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

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.


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