Translating Religion Courses to an Online Format: Introduction Print

Issue Editors: Ellen Posman, Baldwin-Wallace College, and Reid B. Locklin, University of Toronto

Ellen Posman is an associate professor of religion at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. She holds degrees in religious studies from Stanford University, Harvard University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her expertise lies in the area of comparative religion, with specializations in Buddhism and Judaism. Posman can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Reid B. Locklin holds a joint appointment in Christianity and culture at Saint Michael’s College and at the Centre for the Study of Religion, both at the University of Toronto. A graduate of Boston University and Boston College, he is the author of Spiritual but Not Religious? (Liturgical Press, 2005), Liturgy of Liberation (Peeters, 2011) and other works in comparative theology, Christian ecclesiology, and spirituality. Locklin can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Translating Higher Education to the Internet?

It seems that online education’s moment has arrived.

Recently the British news magazine The Economist surveyed the possible impact of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) offered by the likes of Udacity and Coursera (2012). These courses, which allow users to enroll online without paying any fee up front, offer a distinctive response to ever-increasing demand for higher education and the increased expense of offering it in traditional ways. And the threat to traditional education is real, at least in the minds of proponents. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, the Economist reports, “predicts that in fifty years there will be only ten universities left in the world.” Clay Shirky (2012, 2013), art professor and distinguished writer-in-residence at the New York University Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, offers the more nuanced suggestion that MOOCs represent a genuinely new model of education for the 90 percent of U.S. undergraduates who do not attend liberal arts colleges or elite state universities — a transformation analogous to the transformation of the music industry by the mp3. He writes:

In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now it’s our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine — really cannot imagine — that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true. (Shirky 2012)

We certainly have not yet achieved — or been subjected to, depending upon your point of view — the transformation envisioned by Thrun and Shirky; MOOCs are the province of a small number of hard-working faculty, have yet to cross the boundary from learning to credentialing successfully, and currently boast a modest 7.5 percent completion rate (though, of course, 7.5 percent of the median course enrollment of 33,000 is still a rather large number; see Kolowich 2013). Nevertheless, it is hard to argue with the broader trend toward online education. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a special issue dedicated to the “Digital Campus” in April 2012. Its lead article, entitled “Open Education’s Wide World of Possibilities,” features a Tibetan yak herder and educational reformer studying poetry at Yale University (Mangan 2012). Critics dismiss the large-scale transition to online teaching as a money-grab, as a betrayal of the public purpose of higher education, and as a method of content delivery that fundamentally distorts the affective, improvisational character of effective pedagogy (e.g., Bady 2012; Edmundson 2012; Tippens 2012; Bustillos 2013). Such protests, though well-taken, ultimately offer further demonstration of the historical reality: online education is here, seemingly to stay. Nor is it the province of outliers. Yale University, Stanford University, Harvard University, University of California, University of Wisconsin, MIT — all have made moves toward massive online education. Coeditor Reid Locklin’s institution, the University of Toronto, has also recently joined the fray (see

In this issue of Spotlight, our contributors suggest that, even if one demurs from Shirky’s radical conclusions, he has put his finger on precisely the issue that most needs our attention: imagination and the failure of imagination. As Justin Arft notes in his article, “Navigating the Sea of Cyberspace,” the shift to online education involves a complex process of translation. Not unlike language translation, translation from traditional educational models to online environments requires a greater or lesser reconceptualization of education itself.

As with any translation, the first step is learning the mechanics of the language and the basic vocabulary. The authors in this Spotlight issue walk us through some of this, explaining some of the basic platforms as well as the mechanics of putting lectures, discussions, videos, and assignments online. However, mechanics and vocabulary are never enough when translating. The grammar and context of a new language or culture will necessitate rearrangements in sentence structure and cultural logic. Erica Hurwitz Andrus, for example, describes a process of not only moving her “Introduction to Religion” course online, but also condensing it — both of which forced her into unique arrangements of the content so that it fit the new format. Marla J. Selvidge also provides advice on film resources, copyright issues, Adobe presenter files, and finding institutional support.

Then there are idioms — those phrases that cannot easily be translated but instead have to be altogether reconceptualized in the new context. Many of our authors rethink the concepts of “lecture” and “discussion” in an online context. In traditional classrooms, despite how we may think of lectures, they too, in addition to discussions, include interactive components and visual cues. John Baumann asks, “How do I know that all the students understand the concepts we are covering?” and “How can I keep the interest of students, or even gauge their interest?” Annie Blazer and Brandi Denison ask how to facilitate discussions that avoid plagiarism or proselytization. For lectures, the authors discuss a number of strategies to decrease passivity among students ranging from segmented lectures (John T. Strong), to short lessons (Sandie Gravett), to written mini-lectures (Andrus), and there is near universality about the need for an interactive component — whether that includes question-sets related to lectures or even having to correctly answer a question before proceeding to the next lesson.

Discussion by far seems to pose the biggest challenges but also provides the most opportunities. Here a consensus seems to emerge regarding focused prompts, structured discussions, and maintaining a regular presence. While there are the aforementioned challenges of plagiarism or proselytization, there are also unique benefits. Students who may not contribute in a traditional classroom discussion do participate online, whether because it is required or because of the safety of anonymity. Andrew T. Arroyo also notes the possibility of a focused Socratic-style dialogue with each individual student in a way that the time constraints of traditional classrooms preclude.

The anonymity relates to a color-blind context of the online format. While Andrus writes that she is fine if she does not see her students and they do not see her, both Strong and Gravett find ways to be visually present to their students and, in the latter case, to have them post visually. Arroyo’s article delves fully into this issue; he emphasizes the importance of allowing for diverse voices that ultimately empower students, and he reminds us that online education does not change the fact that there are still diverse modes of learning, many of which are culturally based. Other authors also note that online education reaches out to students who may otherwise not be able to attend college and can bring in a diverse group of students. We need to be vigilant to make sure that this diversity is not lost in translation.

Of course some things simply can’t be translated. A number of authors mention the difficulty of testing online, while others mention problems with brainstorming or other forms of group work. While there can be solutions — it is possible to secure proctored locations for tests, and Selvidge in particular notes her success with group work online — certain activities either need to be replaced or else dealt with early on.

Many of the challenges of online education can be surmounted by simply leaving some elements untranslated. Strong champions the hybrid format. This does sacrifice some of the convenience for students, but it maintains much of the flexibility of online formats while also allowing for some of the best in-class practices to be kept. Indeed, he contends that doing part of our teaching online can help with the in-classroom education. And this, in turn, echoes a point made by several contributors: namely, the translation to online education need not entail a concomitant translation from active to passive voice — at least, not if the translation is effected with the requisite imagination and, critically, institutional flexibility, as underscored by Blazer and Denison.

Testing for knowledge online is problematic when answers are a click away, but this new reality also invites us to ponder traditional education. For our face-to-face students information is also a click away. Arft explains that we need to apply lessons about the technological age to the whole purpose of education and consider new technologies not only for teaching and learning, but also scholarship. Andrus, too, notes the relationship between online and face-to-face learning, but in a different way. She has brought her experiences from her online classes back to her traditional classroom formats. Here, the clarity, intentionality, and uses of technology have all improved the face-to-face version of her course. As with languages or religions, learning another one can often help us better understand our own.

Some people make the assumption that a translation can never be as good as the original. This issue of Spotlight suggests that such a comparison may, ultimately, miss the most important point. Online education will not be the same as traditional instruction, and there will always be stumbling blocks. But it may also have the potential to exceed the limits of the traditional classroom in important ways. Even in language translation, sometimes one finds that one can do certain things in the new language that could not be done in the original. Both Selvidge and Gravett discuss the possibility of bringing international sites and cultures directly to the online classroom, and Baumann raises the opportunity of having students from across the country work together. Selvidge also points out the safety factor in online education, as conversations about religion can be heated and violence on our campuses is becoming all too familiar.

In the end, every translation is unique, and that of course is based on the translator. Strong reminds us that not all teaching styles work for each faculty member, noting that “we all teach through our personalities.” Each of us needs to find ways to make such teaching styles our own. Hopefully this issue of Spotlight on Teaching can help us reach that goal. While the consensus shows us some of the institutional forces at work behind online education, the varied suggestions in this issue may provide us with the flexibility to put our personal stamp on our online courses.