How Effective is Online Learning? Insights from Sociology of Religion Online

Part 4 of a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

Earlier in this series of posts about my experience teaching sociology of religion, I wrote about the promise of delivering lectures online and the challenges I faced in actually doing it. Today I’ll explain how I finally created my first narrated presentation on YouTube, how I got small group discussions going on Elluminate, and how my 8-year old nephew taught me about online teaching all the while teaching me about the correct usage of metaphors and similies.

Once I finally sank my money into a MacBook Pro, I quickly mastered Keynote, with its built-in features to save recorded presentations as movie files and upload them to YouTube (thanks to an encouraging comment I got on a previous blog, I’m definitely a Keynote user now). With permission from my University of North Carolina colleague Lisa Pearce, I narrated over a presentation she had previously given to my class on her book A Faith of Their Own: Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America’s Adolescents. For years, I’ve been telling my students “I want to be on YouTube!” and now I finally did it! (If you click on the image below, my YouTube lecture will start.)

What amazed me was that making the narrated presentation was the easy part. It took longer to save it in the right format and upload to YouTube than to record my explanation of the slides. But thanks to Keynote and YouTube, the file is now compressed so students (or any viewers, including you) can see it without any problems. My previous problem was not in making the recording presentations, but sharing them.  Thanks to my Mac, and lots of encouragement and tech support, I found success at last!

I was so excited by my YouTube debut that I took my Macbook with me to visit my mom and brothers (and I used my super-powerful MacBook battery to recharge my Iphone during the 5-hour drive–I lost the car charger but the MacBook does the trick). As soon as I arrived to visit my relatives, I whipped out my MacBook to show them the presentation on YouTube. My crowing moment of glory was when my 6-year old niece sat down in front of my YouTube presentation and scrolled through it. I don’t know what she learned, but just the fact that I could present something in a format that is so portable and flexible is thrilling.

Later I peered over the shoulder of my 8-year old nephew who is taking an advanced online English class through the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. His instructor is an avatar named Pilar. He was following Pilar’s lesson on metaphors, similes and idioms. I learned a bit from Pilar and her advanced 8-year old online pupils: perhaps when doing online teaching, it’s better to break content delivery (like recorded lectures) into shorter segments of 15 minutes broken up by an exercise, like applying a concept.

My nephew certainly engages with his online class and learns, as evidenced by how he spent the whole weekend asking me and his mom  to apply what he learned about definitions and usages of metaphors, similes and idioms. His mom and I, ummm…. had to look up things online to remember the difference between those three parts of speech and when I tried to give him examples of metaphors, he would correct me saying, “That’s not a metaphor, that’s a simile because it has ‘like’ or ‘such as’ in it.” To which I replied,  “I’m a college professor, and you are correcting me!”, but he seemed non-plussed and frankly he was right. So I stopped, put aside my hurt pride, and thought, “Well, these are my future students–learning online from the start. I had better catch up!”

Later during the visit, I delivered an online lecture on race and religion from my mother’s living room using Elluminate. As I animatedly lectured to my 15 online students, my mother sat in the background taking notes and, yes, bursting with pride. Mid-way through the lecture, I tried a new trick: with the click of just one button, Elluminate split all my students in groups of 3. I typed 2 questions in the chat box (what explains the racial segregation of American churches and what would you do to reduce racial segregation of your church if you were a pastor) and asked them to discuss them with each other.

We had never practiced this tool, and I didn’t warn them it was coming, so I wondered if it would work. It worked wonderfully! As the moderator, I could see all their mics turned on, and even read some chat messages. I popped into each of the 5 online discussion rooms, heard some of the main points, and learned a whole lot from my students. I then called them all back to the main room, had someone from each group summarize the main points of the discussion while I wrote it on the whiteboard. Amazing. One of my students later commented that online group discussions work better than live ones, because in a large class with 10 groups of three people, it’s often hard to hear what your own group members are saying.

The experience was all the more amazing that I did all that with my mom in her comfortable Lazy Boy chair looking on with delight. To wrap up that excellent session, I took the computer over to my mom and introduced her online, which provoked all kinds of applause and cheery chat messages from my students. How fun! When I held online office hours using Eluminate a few days later, one of my students even asked, “Is your mom there so I can say hi?” I had to disappoint her, unfortunately, but online office hours were great! No need to exchange Skype ids or phone numbers, I just created a special Elluminate session and used the new “meeting” tool in Sakai to set up office hours, which filled immediately.

I have 2 more weeks to go of this online summer course, so stayed tuned for updates on my next set of adventures in teaching sociology of religion online. I plan to reflect on online grading of papers and tests, among other things.




Fair Trade Battles

At the end of 2011, Fair Trade USA resigned from its membership in FairTrade International (FLO).  Just last month, an advertisement in the Burlington Free Press (Vermont) made headlines.  Equal Exchange, the largest fair trade coffee company in the United States, urged Green Mountain Coffee to leave the Fair Trade USA network.  Business Week and others covered the conflict.

This incident represents growing division over how to best help the population that fair trade was intended to represent.  Perhaps the central reason for the split between Fair Trade USA and FLO was the decision  of Fair Trade USA to work with large plantations and estates (instead of the traditional small farmers and cooperatives). Is it better to work with large farms to promote fair wages for workers, even if the ideals of democratic governance and ownership of the product by producers (requirements of FLO) do not occur?

While not trying to simplify all of the issues involved with a decision to include large farms, one issue at stake concerns the relationships consumers and producers have within alternative markets.  My guess is that most of us do not know the people that bake the bread that we eat, sew the clothes that we wear, build the houses we inhabit, or assemble the components in our computers.  One of the initial aims of the fair trade network created in the early 1970s was to try and make the market more personal.  Consumers were connected with producers through more direct buying relationships; narratives of producers were highlighted as important to the products themselves. You can drink coffee and know under what conditions (and where) the beans were picked.

As someone who studies the intersection of religion and the economy, I’m particularly interested in the role of Christian actors in alternative trade movements.  Religious organizations were important to the formation of the first alternative trade network (following the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 1968). Yet twenty years before that, the Mennonite Central Committee was involved in selling artisan goods produced in the global South to consumers in the global North, in a precursor to what was to become Ten Thousand Villages.

Christians are a relational people, both in terms of their interactions with the Divine, and their interactions with other women and men. Different traditions talk about these relationships differently, but most highlight the importance of these relationships.  For example, the Reformed tradition prioritizes the covenant among God’s people, while Catholics are more likely to rely upon concepts of solidarity and the common good.

This most recent disagreement between Fair Trade USA and FLO should cause us to think more critically about the relationships embedded within our economic transactions. I do not want to argue in this post for or against the decision of Fair Trade USA.  But for those of us who try to engage in ethical consumerism, what do we value?  Is the central goal higher wages for producers and workers?  Is it something more? How do we see ourselves in relationships with those producers, and what does it mean to have integrity in such interactions?



Liking the Quotes more than the Books

I read, for the first time, Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to my family the other day. Seemed like a better idea than yet another iteration of “International House Hunters” on the television. I’ve been a fan of Flannery O’Connor for a few years, but upon reflection my interest in her may be less literary than biographical. I think she lived an interesting, and unusual, life.

A year or two ago my former graduate school advisor sent around some of his favorite O’Connor quotes, many of which are fantastic, provocative, humorous, etc. (a few of which I repeat below).

But it struck me the other day as I was reading aloud what turned out to be a rather strange, dramatic, and grim story that I may in fact like Flannery for her numerous, witty retorts rather than for the content of her actual writing. As I grimly concluded “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I found myself wanting to defend what I just read.

And I think it’s not just her. I find plenty of impressive quotations among authors whom I otherwise can’t seem to bear reading in their entirety. From The Confessions of Augustine to Plato’s Republic—two books I recently attempted, briefly, to read—I think I have “Classics envy.” I want to like that which I cannot seem to. There are some fine ones in Mere Christianity, but I found the book largely flat. Finally after 40 years, I’m actually making my way slowly through the Lord of the Rings, which—while not page-turners—can retain the attention span.

For an academic like me, this is all somewhat embarrassing to admit, not being attracted to the Classics and much great literature and all that. I want my kids to read them, and they indeed are reading more of them than I did at their age (or at any age, for that matter).

It’s not that I’m drawn to the NYT bestseller list, or to crime dramas. I haven’t read about hornets’ nests or wizardry, either. What do I read? Too much news, that’s for
sure. Classics envy, I tell ya.

So to conclude this dull blog day—next Monday will be more interesting, I promise—here are five nice Flannery quotes, though I can’t vouch for the totality of their originating sources:

“I’m blessed with Total Non-Retention, which means I have not been harmed by a sorry education.”

“On the subject of the feminist business, I just never think…of qualities which are specifically feminine or masculine. I suppose I divide people into two classes: the Irksome and the Non-Irksome without regard to sex. Yes and there are the Medium Irksome and the Rare Irksome.”

“Don’t let People and their Opinions affect you so much. I always count on a big percentage of Those Who Will Have None of It and do not let myself be concerned about remarks within that circle.”

“One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend upon feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention…. I find it reasonable to believe [orthodox Christianity], even
though these beliefs are beyond reason.”

“My cousin’s husband who also teaches at Auburn came into the Church last week. He had been going to Mass with them but never showed any interest. We asked how he got interested and his answer was that the sermons were so horrible, he knew there must be something else there to make the people come.”

The Religious Non-Christian Diaspora

In my continuing research over Asian American diversity, one of the recurring issues is religious diversity. I blogged earlier that Asian Americans are the least Christian of all racial groups in the US. About 46% of those who are Asian American are either Protestant or Catholic according to multilingual surveys. So the other 54% are a combination of non-Christian religions and those who say they have “no religion” (which is a tricky issue when we talk to Asian Americans). Of the non-Christian religious adherents among Asian Americans, the biggest three are Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. There’s some debate over what percent of Buddhists are Asian (versus white) and what percentage of Muslims are Asian (should we count Middle Easterners as Asian or White?). But nevertheless where there are Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, there are likely Asian Americans.

One of the neat resources made available by the Association of Religion Data Archives are county-level maps of religious groups supplied by the Religious Congregations and Membership Study. And as of their data collection in 2010, we have enough data to map adherents of non-Christian faith traditions by county. I recently had a chance to study a few of these maps (which are all free and online by the way), and would like to share them with you here. This is a map of Hindu adherents according to 5 equal-sized groupings or quintiles. The Hindu-Asian connection is clearest since the vast majority of Hindus in the US are south Asian.  [Read more…]

Ritual and Routine in Everyday Life & Faith

Over the weekend I did my laundry, as is my custom, and it took my about 30 minutes of actual work—loading, advancing, and putting away. But, let’s say I wanted to do it 150 years ago; that would be a very different story. Most households set aside a full day for laundry, usually a Monday, and the poor person doing it (read: housewife) would spend the whole day soaking, pounding, rubbing, boiling, starching, rinsing, and drying clothes and linens. It involved all sorts of nasty chemicals (starting with lye) and manual tools—such as wooden paddles and dollys to manually spin clothes soaking in a tub. And, all of this assumes that they already had fetched the necessary water and made the soap. Why Mondays? Because the weekend usually left extra meat and other food to eat on Monday, so the housewife could focus on laundry without also having to cook. (Graphic description of laundry courtesy of Forgotten Household Crafts: A Portrait of the Way that We Once Lived, by John Seymour). It wasn’t just laundry, for just about every aspect of home life involved copious amounts of routine labor.

Life in earlier times required copious amounts of difficult, routine labor, and my first reaction to thinking about spending one whole day a week doing laundry is along the lines of “just shoot me now.” Anyone who complains about life today should spend, oh, 30 minutes back then, and they will come back and kiss the ground their Maytag washer and dryer rests upon.

Still, few things are all bad (or all good), and the routine lifestyle of the past had its benefits. It created a routine and rhythm to the day, the week, and the season. It also afforded the opportunity think things over and let the mind ruminate on things while the body is busy with manual activities. It also provided a context for ongoing interactions with family and friends, for you spent a lot of time doing things together in a small space. Given the great efficiencies provided by today’s technology, we have far less of imposed ritual and interaction (think big houses with computers, tvs, and fully-stocked refrigerators), and obviously we prefer it that way, or we wouldn’t buy all this stuff. Still, I find myself sometimes craving imposed routine.

Perhaps this reflects the downside of what I like so much about my job. As an academic, I am constantly learning new things, and I have a remarkable amount of autonomy in that I can study just about whatever I want. (My joke is that I chose to study sociology so that I wouldn’t have to make up my mind about what to study). The downside is that I am continuingly exposed—every single day—to things that I don’t know or haven’t done before. The more that I know, the more awareness I have of what I don’t know. When I read an article, I learn not only what that article has to say but also learn of dozens of articles cited by that article that I probably haven’t read. I can feel overwhelmed by all this information and novelty.

This may be why my hobbies tend toward the routine. I love cycling and its rhythmic nature—80 spins of the crank per minute for an hour or two or three. I also walk and hike—one foot in front of the other again and again—all the while thinking about ideas, experiences, and conversations that have occurred since the last ride or walk.

I also routinize my work. I try to write for four hours each morning, from Monday through Friday, and I like to write in the same place each day. I schedule research meetings on the same afternoon each week, and so forth. This superimposed routine is a safeguard against runaway and exhausting novelty.

Similar issues arise in how we do church. Some services have plenty of routine. When I was attending Catholic and Episcopal churches, you could stop them at a random point, and most the people in the audience could tell you what is supposed to happen next. This type of routine, called ritual in this context, frees the mind up to ponder the more mystical and abstract, though I suppose that too much of it could be tiresome. In contrast, a charismatic or evangelical service can be much more spontaneous. When I was attending a Vineyard church, the pastor would occasionally change direction completely mid-service. It could be exhilarating, but too much of it is disorienting. The community church that I attend now has a nice blend of routine and spontaneity, as is intentionally planned by our pastor.

A balance of the routine and novel seems important, both in our personal life, and in our faith.