Here’s to My Students: You Make Teaching a Joy

Part 5 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online

Yesterday I finished teaching a 5-week online course in sociology of religion. As I remarked in earlier posts in this series, there were many ups and downs. A few things yesterday reminded me that whether I’m teaching online, in the classroom, or a hybrid, my focus needs to be the students. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I’ve taught some amazing students who make everything worth it–all the effort, all the struggles, and even the victories–they are meaningful because of the people I’m serving.

One of the best undergraduate students I have ever taught, Samantha, has been my research assistant for the last 12 months. In the past 2 months, I asked her to meet with me regularly to help me think about how to deliver my material online. As a former student in the classroom version of this class, and a current undergraduate at UNC, I thought she could help me with the course design. She had such amazing ideas that I must say I could not have done it without her help.

Yesterday, when I found out that the water was being repaired in my office building, I thought “Great excuse to meet Samantha at Starbucks.” We exchanged texts, and I told her the coffee would be on me. But she beat me to it. She sat in the window at Starbucks on Franklin Street, and when she saw me waiting to cross the street, ran up to the counter and ordered men a double espresso (which she knows is my favorite drink at Starbucks and that I drink it only if it is very hot). When I walked it, she was sitting at a table with my hot espresso and splenda. I was speechless. What a beautiful person and a kind act.

After Samantha and I met, I wrote a personal note to each student in my summer class with their final paper grades and final course grades. The two heartfelt replies I got were both rom non-traditional/transfer students, who had really done the most work out of anyone in the class. One of them, Angelique, sent me this video interview with her about her experiences being a single mom and going back to college:

Listening to her story made me cry. Despite all the difficulties she encounters being a mom and a student, she keeps going because she wants to give her daughter a better life. She admits she wasn’t ready for college when she was 18. The difficulties she has had in life have made her more focused and more motivated now that she is in college.

I can attest to her motivation, as Angelique completed every single assignment thoroughly, and with gusto and creativity. She was a big fan of the hybrid online/in-person teaching format since day one, likely because she has to balance so many responsibilities. The day of our final online test, for example, she and her daughter had the flu. Not having to trek to campus to take the test, and find a babysitter for her daughter who can’t go to the daycare center with the flu, certainly was an advantage for Angelique.

In her email to me today, Angelique wrote, “I really enjoyed your class, it was not at all what I expected when I enrolled for this summer course.  I learned so much in such a short time.” Indeed, she did. In her final paper, an observation of Faith Harbor Methodist church, she made the funniest and most insightful comment about Emile Durkehim’s theories about ritual and collective effervescence I have ever read:

“What Durkheim is saying is that to everything in the social world there is an order. When we use symbols (totems) to remind us of this order something simple and mundane can be a sacred reminder and in turn become a real sacred thing. Perhaps at home when making a sandwich for lunch a member of the Faith Harbor church would be reminded of the collective effervescence felt during the communion ritual and would be automatically reabsorbed into that religious moment reaffirming her faith.”

Reading this comment, I felt like such  proud professor. Having grown up receiving communion weekly, and being taught about how sacred the ritual is, I would never have likened taking communion to eating a sandwich. But, in thinking about the history of the communion ritual, Angelique is probably right: using a profane element–the bread–in a sacred ritual is intended precisely as a way to break the boundaries between the sacred and the profane. As one friend commented about this statement on Facebook, “that is a liturgist’s dream!”

Angelique’s email reminded that no matter what format I teach in, motivated students can run with it. She wrote:

“I was amazed by your research, your book, and your overall knowledge of religion and society.  Your passion for the topic is contagious. I listened to your whole podcast interview too, and I was amazed at how you never missed a beat and just answered every question so eloquently.  It was amazing!  You are really an inspirational woman (and I already saw my grade so I’m saying this out of honesty, I’m not really one to fluff egos anyway 😉 )  I was so glad that you took the time to let us rewrite our papers too, and I had never used the writing center until I took this class and I have found it to be such a valuable resource that I’m going to use it for all of my papers in the future.”

I admit that such kind words touch my heart. How could they not? But I’m not posting this for you to think my students adore me. I’m posting this because it answers the question I asked myself when I started this experiment teaching online:  Will students be as motivated as in the traditional format? Will students be able to draw connections between theory and rituals they observe? Will they become better writers? To the extent that my personality and teaching style is engaging, will students get a sense of who I am?

Angelique’s email is a resounding “yes” to all those questions. Thanks to Angelique, to Samantha, and to all my students who make me happy every morning to get up and go to work.

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.




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.