needs of the class as the semester advances and time to make these adaptations. Depending on the particular format of an online course, most of the planning and structuring of the course must be done up front for two reasons. First, the timeframe is typically shorter, and second, the online framework demands a different kind of pacing. As such, content and goals generally need to be stated very clearly up front, and assignments, discussions, and other assessments need to be arranged in advance. This does not mean there is an absence of flexibility, but the combination of shorter timeframes and increased student expectations for clarity create a new opportunity for an adapted teaching strategy.

Student expectations are the driving force behind the need for this clarity. In my experience, students who join online courses expect to work hard and to work on a tighter schedule because they are usually balancing other areas of their life in addition to the course. Again, the social model has changed, and whether multitasking is a positive trend or not, we are all doing it. As such, the need for clarity and concision is paramount in teaching online and your students will repay the effort you put into this. As a result, my discussion prompts, syllabus, assignment instructions, and calendars are excruciatingly detailed. Upon first glance, my reaction is always “no one is going to read all of this.” And yet they do. Students who are equipped with clear goals, instructions, and means of finding answers to questions tend to run with the ball quite effectively online. In my experience, students’ own sense of independence in this forum tends to create a greater sense of responsibility.

The best piece of advice that I was given early in online education was that a class lives or dies by discussion — an assertion to which our concerned Socrates would happily assent. But, as any of us who teaches in religious studies knows, discussion is usually where the inherent difficulties in teaching topics ranging from Buddhist self-immolation to the historical Jesus to religious responses to abortion or euthanasia are delicately ironed out. The physical classroom is where we can actually see the wheels turning, and this moment of critical thought is the theoretical and pedagogical moment to which I am always responding while developing online courses.

Although “online discussion” may encode a bit of an oxymoron — and is usually the first and strongest potential aversion to teaching online — the online arena affords incredible enhancements to discussion of difficult or sensitive topics. In a well-designed (and required) discussion forum, students who typically would not engage with in-class dialogue have no place to hide in the online forum. In fact, the “anonymity” of the online discussion often makes it easier for students to express themselves, and the ability to stop, reflect, and formulate thoughts before posting also allows for a clarity of expression that is generally of exceptionally high quality. I could offer many anecdotes that affirm the efficacy of this arena, but, generally speaking, I have been nothing short of stunned at the level of critical discussion that occurs in my “Religious Literacy for the Professions and Public” course that I helped design and currently teach at the University of Missouri. It is an “upper-level” course whose development was sponsored by a “religious literacy” initiative through the Center on Religion and the Professions (CORP), and a great deal of the course revolves around weekly discussion prompts in online groups (Arft, Mason, and White, 2011). We deal with a wide range of controversial issues in religion and public life, and with carefully guided discussion prompts that help steer the discussion rather than simply leaving the discursive space wide-open, the responses and critical thoughts generated by students are consistently excellent and sometimes profound. The individual examples are too numerous to list, but it is not an uncommon occurrence for students to feel comfortable enough to scrutinize their own beliefs, allow them to be scrutinized, and reflect on personal experience that enriches the theoretical issues being discussed. I have witnessed self-guided and successful conflict resolution in discussions, and one student was so inspired by the group discussion that she sought to create new guidelines for patients’ religious accommodations in her nursing profession. The online environment allows a freedom of expression and composition of thought not always available in a face-to-face classroom.

Reaping these benefits, however, is not guaranteed and requires a certain amount of planning and participation. The challenge as an instructor, just as in a traditional classroom, is to stay engaged and active in the discussion. This can be the most time-consuming aspect of online courses, but the reward is proportional to the time spent. Early in the course, discussion prompts are very guided and structured, and I respond to every person’s initial response. That is, a series of short, guided questions are posed in a manner that “steers” the response and encourages descriptive, yet critical thoughts. Any wide-open prompt, especially before discussion skills are practiced, can lead to speculation and evaluation fueled by a sense of anonymity online. However, staying highly engaged in the discussion, modeling responses, and even responding individually to students who are getting a little too evaluative all add up to a positive discussion environment. Further, the use of audio and video responses to the group as a whole reinforces the fact that, despite the virtual arena, there are in fact humans at the helm. This early, intense approach establishes a presence in the online environment, and by modeling responses and guiding the discussion, course-correction begins early. By the latter weeks of a course, students are discussing more freely and vigorously on their own. As is common in religion courses, discussion gets heated, but I have also found that this “early and often” approach creates an environment of both mutual respect and openness to critique. As such, a mutual accountability is created between students — the same courage to post is also found in the courage to respond; and coupled with a robust expression and agreement of expectations to challenge and be challenged, the discussion tends to operate on a fairly high level.

The opportunities of the online arena are vast — and not at all benign or docile either. The tired metaphor of the “sea” of knowledge on the Internet is actually quite appropriate for its associations with navigation, danger, and discovery, all of which are unique to the online environment. The sooner we as teachers can not only take advantage of this knowledge, but can teach students how to critically engage with it, the sooner we will be effective in the new arena. Given that online students are always a browser tab away from the “sea of knowledge,” constructively engaging them with this enormous field of phenomenological data on religion can only help them better understand and even test critical theories and frameworks they are already learning in traditional lectures, readings, and the like. Though I rely on good, solid, peer-reviewed textbooks for the core of my instructional material, I push students to the Web for most of my assignments, and ask them to think critically about the massive variation of practices, ideas, and perceptions of religion that exist in the world. Most of my discussions are centered around letting students “sort out” an array of usually conflicting opinions or perspectives within a single tradition. The result is a comparative methodology that relies on a sea of inert and conflicting data, hopefully tempered by the framework of clearly communicated theory and dealt with critically in discussion.

The “technology” of teaching online is an extension of Web technologies, and as a result the teacher’s host institution probably has already done a great deal to adopt or develop a platform for presenting courses online. In my experience, I have used Blackboard and Moodle, both of which I find effective on the whole. However, if it can be built or found on the Web, you can use it in your course. Although most ready-built platforms include the kinds of tools you’ll need (discussion boards, video collaborations, and so on), a basic understanding of HTML5, CSS, and Java Script allows you to begin to create your own custom content. These skills are a little more complicated than learning how to use PowerPoint, but they are getting easier and more accessible by the day — just search “Java tutorial” or “HTML5” and there will be no shortage of tutorials. The availability of technologies and possibilities for content is overwhelming, no doubt. However, the core principles of fostering critical discussion by asking the right questions and providing the right content will never be absent from effective pedagogy. While Web technologies can certainly enhance effective teaching, they are not a substitute for it.

Most significantly, Web technologies are not only changing the way we teach, but they are impacting institutional structures and scholarship as well. Again, the challenges and potentials are proportional, but a few examples indicate the possibility of a collaborative “ecosystem” where students, teachers, institutions, and scholars alike are using the best of online technologies while staying grounded in the priorities of a liberal arts education with a mind towards a global community. John Miles Foley’s work in this regard was truly innovative and a symbiosis of the elements named before. Not only is the journal Oral Tradition digital, open-access, and free, but the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition and the International Society for the Study of Oral Tradition are engaged in numerous projects that rely on a global, online community of scholars for their output and source material. Most notable of these is the Pathways Project, which serves as a model for exactly how online technologies are a natural extension of the way we learn and process information. The very medium of the Internet is a human-powered collaboration of knowledge, and as teachers we need to harness this actuality. Although we all have our reflex skepticism of Wikipedia, the collaborative model is unprecedented in its speed and efficiency, and the crowd-sourcing potential is something that all educators should encourage students to be aware of and even engage.

The core of teaching in the humanities, especially religious studies, will always be critical dialogue. The online classroom and online environment do not preclude this possibility. As teachers, it increasingly becomes our responsibility not only to learn the ropes of the online platform we are using, but also to think more critically about how the Internet is an innovation and extension of the human community, and how that fact plays a role in our education. Humanities education benefits not only from good delivery of online teaching, but will also benefit from similar “digital humanities” projects that will continue to be an engine for scholarship and learning. The fit is logical, and these initiatives will only make the “sea of knowledge” more useful and appropriate for scholarship and teaching. But, to extend the metaphor, no ship is greater than the person at the helm, and this is where solid, traditional pedagogy will continue to be crucial to the new arena.