Three Things I Love about Teaching Sociology of Religion Online

Part 3 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

Here I am again, spending my “free” time thinking how much I love teaching sociology of religion online. I’m relaxing at home, with my new MacBook Air on my lap, which is charging my Iphone, and listening to a podcast from Professor Anthony Gill’s Research on Religion Podcast series on my iPad. (FYI…I turned off my 4th Apple product–my iPod–so I can hear the Podcast on my iPad).

Front CoverFirst, now that I have overcome my initial technical challenges and anxieties, teaching online is fun. In Martin Seligman’s book Flourish, he recounts how teaching positive psychology made him realize that learning is deeper when it is engaging. I delivered my second ever online lecture this week, and I was in the flow (to borrow Seligman’s colloquial term for one dimension of flourishing–engagement). In my online lecture, my video and audio streamed live to 15 students while they watched a screen streaming the course website which I spent many hours designing. As I scrolled seamlessly through my carefully constructed website, it seemed beautiful. Engaging. Fun.

Second, my favorite new teaching tool is called a module in Sakai (my course management system). Rather than organizing my syllabus chronologically, as I have always done previously, I designed my online course to based on modules, where each module corresponds to a specific learning goal, and the content of each learning goal is presented through text, audio and video. To give you an example, Module 2 is called Classical Sociological Theories of Religion and the goal is to learn to compare and contrast the theories and concepts of religion from Emile Durkheim (Module 2.1), Max Weber (Module 2.2) and Karl Marx (Module 2.3). For Module 2.1 (Durkheim), all the content I deliver to students is one place online–lecture notes, power point slides, readings, links to podcasts and embedded You Tube videos. The Modules tool presents a complete online outline of all the course materials I provide them, and students can click through them sequentially, jump around in any order they like, or click the printer icon and print all the contents of any module . One student liked it so much she exclaimed, “Wow, I wish all my professors taught this way!”

Rather than presenting my material chronologically like I had previously, now I’ve created a separate module (Module 3) for contemporary trends in American religion and for important ways that religious beliefs and practices intersect with society and politics (Module 4). As I lectured online on Weber this week, I opened up the Modules page and scrolled up and down it, explaining to students that I expected them to a) be able to compare Weber to Durkheim and Marx (Module 2) and b) to analyze contemporary trends in American religion (Module 3) and how religion influences social change and politics (Module 3). So our learning objectives for any give day can combine content from a variety of modules which do not have to be chronologically ordered. I’ve always explained to students verbally how different sections of course content relate to each other in various ways, but to explain it verbally while I showed them visually using the Modules tool was engaging and fun.

Third, as discussed in this TedEx lecture by Villanova Law Professor Michele Piston, recorded lectures facilitate content delivery, thereby creating more opportunities for professors to use their time with students to interact about content rather than deliver content.

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I use online lectures to facilitate content delivery in two ways. If students can listen to an online lecture on their own time, then our live (or synchronous) time online can be interactive–discussions, clarifications, and applications. If lectures are recorded, then students who have a legitimate excuse for missing a lecture can go back and hear it. One student in my summer class already had an unexpected emergency and missed one lecture I delivered live (synchronously) online. When I showed her how to see the video recording online–with my face talking and the power point slides rolling, my notations appearing and students’ chat messages popping up, she exclaimed “Get outta here! How cool! Is that really the first time you ever did that? What other courses do you teach?”

I often tell my friends and family about my class lectures and discussions, but I’ve never been able to show them. Why not share some of my online lectures with others? As I recounted in my previous post, my first recorded Power Point lecture was amazingly beautiful but the file was so big I couldn’t share it by internet or email! (The perfect can be the enemy of the good). A friend who is an engineer looked at my recorded presentation and immediately told me that the quality of my voice recording was so high that I could have broadcast my Power Point narrated lecture on megachurches to an entire megachurch… But since all I need is audio quality for individuals to hear on their computers, she suggested I turn down the audio quality and save tons of space. I also learned from her that when I get excited, the volume of my voice gets so loud the microphone can’t handle it and the recording is scratched. Students always rate me high on enthusiasm, and now I have my mic and my video recordings allow me to see myself as others see me and hear me, which can only make me a better lecturer.

As my friend gave me technical tips on how to record presentations, she also listened eagerly to my lecture on megachurches playing on my MacBook Air. She stared at the pictures, scrolled back and forth across slides, examined the graphs, and asked me questions. That is exactly the reaction I wanted! If I can lecture on megachurches to undergrad students, why can’t I share that with my friends and family? The final reason I like recorded lectures is that they allow me to engage broad audiences in my teaching, generating dialogue that will make me a better scholar and teacher. Before you get too excited about seeing my lectures, however, I have to try a new program that will tone down my volume, save me space, and allow me to post lectures online. Alas, my second attempt to record a narrated lecture and upload it to You Tube didn’t work either. But as soon as I’ve figured it out how to put the lectures online, I’ll be sure to let you know!

Finally, as Professor Pistone points out in her lecture, streamlining the delivery of my lectures to my students will open up many new ways for me to interact with my students. Next week, for example, I will try to give my students voice recorded feedback on drafts of their paper using Adobe. I’ll keep trying my online teaching tools and continue to write about here.

The Ups and Downs of Teaching Sociology of Religion OnLine

Part 2 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

I’ve just finished my first week of a hybrid in-person/online course in sociology of religion to undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Of four days we met this week, two times we met in class, one day I assigned a video and a podcast, and the fourth day we met synchronously (at the same time) for a short lecture and class discussion. Thus far, my experience has been both exhilarating and frustrating. Let’s start with the exhilarating.

First, I have flipped the order in which I present material to students and it definitely captured their attention better than before. I used to assign heavy readings, give a lecture, and then give them a podcast, video or interactive quiz to reinforce what the readings and lectures said. Although I’m using the exact same material as when I taught sociology of religion in the classroom, now for each topic we will cover I first assign a video, a podcast, or an interactive survey and require that students write a blog post in response. Once they are excited about the topic, then I assign them sociology texts that put the topic into a broader context using history, ethnography, and survey data, and I have students write short assignments applying sociological theories and concepts to the  specific topic we covered.

It’s working beautifully, so score 1 for online teaching. For example, it was exhilarating to read on my IPAD my students’ responses to the online survey they took on the the Association for Religion Data Archives website that automatically compares their responses to respondents from a national survey. One student wrote:

I was really shocked that many people believed in angels but didn’t believe in demons. I just don’t know why it doesn’t click with me. I mean, if there are good forces shouldn’t there be evil or bad forces? This quiz/survey was indeed awesome and more people need to take it!

Second, I was fascinated to read my students’ blog responses to Anthony Gill’s Research on Religion Podcast Interview with Marc van der Ruhr about megachurches, which I paired with a section on Willow Creek Community Church from Randall Balmer’s documentary DVD on American Evangelicals, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. Although I have taught on megachurches in four previous classes, I was surprised to see my students’ responses to the podcast and video on megachurches: most of the students blogged that they found the economic language used by many megachurches to be off-putting. Score 2 for online teaching: presenting engaging audio-visual prior to my lecture or analytic readings gives students a chance to form their own ideas before they have heard my interpretations or those of the scholarly authors I assign.

I was so exhilarated that my students were engaged and expressing themselves online that I rushed out to buy a new MacBook Air so I could make my first narrated Power Point lecture on megachurches. I planned to narrate the lecture over the Power Point Slides then upload it to You Tube for students to listen to, then follow up with an online class discussion. However, when looked at my previous Power Point on megachurches, I realized  it was awful. Having only every delivered that lecture in class before, its audio-visual quality was low, as I had just relied on my own voice, posture and motions to animate the slides.

How did I salvage that Power Point presentation? In about an hour, I totally updated my Power Point slides by adding pictures of some of the megachurches we read about or heard about in the podcast, video and texts, such as Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago and Saddleback. I also added 4 graphs from one of our assigned books, Mark Chaves’s American Religion, that show the underlying trends that help explain the rise of megachurches. Then I recorded my animated voice, holding notes in front of me with the quotes and figures I wanted to be sure to mention, while students watched a beautiful Power Point with images and graphs.

I practiced the narration and it worked beautifully. But when I recorded the full lecture, the audio didn’t save. Discouraged but determined, I re-recorded the whole audio lecture. This time, it saved. But when I went to upload it to You Tube, You Tube did not recognize the audio. I made a few frantic calls to tech support, and we tried desperately to upload it for about an hour, but to no avail. I had produced a beautiful product I was very proud of but couldn’t get it off my computer to show anyone.

To salvage all that work, I learned how to upload a Power Point into Elluminate (our online seminar meeting space) and lectured online, followed by discussion. Does this setback mean my time was wasted? Not at all. I knew I was undertaking a challenge, and learning all the best technology for online teaching is indeed exhilarating and frustrating. When it works, it’s amazing. Although the technology has not been flawless, I’m glad I’m trying, and my students’ responses have been even better than I imagined.

One week down, four to go. It has been great, and I it will only get better from here. Soon I hope to share that beautiful narrated Power Point on megachurches with anyone who can watch YouTube, so stay tuned.

 

Teaching Sociology of Religion Online

Part 1 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

Next week, I start my first online course in sociology of religion at the University of North Carolina, and I’m about as nervous about it as when I first entered the college classroom 5 years ago as a new professor. Despite my trepidation, I agree with New York Times columnist David Brooks who wrote in a recent column that online education can certainly be done easily and quite poorly, but that when top schools start adopted online education, amazing things could happen.

Coursera, a free online education service has created partnerships with top institutes of higher education. My graduate school alma matter, Princeton, has one sociology professor, the famous ethnographer Mitchell Duneier, teaching introduction to sociology online for six weeks starting on June 11, 2012.

When I tell people I am teaching online, I get strong and opposing reactions like from “I think online teaching is awesome!” to “I think online teaching will never work.” Others are a bit more moderate, saying, “Well, I will have to wait and see more before deciding what I think.”

[Read more...]

“The 21st Century Will be a Century of Ethics or It Will Not Be”

In a recent post on Black, White and Gray, Wheaton sociology professor Amy Reynolds asked “What Makes a Development Expert?” Pondering who should be the next president of the World Bank, and what approach he or she should take to development, Reynolds argued that the end of development is the human person–or human development. She further argued that the next president of the World Bank should not only be a “technical” expert, but someone who understands how culture influences development.

My students’ final assignment for the semester was to read Reynolds’s post and the links about the different candidates, and then use our assigned class readings from Amartya Sen, William Easterly, and Carruthers and Babb to vote for the new World Bank President. In my class, Nigeria’s Ngozi won 20 votes, Kim won 8, and Ocampo won 3. My students cited Ngozi’s technical expertise in economics and her experience as finance minster as her most important qualifications. Those who voted for Kim liked that he had proven results that a piecemeal approach to development–tackling one main issue (HIV/AIDS) through community-based centers–could work.

We know now that the American candidate, Jim Yong Kim, the former President of Dartmouth College,  co-founder of Partners In Health, and former director of World Health Organization’s Department of HIV/AIDS, was elected President of the World Bank. The Economist mused whether Kim, whose approach to development has been grassroots, can bring effective change to an agency most known for its big-push approach to development.

I have  a great interest in varying approaches to economic development. After graduating from Yale in 1995, I worked for three years at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San Jose, Costa Rica, founded by Nobel Peace laureate and two-time President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias. During my time there, I traveled throughout Central America and visited communities of former soldiers and guerillas in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. I went to graduate school at Princeton to study international development from a sociological perspective.  Although my interests took a different route, I still follow debates in economic development. The more I read, the more I realize that development does not just mean expanding markets,  generating greater macro-economic growth, or increasing personal incomes, but rather development requires both economic growth and a focus on promoting human dignity.

But do such discussions about human dignity occur in the large development organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund? Yes, they do. In 2007, I was invited to a seminar on Faith and Economics by Princeton economic historian  Professor Harold James at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. When James introduced the public session of the Study Group on Faith and Economics, he remarked how the modern world seems to be marked by both the globalization of markets and the resurgence of religious activity in many parts of the world. Are these two trends connected? How does religion influence economic development? As the President of the European University Institute, Yves Meny, said what does it mean to talk about faith and economics when for many, economics is the religion of the times?

Each of the four leading figures present at this conference–Michel Camdessus, Anwar Ibrahim, Emma Rothschild, and Amartya Sen,  agreed on the basic point that economic growth in and of itself must be connected to promoting human dignity and they each made unique contributions to how this can be accomplished. For example, as the eminent economic historian from Harvard Emma Rothschild pointed out, the market does not create equity, yet classical authors like Hume and Montesquieu were concerned about the perverse effects that gross inequality could have on a democracy.

Although much contemporary writings on economics have separated the ethical and the technical, the study group participants pointed out how religious ideas and religious people contribute to generating an ethic to guide the distribution of wealth and the proper use of the fruits of wealth. For example, the Nobel Economics laureate Amartya Sen remarked how most religions contain a missionary element that leads humans to encounter other humans and consider them in an ethical light. Although neither Professor Sen nor Professor Rothschild profess or practice a particular religion, they recognized how religious faith as a transcendental approach to life—or what Professor Rothschild called “an imaginative transposition”—leads one to put himself in the position of other human beings and consider how we should treat them.

The other two conference participants, Michel Camdessus, the former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, are both religious believers. They became friends while working with the IMF and began to share their faith, finding many commonalities despite coming from different traditions (Catholicism and Islam). When he was Managing Director of the IMF, Mr. Camdessus (who is from France) worked hard to bring discussions of values and ethics to his work. He also met regularly with religious leaders and lay leaders of different religious faiths. In both the private and public sessions of the study group meeting, Mr. Camdessus recounted conversations he had with Pope John Paul II that led him to ponder a question the Pope put to him. After the fall of communism and the spread of market economies across the globe, the Pope asked him, “Upon what values are you going to build this new global society?”

During the rest of his time at the IMF, Mr. Camdessus reflected on this very question and he also took advantage of his many opportunities to meet with political and religious leaders to ask them the same question. The answers he came up with represent the beginning of a platform that people of various religious faiths or no particular faith could agree to. During the study group meeting, Mr. Camdessus argued that we need a global economic system that promotes human dignity. He outlined three values that he thinks world leaders and world citizens can agree to: 1) a sense of global responsibility to all countries; 2) solidarity to alleviate poverty; 3) a new sense of global citizenship to back a new global governance.

Mr. Ibrahim recounted how he has encountered many stereotypes against religious believers, in particular Muslims, in his work in international economics and development. For too many people, secularism has come to mean not just separation of church and state but also being anti-religious. He argued that faith can help bring back an ethical approach to economics. Rather than thinking of man as homos economicus, we should think of man as a universalist humanist. As Mr. Ibrahim pointed out, arguing that the theory and practice of economic development should include faith and religion does not mean that non-believers now become the excluded.

All the participants agreed that people can reach an agreement on values and ethics even if they start from different religious faiths or no faith at all. Professor Sen made a passionate call for greater dialogue about economics and ethics. Michel Camdessus’s closing words of advice or perhaps caution were: “The 21st century will be a century of ethics or it will not be.” In other words, the 21st century has shown us that technical progress in economic production, biology or science can enrich or endanger human life, making it crucial to ponder the values upon which we use our technical and economic powers.


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