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Navigating the Sea of Cyberspace - Utilizing Online Technology PDF-NOTE: Internet Explorer Users, right click the PDF Icon and choose [save target as] if you are experiencing problems with clicking. Print

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.


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