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After I moved back to Eugene, I set about reconstructing my academic career. Offered the opportunity to teach a large online introductory course at the University of Oregon, I accepted. Previously I had taught the intro course in a large classroom with 150 students and three teaching assistants, fifty minutes per class three times a week. It was ungainly and I never felt that I was able to forge strong communication with the students. The following summer, I taught the same class online. There was a freedom, almost an intimacy, to some of the conversations on the course forum that were missing in the large lecture hall version. Undergraduate students typically are reluctant to speak up in a classroom situation, and the larger the class size, the more silence there seems to be. I have had several students take both online and classroom courses from me, and their level of participation and active questioning are much more evident in the online framework. The online environment allows students in my course the time to consider their options, formulate their opinions, and respond to other students, all with a level of thoughtfulness and cohesiveness rarely found in a physical classroom. The promise of online coursework in religious studies, in particular, lies in the detached and careful progression of the online conversation, allowing for conscious use of language, measured exploration of concepts, and room to critically respond to readings, lectures, and colleagues’ comments simultaneously.

Not all was perfect at first, though. A seasoned online teacher (or so he told me) insisted that I should have the students form small groups and turn in their work as collectives. That was such a disaster that I abandoned it midway through the course. Lazier students just put their names on the work of the more responsible ones and hid behind the anonymity afforded to online students. The responsible students complained bitterly. Overall it was interesting, even promising, but I made some major changes before I taught another undergraduate online intro course the next year, beginning with eliminating the group work requirement. Group work requires groups of students willing to share time together online in “face-to-face” meetings, as well as a structure that demands specific individual contributions to a predetermined end product. I’m in the process now of developing both of those elements.

In place of group work, I put my efforts into constructing individual “explorations” that students had to carry out as part of their readings for each class. I left Internet “breadcrumbs” for them to follow online that led them to video archives, audio files, external articles, pictures, and very short but interesting online exercises (one was “building” a museum exhibit, allowing the student to choose objects and information to represent a display on twentieth century post-war protest music). I’m beginning to experiment with online conferencing, having students meet online with their peers and myself once a week to discuss ideas.

The question of “anonymity” is a double-edged sword. On one hand it allows relatively inexperienced or insecure individuals a “buffer” to operate behind, and on the other hand, it often allows student voices to blossom much more than what they might allow in the physical presence of their peers. It can also serve, as in the example of Facebook, as a kind of license to say things and share thoughts one might never think of saying or sharing in a physical classroom. I spend much more time in my online courses cautioning students to be conscious of their language and strongly encouraging tolerance in their writings.

The defining moment came for me this past fall, while studying watersheds and much more as part of an online graduate course. I was hired by Green Mountain College to teach as part of their flagship master of science in environmental studies program, an excellent example of a program that can work well in distance education. I was delighted to see what distance education could be with graduate students. The course was “Bioregional Theory and Practice,” an exploration of bioregional theory with a strong emphasis on student exploration and analysis of their own home places — their bioregions. Students worked from South Carolina, Cleveland, southern California, Florida, Vermont, Chicago, and China. The discussion forums had a leading question focused on an aspect of the readings for that day, and the conversations were rich and passionate. The students were cautious at first, as was I, in their assessment of the value of the course, but the positive reviews grew throughout the term.

Bioregionalism is concerned with exploring the nature of one’s local region, defined not by political boundaries but by geological, cultural, historical, biological, and economic characteristics. The field explores values, attitudes, and actions toward local environments from the perspective of the unique nature of that environment. Students conduct deep explorations of their self-defined bioregion and share their findings with their peers. The questions embedded within such a study have a quasireligious quality to them, since the endgame is really the question “How can we maintain the long-term health of all aspects of our locale in order to ensure our survival and the ongoing existence of the ecosystem we depend on for that survival?”

Religious studies, as a discipline, relies both on global and local understandings of the strategies by which we choose to live our lives. Online comparative religion courses are common and lend themselves to a fairly static textual study. A more dynamic opportunity for students might lie in an online course that encourages students to explore the local religious and spiritual landscape, drawing out the particular character of one’s region through the lens of local beliefs and practices. Incorporation of interviews with local clergy and spiritual practitioners, historical analysis of the religious history of one’s locale, even measurements of religious involvement, can simultaneously “ground” a student’s academic work and allow new and potentially eye-opening information to be shared with one’s peers.

Online learning, more so than classroom coursework, supports the sharing of stories and of one’s deeper thoughts and experiences. It can allow a student to bring their humanity to the fore, which sparks others to do the same. Once that happens, vibrant discussions can erupt — discussions that don’t have room to grow in a traditional classroom setting.

How do I know that all the students understand the concepts we are covering? In class, they can raise their hand. Online, they’d have to write to the teacher and confess their inability to grasp an idea. Apparently, this is very difficult for many students. How can I keep the interest of students, or even gauge their interest? In a classroom, I can rely on observation, and engage students with humor and stories, breaking up the pace to keep them loose and interested. Online teaching can’t accomplish that. In some very important ways, it feels to me that online courses put more authority in the hands of students. The teacher assumes the role of informed facilitator, and a vital aspect of that role is the continuous questioning of students to determine their level of understanding. Quizzes can help, but rich conversations are better. Leading questions with consistent follow-up are my best tools for making sure students stay with the trajectory of the course.


This website contains archived issues of Religious Studies News published online from March 2010 to May 2013, and PDF versions of print editions published from Winter 2001 to October 2009.

This site also contains archived issues of Spotlight on Teaching (May 1999 to May 2013) and Spotlight on Theological Education (March 2007 to March 2013).

For current issues of RSN, beginning with the October 2013 issue, please see here.