The Ups and Downs of Teaching Sociology of Religion OnLine

The Ups and Downs of Teaching Sociology of Religion OnLine May 18, 2012

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.


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  • Jerry

    fascinating and thanks for sharing these experiences Margarita. How did you get the text graphs onto a ppt slide? I think oldschool so I picture scanning the image and then transferring the jpg to a slide – is there a better way to do that?

    • Jerry,

      I used a program called Elluminate. I upload my Power Point slides to the White Board on Elluminate and then I narrate them and use a higlighter.

      I just sent you a link to the recording, so you should be able to view it if you like.


  • Ironically, I have found that I have more interaction with students in my online class — Intro to Political Economy (where students who find economic language off putting actually fail the class) — than in the “live and in-person” class. This is because I require online discussion and I’m the moderator, rather than passing that chore off to TAs. (I discover that the reason many undergrads may not like economic lingo is because they are totally clueless about what economics is.) I do find these exchanges to be very fun and I can see how student thinking develops over time.

    I do understand why students find economic lingo off putting when applied to religion, and experience that all the time in my Religion & World Politics class where I infuse the lectures with a lot of the “economics of religion” perspective. Most students confuse the analytical use of economics with the “Prosperity Gospel” of Joel Osteen. Yeah, that puts me off too. However, I explain that economics is merely the study of choice under scarcity, and going to church or being a minister does not exempt you from the world of scarcity. We do an exercise where Mother Teresa, the most non-self-interested person I can think of, has to use her $1 million Nobel Prize to help people. All of a sudden, people realize that there are trade-offs in the choices she makes, with some choices being less optimal than others, and that she will need to find the best (most efficient) use for the funds with the goal of helping people. She can give $1 to 1 million people and alleviate some short-term misery or she can invest it in her medical clinic and possibly provide longer-term benefts for fewer people.

    I should note that Marc von der Ruhr uses economic language (actually, economic analysis) to examine how megachurch administrators have to make choices, such as devoting resources to getting people to “invest deeper” in the church lest they walk in one door and out the other without being missionized. Interestingly, Pastor Larry Osborne who we also interviewed on the podcast, uses the same exact concepts as von der Ruhr, but isn’t so explicit about the econ lingo. Again, this is different than the “Prosperity Gospel.” Over time, my students come to understand what the economic analysis of religion implies. I also did a pretty good interview with Chris Beneke on whether economics can be used to study colonial American religion. He was skeptical but I think I won him over.

    Back to the “online teaching” thread, I must admit that my biggest frustration doing an online class (I’ve run it twice now), is that students think it will be a “blow off.” An online class is actually much more difficult for students since it requires a great deal more self-discipline to stay on schedule. With a “live” class, students know they have to show up for lecture and section (even though they don’t often) and those two attendance activities help to keep them disciplined to a schedule (hopefully). I find so many students in the online environment blowing things off for a couple weeks and then finding it hard to catch up all at once. Making the Adobe Presenter lectures from PowerPoint was also a pain as the Adobe software didn’t plug well into the latest version of PowerPoint.

    Finally, I have to ask if this post really was your musings about online teaching or a clandestine advertisement for Apple products?! Us folks near Redmond, WA want to know the real truth!

    • Tony,

      I’m frankly surprised that I got more online participation than in class. And the quality of the participation was good too–students had read all the materials, thought about it, and were prepared. With some thought and discussion, I think that students can see what economics contributes to understanding religion. I ultimately argue we need various perspectives to understand any lived phenomenon of religion.

      No, I didn’t intend that to be an advertisement for Apple per se but I do believe in saying when something works, and I love my MacBook Air, Ipad and Iphone. And I love your podcasts from Research on Religion. So yes, you may use my comments to advertise your wonderful service. My students blogged about the podcast on megachurches and clearly learned a lot (of course I paired the podcast with texts, and I think it is the combination of text, audio and video that is powerful).


  • Oh, and by the way, thanks for the plug for the podcast! It is okay to advertise for that. Not so much with the Apple products. ;-P

  • I too am teaching sociology online this summer (Environmental Soc) and have thought a lot about if/how to upload lectures. A while back I uploaded audio recordings of lectures and found that less than 5% of the class ever downloaded them. However, this semester I am trying to break a big lecture into smaller pieces. So instead of talking about an entire chapter I go over one concept that my students tell me is most confusing.

    Also, if you are using a Mac you owe it to yourself to look into using Keynote instead of PowerPoint. I had some resistance to switching early on, but it is light years ahead of PP in my opinion. Also, recording lectures and saving them into .mov files is a snap. It’s built into the app. Then I quickly upload them to YouTube and viola online teaching magic.

    Anyways, thanks for a great pair of articles and I hope you’ll write up more as you go.


    • Nathan,

      Thanks for the tips! Yes, I did just get Keynote, but I still couldn’t upload my lecture. Sigh. I will get some tech support and I’m sure I will figure it out soon.

      I have heard others say that long online lectures are not always engaging, so maybe you are right that I can just upload shorter lectures, not full 45 or 50 minute ones.

      Yes, I do plan on continuing to write about this, so please check back! I just published my 3rd post today:


  • Having just received my M.A. (my concentration being sociology of religion and my thesis was on megachurches, poverty and inequality) I’m teaching Soci of Religion for the first time this semester. I am thrilled and scared and tired!

    Thanks for these posts, they are giving me some AWESOME ideas!