Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online
By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 8 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online (6 May 2013)
This podcast explores the nature of learning within online learning and the benefits and disadvantages of this type of curricular design. The interview was conducted with Doe N Daughtrey an instructor at Arizona State University and at Mesa Community College. While her work falls within a wide range of topics from Mormonism to new forms of spirituality, she speaks to the student and instructor experience of teaching online courses, particularly within the field of Religious Studies. Certainly the online medium in Higher Education has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. As an instructional tool, it creates some new challenges for the instructor never before encountered within academia. An obvious example noted by Daughtrey is in relation to student interactions within discussion boards. In more traditional classrooms, students are cognizant of their behavior and their exchanges with other students. However, within the virtual world, students appear more bold and vocal in their opinions. Some students struggle not only with writing but proper projection within writing. When writing and responding to fellow students in an online forum, students may not be mindful of others perception. It is difficult for the instructor to instill in students a cultural sensitivity of others who are different from the student. Congruently, the instructor also has to deal with the permanency of such exchanges as textual exchanges. In a traditional classroom, such exchanges, if they do occur, come and go and the instructor can immediately address and correct inappropriate behavior. Another issue addressed by Daughtrey is the issue of time as related to the course. In traditional classroom exchanges, students and the instructor are in a space together for a specific time frame (McKeachie, 1999). In the online world, the exchanges can be potentially 24 hours depending on the availability of each student and instructor. As far as inappropriate exchanges are concerned, students can have heated or controversial disagreements during times when the instructor is not online to monitor the exchange. Much can happen during that period of time with the potential to spiral into a much larger situation before the instructor is able to intervene.
In addressing such issues and concerns, Daughtrey implies that the textual space of the online course creates a communicative void typically filled with body language and voice inflection in traditional classrooms. As a potential solution to such situations, Daughtrey has used voice recordings in lieu of textual responses for her students. This at least provides the students with her voice inflection in which to infer intention from her feedback. She notes that this has been helpful in her online courses. Another solution Daughtrey proposes is for students to keep a private online journal of their thoughts. This helps keep sensitive discussions and thoughts out of the online forums insuring smoother online courses. Finally one of the other telling themes of Daughtrey’s podcast is the limitation of online resources for Religious Studies courses. Daughtrey argues that there are many online resources which can assist in the construction of online courses, but that there is no content specific support for Religious Studies. Such support would help in the delivery of student education. She suggests that more should be done to address content and curricular issues in detail.
In reviewing this podcast, there are a couple of issues which arise. I think it is important to provide the reader with my own background here, as much of the conversation speaks to experience and not simply to instructional design and implementation. My own education has been a nexus of three fields of study: Psychology, Religious Studies, and Education. Much like Dr. Daughtrey, I have taught online courses in a variety of fields including Religious Studies online. Many of the concerns that she notes within the podcast are a common theme in teaching Religious Studies at a secular institution. Certainly when coupled with a largely conservative religious landscape among the student body, issues of ontology will certainly arise. Online learning provides a much more personal space in which to communicate opinions and ideas. In this regard, some students may assume that radical opinions and a lack of social mindfulness have no implications. For instructors such assumptions create issues. Certainly the formality and etiquette of the classroom may not translate into the online medium of instruction. I would propose an alternative method for addressing such issues. Many of the concerns related to behavior and content are related to the asynchronous method of online instruction. This method is called asynchronous because the content is unidirectional. For example discussion boards, YouTube videos, even this Podcast is an example of a unidirectional delivery of information. Its antithesis is called synchronous learning. It is a real time exchange of information. Examples of this might be a video conference on Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, a live chat room in real time, or even a phone conversation. I would suggest that online instruction should be a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous delivery models for optimal learning. Certainly if a university does not have the resources for synchronous online instruction, there are some free open source alternative programs to assist an inspiring instructor. This at least allows the interaction between student and teacher and presents information in a traditional format of instruction. Instructors can then project their personality into their instruction beyond a textual exchange. Moreover, students can interact in real time learning the social expectations of the instructor. This is important when considering the challenges of teaching a controversial topic such as religion (Carlson and Blumenstyk, 2012).
While religion is a social norm for many in the United States and beyond, certainly social norms and classroom culture are a complex issue for many instructors. Not all students ascribe to a post-modern paradigm of different yet equal among the growing multicultural and multiethnic American and Western European populations. Some regard their coexistence with those who view religion or even race differently as a necessary evil of public education. Much of the confusion noted by Daughtrey in regards to online education is that the online world may be implicitly perceived as our private space of interaction, where the rules and values we ascribe to within daily interactions do not apply in the online discussion board. We as instructors are no longer simply Teachers or Professors but a combination of Information Technology Professionals and Cultural Advocates all wrapped into one role. While I cannot speak to the religious landscape of Arizona, I can speak to the Southeastern United States. I, too, teach in secular college and university. Much of the curricular agenda is dependent on accreditation and course objectives. Still, instructors must create the perception of value for Religious Studies education and encourage students to learn more about the world in which they live. In my own courses, such discussions are heated simply because religion is equated with Christianity. The idea that other religions would be academically equal to Christianity can be offensive to some students. For many of my students, religion is a form of personal identity. It is who we are, not simply a belief or what we do. Many cannot compartmentalize it or objectify their belief. Therefore to have such discussions, academic or otherwise, requires a new paradigm of behavior and inquiry in religion’s examination by students. This type of student internalization of religious identity and perceived threat is not limited to the field of Religious Studies. For example, a colleague of mine and psychologist of religion Michael Nielsen at Georgia Southern had a similar experience. As Nielsen (2012) has noted, many students come to courses on religious topics either assuming the content will confirm their ontological position or to argue for their belief as the dominant truth. Nielsen’s perspective is but one of many examples where students do not understand the overall curricular purpose and goal of academic explorations of religion. They want to internalize it in some way.
This Podcast primarily focuses on instructional issues related to teaching Religious Studies online. These issues are certainly juxtaposed within the secular state-run institution of higher learning. It is likely that there are differences in the liberal arts and religiously affiliated styles of Higher Education. I would suggest that they likely differ in their curricular goals depending on the overall mission of the college or university. It is unclear how these differences translate in online learning and education. Certainly, it would have been interesting if Dr. Daughtrey would have addressed such differences within her podcast. Additionally, I am left with the question of curricular structure. What are some of the different ways Religious Studies are taught and the resources which may be available to a new instructor charged with online learning? It would be nice to see a conversation which goes beyond the politics of religious identity and online learning (although this is certainly an interesting topic overall). With differences in Religious Studies educational theory, there may yet be another layer to the instructional onion we call religious education. With these criticisms in mind, this is not to say that the experiential perspective is not useful in education. In fact, this is the meat of an instructional design model. As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction. While one may argue that a good instructor should always be learning, there is likely a point of diminishing returns in which the instructor is expending energy in acquiring new instructional skillsets such as the various Online Learning Systems (OLS) while also tracking and evaluating student performance within their course. Professors may not have the time to devote to learning all the features of OLS and therefore the overall instructional product may suffer from skillset limitations. Additionally, institutions may be tempted to increase enrollment in online classes to save money, further diverting the instructor from exploring their research areas as well as gaining additional OLS skills. So certainly the economics of online learning play a role here too.
There is no doubt that OLS models of learning have benefits and disadvantages in academia. As a former Information Technology Professional and, typically, an early adopter of new technologies, I view online learning with circumspect. If it is to be incorporated, it should be a hybrid delivery model with classroom and online time for the students. If that is not possible, then the instructional design should include synchronous and asynchronous delivery of material. Evaluation of student performance is not simply about assignment quality and test accuracy, but it is about the real-time monitoring of learning, the observation of the student as they make their academic journey. Online learning loses the thrill of watching students achieve their “Aha” moments. There needs to be a technological solution found to incorporate the human aspects of the classroom in online learning.
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About the Author
Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.
Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu. He is also an Assistant Editor at the Religious Studies Project, and has conducted a number of interviews, and previously written the piece A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning for the website.
- McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Nielsen, M. (2012). Teaching Psychology of Religion at a state university. Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Newsletter, 36(2), 2-5.
- Carlson, S. & Blumenstyk, G. (2012). For Whom is college being reinvented? The Chronicle of Higher Education. 59(17).