REA: Teaching and learning in online spaces

In the afternoon pre-conference session of the Religious Education Association 2014 conference, Eileen Daily of Boston Univeristy and Daniella Zsupan-Jerome of Loyla University presented a workshop titled “Teaching and Learning in Online Spaces: An Experiential Engagement with Digital Creativity.”

While online media are new, Daily reminded us that religions have always used mediated forms of communication. “What did Paul do? He wrote letters!” she said. “Email is just another form of letter,” she added. “These are just new names for things we’ve been doing for a long time. There’s a difference of form, but there’s not necessarily a difference of message.”

Daily told us that when she teaches religious education online, she emphasizes nonlinearity. Whereas face-to-face learning environments lend themselves to a linear path through a subject, online environments lend themselves to a nonlinear approach. However, you still have to pay careful attention to course structure; there is a “Skinnerian side of education,” so there’s always a sense in which you have to “keep students in the rat maze” to produce behavioral outcomes. And Daily reminded us that the goal of any religious education is to “integrate religion into people’s messy lives.”

Daily and Zsupan-Jerome then led us in “a mini non-linear learning event that will appear on a curated platform at the end of the session.” As a subject for this experience in non-linear online learning, Daily and Zsupan-Jerome had us investigate the Salt Creek watershed; Salt Creek runs immediately behind the conference hotel. They split us into six groups, each group charged with investigating the environmental challenges facing Salt Creek through different approaches. Thus one group conducted Skype interviews with people who knew about Salt Creek; one group investigated sacred texts on the subject of the environment; another group researched specific environmental challenges facing Salt Creek today; etc.

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REA: Tending your digital presence

Mary Hess of Luther Seminary presented the first pre-conference session, on “Creating and Tending Your Digital Presence as a Scholar,” at the Religious Education Association annual conference. Although I’m a minister of religious education, not a scholar of religious education, I figured I would hear much that was applicable to me — and I did.

Hess began by making an important point by referring to research on (a href=”>context collapse done by cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch. Hess told us that tending one’s digital presence is a way to intentionally build context in the face of context collapse. “I don’t think it’s a choice any longer,” she said, to tend one’s digital presence.

One problem faced in tending your online presence is figuring out how to uniquely identify yourself — especially challenging for those of us with common names. Hess introduced us to ORCID, a registry of unique researcher identifiers for scholars. (As a minister in a numerically small denomination, I already have a unique identifier — search for “dan harper unitarian” and you’ll find me.)

Hess reviewed some social media sites aimed at academics, including, Mendeley as a useful digital repository or archive, and Merlot for sharing teaching resources.

Hess said that for her, Slide Share has actually been more useful at getting her work out than any sites dedicated to academics.

Turning to what she called “popular publication,” Hess spoke briefly of popular Web sites such as the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, and Odyssey Networks. Hess feels that it is critically important for religious education scholars (and practitioners!) to break out of the boundaries of our narrow intellectual speciality.

“I think in my more cynical moments that as higher education focused on production of certain kinds of knowledge, it has removed people from public life,” she said. She contrasted this attitude with the attitude of John Dewey, one of the founding intellects of the Religious Education Association. Dewey, she said, was a public intellectual. She added that the question of what it means to be a public intellectual is critically important.

Slides for this presentation on Slide Share