Teaching American Religious History Online

Charity R. Carney

Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I teach online.

Online learning has become an important part of American education, but it is often regarded as the redheaded stepchild of the traditional university system. Despite its reputation, it is playing an increasingly important role in training the American workforce and offers important advantages and opportunities to expand the role of the faculty. As online education grows, it behooves us to take a moment to understand the opportunities and challenges presented by the online classroom, especially in regards to teaching subjects as vital and provocative as religious history. I’d like to encourage more dialogue, in other words, between the online and traditional religious history folks in the hopes that we can learn from and grow with each other to expand the reach of our discipline.

One thing to know about online education is that it’s not all the same. There’s no cookie-cutter U, much like brick and mortar schools. Just as you have SLACs and R1s and CCs, in the online world you have profits, nonprofits, public, private, competency-based, credit-based… there’s as much diversity amongst these virtual institutions as there is in the residential campus environment. Perhaps there’s more because the online model is so versatile. Since it’s so distinctive and diverse, let me give you a bit of background about my institution that will provide some context for my perspective.

I teach history at a nonprofit, private online university which utilizes a very different model. When the university was first introduced a little over 15 years ago, there were a lot of doubts as to the appeal of the model, but as it was tried and tested it demonstrated its efficacy. The university is also quite proud of the types of students that it serves serves: the average student is 37 but ages range from 17 to 85 years old; they come from all 50 states as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, plus our military students who are serving overseas; 34% are categorized as low income, 68% work full time, 42% are first-generation college students, and 73% are “underserved.” The school currently has over 30,000 students enrolled and is projected to have 80,000 by 2015. In this model, students are working on a “competency” based education in which they must demonstrate that they are competent in a certain area before they move on in their program. This can mean taking a comprehensive exam, writing a series of essays, and completing a lab or project before the “competency unit” can be checked off of their degree plan. To support the large number of students, the structure of the school is disaggregated, meaning that faculty have different roles within the institution. I am currently a “Course Mentor” and am full-time faculty (we do not have adjuncts, which I view as a very positive step in the right direction, and Course Mentors must have a terminal degree in their discipline). There are other areas of expertise that have their own place within this faculty model—with some faculty devoted to pedagogical aspects of the curriculum and others who have coaching skills dedicated to advising students. The grading is also not done by the regular faculty. There are “evaluators” who are trained in grading by rubric standards who dedicate their time to passing or failing student work.

This disaggregated model and the distinct parameters of the online classroom lead to a particular kind of professor-student relationship that I have come to really appreciate. One of the most powerful motivators for me is the diversity of the students. Since regional ties and many financial barriers are removed, students from all over the country from very different socioeconomic and religious backgrounds end up in my classroom. I have built some rewarding one-on-one relationships with students that enable me to probe their diverse experiences a bit more than I would in a physical classroom environment and to offer more personalized ways for them to relate to past/present faith traditions. Within these relationships, however, there is the interesting phenomenon of the “invisible student”: students who are faceless which creates a different kind of classroom dynamic. All of these factors make teaching religious history particularly interesting and exciting. I’ll touch on each of these points briefly and then will look forward to expanding on these ideas in future posts.

I think that the most significant change that I felt leaving a traditional university environment for an online university was the diversity in the student body. Having the entire country as your classroom can create extremely interesting interactions and learning opportunities. This diversity provides a wonderful opportunity for me to stretch myself and to discover new ways to incorporate various historical perspectives in my lectures and discussions with students. Within the course of one week, I spoke to the following individuals: a former FLDS man in Montana who wanted to discuss the ways that gender and religion intersect, a younger gentleman from Mexico who was interested in expanding his knowledge of Catholic missions, and a mother in the Bronx (with her kids begging for her attention in the background) who expressed fascination at the different faiths in her own neighborhood and who wanted to learn more about the connection between religion and immigration. When you can get these voices in a classroom together, it keep you on your toes but it also makes for some fascinating dialogue and a rich experience for the students. Certainly, I can teach students about other faiths and encourage empathy, but for them to be able to actually hear the voice of an individual in a completely different time zone from a different faith background contributes to experiential learning.

While anecdotal, the many stories that I have gathered in my almost two years with my current institution makes me cringe at certain criticisms offered by faculty at other institutions who have not experimented with the online model(s). In a New York Times article, one critic claimed, “There’s lots of porn and religion online, but people still have relationships and get married, and go to church and talk to a minister.” I would contest that most online schools are definitely not comparable to Hustler.com or the Church of the Latter-Day Dude. Are there some online offerings that are for-profit and expedient? Sure. But online schools should receive the same kind of consideration and rankings as brick-and-mortar institutions. Some are better than others. Some are the pits. Many (mine included) have a ton to offer. Case in point: Even if we never meet in person, I find that I am much more accessible for my students now in an online classroom than I was at the traditional university at which I taught for several years before making the transition. I have one-on-one meetings that can last a half to a full hour that I could not have afforded during my office hours before. And my classes tend to be smaller now than in the traditional survey course. This means that for students who are interested learning more about the history of their own beliefs or delving deeper into the history of other religions, I have the luxury of spending time with them to learn more about their lives and perspctives and to break down important concepts in a way that will be meaningful to them. For instance, I recently found myself talking to a mother of three who just put her littlest down for a nap so that she could work on her studies. “Who are these Puritan guys again?” she asked, and I saw it as an exciting opportunity to teach someone about a subject that I love (who doesn’t get into predestination?!). There’s also a moment where one must recognize and respect the fact that this young mother who already had her hands full with personal responsibilities was taking time out of her very hectic life to learn about predestination. That’s a win.

The one complicating factor in all of this is the notion of the “invisible student.” Even though I know that my student is a mother because she’s volunteered that information (and there’s an attention-seeking toddler making trouble in the background), there is still the dilemma of her being an “invisible” to me. As it stands now, I have no other information about her. In the traditional classroom, we can take stock of our audience and adjust our message accordingly. We can also observe reactions when discussing controversial topics. But the online aspect removes that kind of face-to-face connection and all you have to rely on is voice. That reliance can build intimacy, however, and can create a kind of bond between professor and student. We’re both entering into the relationship with the same sense of the unknown and that can help draw us together. One moment where this “invisible student” concept came to mind was when I delivered a lecture on religion and the founding fathers, admittedly a tricky subject in many American classrooms. It was both liberating and daunting to not have the student stares/glares/head-nods to indicate their reaction to the subject. You know when you reach that deism part of the lecture and you fell collective blood pressures rise?... But in the online classroom you can’t feel that energy build as much and so it plays less of a role in your delivery. It begs the question as to how much we rely on physical cues and even appearances in the classroom to indicate student biases or backgrounds, and when those indicators are removed it does alter the way that that both professors and students approach difficult subjects like religion.

All of this being said, I frequently glean insight from the Teaching American History blog and wonder if history professors in a traditional setting would also gain new tools and perspectives from learning about online teaching as well. Online education is a reality. If hundreds of thousands of students are electing to learn history in an online format—and many have to because of their family and work commitments as well as financial restraints—then we should take note of both the challenges and rewards of online education to inform our future choices. The professor-student relationship is not at stake, in other words, but is instead in flux and it is a perfect time for us to really contribute to the national conversation about the future of our place in higher education.  


Curtis J. Evans said…
Thanks, Charity. Love those first few lines! I was especially helped by your honest comments about "voice" online and the advantages and disadvantages of teaching online. Though I have never taught a course online, this post gives one a lot to consider. I suppose my one continuing worry, even while accepting your points that this is now a reality and has distinct advantages, is the loss of direct contact and interaction in the context of a class room. It seems to me that the "stares," head nods, and all the rest are so crucial to the learning process and allows one to respond directly to student concerns. I remember so many times when giving a lecture, especially to undergraduates, a certain expression in the face was the moment I paused and then asked the students if they were following me. In most of those instances, it was precisely that "digression" that led to the most productive exchanges, even if I did not cover all that I had intended to address for that lecture. Smaller groups have their own dynamics and I suspect that exchanges in those more intimate settings would only heighten my fears about what might be lost online. In any case, those are my honest concerns, which are in no way meant to diminish what is gained by online learning as your post amply notes.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks so much for this introduction to your online programs, Charity! I voluntarily teach online classes on top of my normal year load, partly for the money, partly because I don't trust anyone else with the the courses I designed for online. How much freedom do you have to design your own courses versus the necessary standaradization involved in such a huge online environment? I had to sacrifice chatroom meetings for threaded discussions because, according to our designers, students wouldn't take a class that had regular meeting times; have you faced similar challenges? I still have mixed feelings about threaded discussions; mainly, I think instructors (including myself) need to get better at directing them.

I'm finding that the greatest danger from online is not the supposed loss of "interpersonal contact," which I haven't experienced, but the shortening of class run-times. Ours average 8 weeks; some of our faculty had to fight against the decision to run some 6-week classes. Of course, face-to-face formats are facing the same challenges, as "consumer-students" want classes that run maybe for 8 hours for four Saturdays or 8 hours a day for one week. How does your university deal with the run-time of courses, or do they not see run-time as an issue, given the competency versus credit-based nature of academic progress?
cbcahpell said…
Thanks for the great post, Charity. I haven't taught Religion in American History online, but I do teach Civil War and Reconstruction online - which brings its own "fun." My course load is both a mix of in-person and online courses, and I've grown to appreciate both. The key, at least for me, was to realize that they are not the same. Yes, many elements work in both, but the approaches must be different. Comparing the two ways of teaching just isn't fair. Both can be done really well, but it does take reimagining the way that we present materials.
Charity Carney said…
Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

@Curtis: I completely understand your concern about the interaction with students in an online format. When I was in the traditional classroom, I enjoyed and appreciated the direct feedback that students provided and used body language as a cue to adjust the discussion accordingly. There is certainly something there that cannot be translated into the online format. I will say, however, that my online students tend to be much more active learners. Because they cannot rely on head nods, they are forced to speak up and ask questions more than they would in an “in-person” class. I often digress in my lectures because students will raise their virtual hand or even pipe up in a proactive way. I find that the online format removes some intimidation factors for students that many seem to sometimes demonstrate in a traditional classroom. I very rarely have those long moments of silence in an online class when I ask questions, and maybe it’s because we simply aren’t looking at each other so they feel free to answer questions without potential judgment. I’m not sure what the phenomenon is here, but I think it may have something to do with the virtual environment feeling more comfortable for nontrad students. Anyway, it certainly is different and there are pluses and minuses but I do think that the interaction is still there, just in a different form. I did have to relearn how to prompt students and communicate with them but I do think that there is plenty of interaction in my classes.

@Mark: We are on the same page. Our competency-based model does make things different but I think that you and I may face similar challenges. My university does have standardized classes, but the faculty work together to create and maintain them. In my “classroom” I am free to discuss whatever I think will help students grow in their competency. There is no attendance policy for my classes because students work through them in a self-paced manner. Terms are six months but a student can begin in any given month and my classes are there for students who want/need to attend to succeed. I also talk to a lot of students one-on-one and really enjoy that aspect. I do think that class run-time is a big concern and we run the risk of simply glossing over material and not giving students a typical college experience as a result. Then again, it is not meant to be “typical” so I’ve had to reconsider the definition of the college experience as a result. Some of my students finish my class in 6 weeks, others are with me for several months—it really depends on the student and how quickly they work through the course material. When they are in class, we have plenty of interaction but for students who elect to go it alone there is more self-directed work and less inter-personal connection. I offer classes throughout the week at various times to accommodate students’ schedules and I am not beholden to specific times so I can adjust if necessary. Maybe that flexibility is a good option when confronting the challenges that you mention? It does increase the number of lectures you have to deliver, but it gets more students into the classes and addresses the need to accommodate nontraditional learners with full schedules. I’d be happy to chat more about how we offer flexibility and would love to hear more about your techniques for engaging students in an online format. I haven’t had any real concentrated experience with threaded discussions at my university. We do have forums (or “communities”) but I find that they are difficult to direct as well and more focused threaded discussions would be a good way to offer an additional resource to students.

@cbcahpell: I really appreciate your observations and feel the same way. That “reimagining” has been very rewarding and has forced me to grow and really stretch myself. I think mixing online teaching with in-person courses would be a great way to shake things up and find new resources to improve courses in both formats.