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Enriching Religious Studies Online

The opportunity to take both credit and continuing education courses at any time, from almost any desktop and at virtually any pace, has now become a reality. Students often report, however, that online courses “offer less than what I expected” or are often “dull” or “tedious.” And many confess they don’t have the necessary computer skills to function as active online learners.

These responses reveal why many of those who register for online classes with U.S. colleges and universities often drop or fail them. Retention rates for online classes, according to some studies, are 10 percent to 20 percent lower than face-to-face classes.

Such conditions present online course developers with a formidable challenge: to engage a wide variety of higher education subscribers and retain them through successful course completion. And there is an even more daunting challenge: to move learners past mere information acquisition to understanding and application. Often the intellectual assumptions and conceptual architecture of a subject are left behind as faculty attempt to transfer their class notes and demonstrations to distance-learning formats. Then, lecture turns into text and demonstrations into graphs and pictures.

Significantly, the occasional faculty/student interaction is rarely continuous with the primary learning experience. It is provided via phone calls at predetermined times or, in the best of cases, through threaded discussions among the professor and class participants or, in some designs, via chat rooms.

Electronically delivered courses, as a result, are more centered on the teacher than the learner and are based on information gathering rather than inductive or deductive reasoning. Further, the richness of spontaneous and planned give-and-take and of the professor’s intonations and gestures is lost or muted.

When, after 25 years of teaching, I decided to build an online course, I set out to create learning experiences that overcame these deficits by using pedagogy that recognized the distinct opportunities of asynchronous learning and the assets of digital technology.

Fortunately, through the use of streaming media provided by st3 Inc., each connecting student can access highly enriched course content online. The company encodes and transmits video, animation and sound via the Internet and a private nationwide, high-speed fiber-based network that is close to broadcast quality. The course instructor therefore d'esn’t have to limit content or multimedia additions because of bandwidth limitations.

My course, “Religions of the World,” will be offered via the Internet in Fall 2002. Edited video interviews with leading religious scholars and practitioners will form the foundation of the course. Also provided via streaming media will be insights into the subtleties of religions not readily gained by reading texts; the virtual experience of religious music, rituals, ceremonies, services, and festivals; and an appreciation of the passion of each religion’s adherents and the persuasiveness of its messengers.

Course units begin with an overview of unit objectives and course goals. Suggestions for optimizing learning strategies, including how to use the computer, are also offered. These will be presented to the connecting student as a running outline and set of instructions on the screen.

Short interview segments then serve to deliver the guts of the course. These segments were videotaped on location at cathedrals, universities, and sacred sites with theologians, historians, and clerics. As the interviews proceed, they can be interrupted to provide background commentary. A constant vertical tool bar allows the student the option of calling up referenced texts (scriptures, expositories, creeds, etc.) as well as symbols, pictures, icons, and the like.

The course is multidimensional, allowing students to move from a relatively simple idea to increasingly complex concepts, requiring comparisons, contrasts, analysis, and correlations. Through the use of st3 technology, “gates,” or progress indicators, are also embedded in the course and are points where students’ understanding can be evaluated via journaling and objective exams, as well as through chat rooms or threaded discussions.

St3 not only provides high-order technical support, hosts the course elements on its server, and delivers them on call, but also enables the course designer to make continuous updates. Also, course elements can be selected by the faculty of any institution for inclusion in traditional as well as online classes. In this way, streaming media can be staged into traditional classes and into online courses as well.
In 2002, “Religions of the World” will be offered for enrichment—without college credit—and as a college course through Chattanooga State Technical Community College ( I expect to provide my online students the same level of inquiry and academic satisfaction as my traditional students enjoy—perhaps at an even higher level.

James L. Catanzaro is the president of Chattanooga State Technical Community College, Chattanooga, Tenn. He can be reached at [email protected].

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