Webbing the Common Good: Virtual Environment, Incarnated Community, and Education for the Reign of God
Abstract. Online technologies, recently embraced by seminaries to respond to changing student needs and demographics, compel practitioners to ask questions about the content, methods, and desired outcomes of teaching/learning experiences. Indeed, as Delamarter and Brunner have pointed out in this journal (2005), many seminaries have turned to these strategies only to find that the issues are not technological; rather, they are pedagogical. This article discusses the insights generated by one such teaching experiment, a hybrid course on religious education for social justice. Through this educational experiment, the professor and students discovered that the format of the hybrid course proved to be an effective means by which to promote the praxis of social justice as well as develop some of the skills essential for effective ministry and education. The article begins with the rationale of the course design and content and continues with the perspectives of the students and instructor in reflection on the experiment. It concludes with some preliminary insights into the potential usefulness of hybrid learning for both peace and justice education as well as its value in the overall formation of educators and ministers.
Introduction: The Hybrid Model and Educating Bifocally
In his foreword to Teaching for Social Justice, William Ayers argues that to teach for social justice “demands a dialectical stance: one eye firmly fixed on the students . . . and the other eye looking unblinkingly at the concentric circles of context . . .” (Ayers 1998, xvi). As an educator, I am particularly interested in questions of justice as they apply to the method, content, and purposes of my teaching. The teaching that I do is typically among people who seek to live in ways that align the visions of their communities and traditions with their work in the world – one hand on the Bible (or other resources from the tradition), the other on the newspaper (or other access point to the community's context and experience). Underscoring this is some vision, whether implicit or articulated, of the common good.
These questions of justice are present in the ways I intend to create teaching/learning situations that participate in the bifocal vision Ayers describes and in the ways I try to facilitate my students' capacities to do the same, eyes wide open. I do so animated by a vision for healing the world, informed by the Catholic tradition and the pedagogical work of Paulo Freire, Maxine Greene, and others, all of whom have well-articulated understandings of what constitutes the common good. This vision challenges me to engage my work in light of the particularity of my students' contexts as well as the multilayered situations in which they intend to effect change. I recently found myself wrestling anew with this commitment when designing and teaching an experimental course for Boston College's Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (IREPM). The course, entitled Co-Creating the Reign of God: Educating for Commitment to the Common Good, was structured as a hybrid course – that is, employing an integration of online teaching/learning and face-to-face class meetings. This particular course met biweekly on Saturdays for six 3-hour sessions, with the intervening weeks dependent on online contact.
Hybrid courses are a fairly new development in distance learning, having emerged with any prominence just in the last half-dozen years. Because of this, we are only now beginning to see research and literature generated on the effectiveness of this approach. Steve Delamarter has underscored the growth of this technology (2004, 2005) and Delamarter and Brunner (2005) discuss the recent popularity of hybrid models of distance learning in both program and individual class design, marking this as the next wave in the ongoing assimilation of various technologies by schools of ministry and theology. Further, the format provides a promising response to the dismantling of so-called “classic” modes of theological education, the rise of media culture, and changing student needs.
As Delamarter and Brunner note, “seminaries go into the experiment [of using distance and hybrid learning] thinking that the issues will be technological . . . only to discover that the issues are really pedagogical” (Delamarter and Brunner 2005, 146–147). Practitioners soon recognize that the effective use of technology in teaching – whether to enhance conventional classroom instruction or through more integrated uses – is not simply a matter of translating conventional classroom strategies into an online format. Rather, it requires confronting foundational questions about the content, methods, and desired outcomes of the teaching/learning experience. Furthermore, as Mary Hess points out, digital technologies “alert us to the contradictions that can exist between our Christian convictions and our typical pedagogies” (Hess 2005, 88).
My experience with the hybrid format affirmed Delamarter and Brunner's observations. In the end, the structure proved to be an elegant means to the end of both social justice praxis and the formation of educators and ministers. It provided opportunities for learning about the foundations of social justice as well as practicing justice. It encouraged deep engagement with class texts and personal discernment practices. It fostered collaborative learning through the formation of a “wisdom community” (Esselman 2004, 159) and encouraged students to take responsibility for their own learning. As the students moved through the rhythm of online and in-person contact with classmates, they also engaged the ongoing dialectic of particular action toward a shared vision of the common good. As an educator, I am aware of the pedagogical power of the relationships and community nurtured in conventional teaching/learning contexts. Nevertheless, I was struck by the powerful role the online learning component played in these outcomes.
This essay investigates this insight with particular attention to the connection between online learning and the reflective practice of justice. In doing so, I will describe the rationale of the course design and content. Next, I will explore how the perspectives of the instructor and students inform an analysis of what happened. Finally, I will conclude with some preliminary insights into the potential usefulness of hybrid learning for both peace and justice education as well as for educator and minister formation. The limits of this essay prevent me from doing any kind of survey of the vast and growing field of distance learning in theological education. Instead, the conclusion will offer a new angle of entry into the existing literature and the ongoing discernment of how best to educate for and with justice, from the promising perspective of one such experiment.
Origins of the Course
Co-creating the Reign of God was designed as a spring 2005 master's level course for the IREPM and was the second of two courses that year to employ the hybrid format (the first, Foundations of Ministry, was offered in fall 2004). The decision to try a hybrid model was driven primarily by changing student demographics at the Institute. As with many other schools of theology and ministry across North America, IREPM has experienced a shift in its student population over recent years. Lower enrollments, fewer students able to manage conventional class schedules, and deeper student immersion in media culture have challenged many such programs to respond creatively to the changing population.
At first glance, online technologies seem to be an answer to the situation; email, the Internet, audio/video conferencing, and course management systems like Blackboard and WebCT provide effective and speedy communication and information delivery without regard for geographic and scheduling barriers. Indeed, the majority of higher learning institutions employ at least some form of distance learning for continuing education and non-traditional students. A brief browse, for example, of the Wabash Center's Internet Guide to Religion (http://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/resources) reveals a number of theological education programs that employ distance learning and other online approaches. Boston College is no different, having made a significant investment across the university in developing the infrastructure necessary to support this work. In fact, IREPM had already offered both for-credit and continuing education distance courses prior to the 2004–2005 academic year. Nevertheless, this was the first course to be designed as a hybrid, one offering in a program that presumes the majority of its education to happen via conventional class offerings.
As recent articles have pointed out, however, the advancement of online learning in theological (and other liberal arts) education has been checked by educators' suspicions about its appropriateness, given the distinctive outcomes intended by this education (see Delamarter 2005, Snyder 2007, Shore 2007). How can an aspiring minister or educator be effectively nurtured in professional, practical, and reflective identity by a computer? There is no substitute, some argue, for the grace that can happen in the immersion of the classroom learning experience, in the company of mentors and a community. These misgivings have some merit; becoming an effective educator or minister, after all, is not dependent simply on the effective consumption of content. It also requires ongoing formation in practices and identity, guided in its better moments by the surprising work of the Spirit.
At the same time, those of us who do this education are confronted with the task of rethinking how, whom, and for what we are educating. What is at stake is who our communities' educators and ministers will be. While online technologies might raise questions about the critical role of incarnated relationships in this professional formation, the continued reliance on traditional teaching/learning frameworks limits access to this education to those who have the necessary time, money, and other resources.
IREPM's choice to test a hybrid model was part of a larger trend towards rethinking the classic dichotomy perceived between online and face-to-face contact, as well as the presumed superiority of the latter in ministerial formation. The hybrid format provided a way to mediate the student need for flexibility with the desire for gathering in person. Indeed, as recent research has found, hybrid courses outscore both online and traditional courses in student satisfaction and learning outcomes, affirming the decision to move in this direction (Delamarter and Brunner 2005, 150). In the end, the development and implementation of the course were facilitated by multiple factors: administrative approval, the support of a technological infrastructure and skilled IT personnel at the university, and a culture open to the possibilities of pedagogical innovation.
Seeing Through Multiple Lenses: Designing the Course
In speaking of the educator's task, Maxine Greene writes, “[T]he teacher creates an environment for learning that has multiple entry points for learning and multiple pathways to success. That environment must be abundant with opportunities to practice social justice; to display, foster, embody, expect, demand, nurture, allow, model, and enact inquiry toward change” (Ayers, Hunt, and Quinn 1998, xxv). How would this happen in the design of a learning environment that was both virtual and face-to-face? First, I addressed the content and intended outcome of the course. Next, I attended to the pedagogical frameworks of both teaching media – online and in-person – to see where the distinctiveness of each could contribute to the content and outcome.
Co-creating the Reign of God had two primary questions at its core: How do we educate and minister among youth and young adults for the sake of peace and justice? And how do we cultivate capacities among them for sustained commitments to the common good? In our exploration, students would need access to (1) resources to inform their understanding of the common good, as used in class; (2) narratives about and descriptions of how the process of forming and sustaining commitment actually works; and (3) insights from the wisdom of effective educators and ministers committed to educating for justice, all toward the end of imagining strategies for their own particular work contexts.
In light of these questions, I selected printed texts that included excerpts from various liberation theologians and progressive educators, as well as Catholic Social Teaching, the Gospel of Luke, and various studies on depth commitment. In addressing some of the basic pedagogy considerations, I was already familiar with the kinds of in-person teaching dynamics that would facilitate work towards these outcomes, having taught similar classes on commitment before. But how would I integrate the online aspects of the class? Online resources – electronic communication, the Internet, and the like – added seductive novelty and a broad array of colors to the educational palette. But the new teaching format also challenged me to attend anew to the familiarity of my own deeply ingrained patterns of teaching and to address some of the epistemological foundations of my teaching practices. What would I include as valid sources of knowledge? Who would have primary access to it, and how? And how did all this speak to the practices of justice?
The understanding of the “common good” operative in the course was grounded in Catholic Social Teaching, the collection of documents comprising the social values and responsibilities foundational to Catholic faith and practice. Catholic Social Teaching underscores the notion that the well-being of individuals is intimately and reciprocally connected to the well-being of the community at large (Mich 2000) and that members of the faith community have a responsibility to act personally and socially on behalf of these values (Massaro 2000, Mich 2000). This responsibility is grounded in the belief that all human beings deserve respect and dignity by virtue of their common humanity (Massaro 2000, Mich 2000).
In order to participate in this way, people need access to key resources: food, shelter, meaningful work, education, and engagement of the imagination. As such, Catholic Social Teaching prioritizes the needs of the poor and vulnerable, those who are denied these resources and are thus limited in their ability to contribute to social and economic life (Massaro 2000). A culture of the common good is marked by people's commitment to and concern for each other in both social interaction and in institutional structures of polity, commerce, education, entertainment, and the like. Work on behalf of the common good, then, is work on behalf of social justice and requires empowered participation in community as foundational for the practice of justice.
The course readings emphasized the incarnated character of the work of justice; it is enacted in particular contexts and animated by a broader, transcendent vision. In light of this, I decided to include various Internet resources on justice issues, student narratives, and transcribed selections from student interviews with persons of commitment among the course texts. I also encouraged students to footnote online discussion in written projects, elevating the value of their contributions to class learning.
In the end, I prioritized the following in deciding what aspects of the available technology to include:
The hybrid course grew out of a desire to make course offerings more accessible to students, and the same concern drove decisions around what technology tools to use – a concern not unlike the question of access to resources as related to the common good. I streamlined the use of the WebCT course management format as much as possible to minimize the online connection requirements and avoided “heavy” tools like streaming video, chat rooms, and so on. The course website contained an asynchronous discussion board, the course calendar, photos of class members, and links to online resources. We also provided students with a tutorial on navigating and using the website during the first class meeting to level the technological playing field. The technology is a teaching/learning tool, not an end in itself; if it becomes cumbersome or too complex and interferes with student learning, then it must be reconsidered, as with any pedagogical strategy.
2. Internet Resources and Electronic Communication
Related to the issue of accessibility, the online format opened a vast array of resources to students. We had easy access to religious documents and websites on issues of peace and justice, without relying on printed matter, much to the delight of those with environmental concerns. When the course turned out to include a number of students from denominations other than Catholic, students were able to direct classmates to their traditions' resources on peace and justice. The class was also able to participate in question and answer sessions by email with educators and ministers working in justice areas. As a result, students were explicitly involved in shaping a significant portion of their learning experience. As the instructor, I appreciated the way the technology allowed the class resources to be an ongoing “work in progress,” based on student interest and new discoveries.
3. Collaborative Learning and Conversation
The invisibility of an instructor in front of the room created an opening for students to learn with and from each other. This required active structuring; students were required to post a minimum number of times per week (typically two), and the class was divided into working groups of three to four students each. Each group was given responsibility for leading online critical reflection on the weekly texts. Student-leaders assumed different roles in managing the conversation: one kick-started the conversation, another acted as affirmer or gadfly to nudge the conversation along and weave connections, and another concluded the week with a summary observation of that week's postings. They were also required to share the fruits of online and ethnographic research via the discussion board and to respond to each other's postings.
The online tools, then, did not serve as a substitute for in-person contact; rather, the distinctiveness of the media offered unique contributions to our teaching/learning goals. The biweekly in-person classes emphasized community building and integrative work – the reintegration of the students with each other, the integration of the various texts read in the intervening weeks, and checking in with students to ensure that they were not being left behind in any way. In light of this, we favored well-conducted conversation and some lecture over more innovative teaching strategies. Students found that the gathering and real-time conversation built and affirmed a strong sense of classroom community, and the online work had already emphasized leadership-building and structured participation. The asynchronous and ongoing character of the online conversations contributed to a seamless sense of contact with each other, rather than the episodic character of, for example, traditional weekly class meetings. Nevertheless, I encouraged students to do some ritual before going online for class, if that would help them mark the time as “sacred” and feel connected to their peers. Some of these rituals included lighting a candle, wearing a piece of university logo clothing, using a particular mug, and viewing class pictures.
Retrospective Vision: Who Did What and How
Co-Creating the Reign of God ended up with an enrollment of fourteen students – a healthy roster for a new IREPM course with an experimental format. About a third of the students were from other Boston area schools of theology. A number of factors influenced enrollment. As listed in the course evaluations, the dominant attraction of the course by far was the hybrid, Saturday-meeting format; coming in at a close second was the appeal of the topic. The majority of the students had full- or part-time jobs in addition to their coursework and were unable to make conventional weekday classes. Some of the students also had lengthy commutes and were attracted to the limited number of required in-person meetings. All of them stated that they would not have enrolled in an exclusively online course.
As an institute for pastoral ministry formation, IREPM intends to cultivate through its course offerings a solid theological foundation, collaborative learning, and life-long capacities for critical reflection on ministry. I have discovered that some of the skills and patterns of interaction necessary for doing well in an online environment directly connect to these intended outcomes. The following list highlights some of those skills and patterns.
1. Heavy reliance on student initiative. The lack of weekly class meetings meant that students had to take a great deal of responsibility for structuring their own time and meeting the reading, writing, and online posting deadlines. Working students who admittedly packed their academic responsibilities into the edges of their work lives found this to be challenging. The multiple postings per week and the need to check the discussion board regularly meant that they had to carve out time each day or every other day to connect with the course. While some students had difficulty adjusting to this, others found that it resulted in a deeper integration of work and study (not unlike the outcomes of Christian practices).
2. Accountability to fellow students. Regular in-person contact – typically a powerful external motivator for students – is missing in an online format. Students have to take responsibility for logging on, reading the assignments and postings, and so forth, on a schedule they must construct for themselves. They learned quickly that the quality of online discussion rose or fell with the regularity of their participation and that being ill-prepared affected others. Before long, students were apologizing to the class (and not to me) if circumstances led to a late posting. One student spoke grudgingly at first about the online posting requirements, but then realized that “having the posting deadline helped me focus my thoughts and engage more intently with the class. . . .” I observed carryover when we met in person; students tended to address and look at each other when commenting in class, rather than focusing on the instructor. Multiple centers of authority and accountability emerged and dismantled at least some aspects of conventional classroom hierarchy.
3. Active/collaborative and contextualized learning. Certain acceptable in-class learning behaviors, such as quiet, supportive listening, do not translate easily into online environments. In order to keep the online environment “safe,” students had to let each other know explicitly that they were “listening” and how they were reacting to comments. This was a challenge for students accustomed to more passive kinds of engagement in classroom learning. I discovered that online conversation and participation are (at least in part) learned skills, and students need to be guided in basic principles of it during the first several weeks of class. The end result was new insight into pastoral presence, as well deepened capacities for active and collaborative learning. One student stated on the evaluation form that he was exposed to “new, equally valid or more valid ideas,”“[sharpening] the reasons for my opinions” in the “strange but wonderful combination of personalities and thought processes and ways of relating that gave me much to think about.” As chance would have it, our class turned out to be surprisingly multi-racial, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. Among the fourteen students, there were six different denominations and four ethnicities, including a newly arrived Vietnamese priest working among the rural poor. The online conversation and sharing of personal narratives allowed the students to hear each other in context and to learn about the function of particularity in constructing the common good. Rich conversation grew across their differences.
4. Educator as facilitator, not guru. As mentioned earlier, the hybrid course relied heavily on independent student research and online conversation. Because they were able to access information independently online, students moved from seeing the instructor as the primary (or only) source of knowledge to seeing themselves as able to access the resources necessary for learning. In designing the course, I had to rely less on conventional teaching methods, such as lectures, and more on facilitating these active learning experiences. On the one hand, this meant framing the entire semester in detail and communicating that structure (including content, weekly assignments, and larger projects) up front – a significant increase to my typical course workload. On the other hand, the online environment allowed for the more immediate sharing of new resources, enhancing student engagement with the topic, and other kinds of ad hoc creativity. Within the preexisting structure of the syllabus, students shared in the work of expanding the learning content and dynamic.
5. Wide variety of teaching methods used. The movement from online to in-person contact, plus the variety of online and in-person activities engaged, meant that students had the chance to work within their preferred learning styles and to be challenged outside of them. The elongated pace of online discussion helped introverts; the small groups helped conversational thinkers; the in-person time helped extroverts. As one student wrote, “I usually like to sit and stew ideas in my head before I speak. I often don't verbally speak, which makes it seem like I'm not participating. The online discussion allowed me to participate and still have time to think and engage in the reflection at my own pace before I responded to the discussion.” Self-identified “people persons” said that they could not have “survived” the online component without the face-to-face meetings. Furthermore, there was great variety in the teaching moments students appreciated most; some liked the in-class lectures, which focused material for them; others liked the online research; still others liked hearing others' viewpoints in the postings. Most students reflected appreciation for the fidelity to the syllabus structure as well as the flexibility of time management within that structure. While all classes should ideally incorporate multiple teaching methods, hybrids are especially primed for such variety.
6. Enhanced in-class conversation and stronger sense of community. As the instructor, I found the in-class sessions and conversations to be lively and rigorous, perhaps enhanced by the mutual excitement of seeing each other after weeks of online interaction. In person, the conversation mirrored the online contact, with students engaging and responding to each other and to the texts at hand. The regularity of online discussion led to the sense of the class being an ongoing conversation, and I observed an increased capacity for conversation across difference and for consensus-building as the semester progressed. Students expressed the same in evaluations; one wrote, “I felt that our work on-line was honored in our discussions in class. It was obvious that people had read the postings and we could refer to one another's work. Also the in-class meeting gave the class a community feel that would have been missing had we not all met.” Another stated, “I found the in-person meetings critical. . . . I learn almost as much from interaction with my classmates as I do from class content.
7. Deeper opportunity to enter the praxis dynamic of theological reflection. Many of the dynamics discussed above support the larger work of theological reflection – the cycle of action, critical reflection, action that underscores the operative notion of ministerial practice here. The movement between online and in-person contact encouraged students to move with fluidity between the class work and the broader contexts of their lives. As mentioned earlier, the asynchronous discussion also allowed students the time for a reflective prelude before responding. One student echoed the experience of several of her peers when she said that “[online] reflection allowed for more in depth thought.” Another valued the effort to weave together method, content, and community: “While using the content to teach about commitment and sustainability, [the class] also taught us about how to be with others in a ministerial role. I have gained much in this respect!” While “ministerial presence” with classmates is certainly no substitute for real-time engagement with others outside the context of theological education (for example, congregants, young people, the marginalized, and so on), it is clear that many of these students had an opportunity to try on modes of interaction that, they perceived, had direct relevance to their future work in ministry.
Questions and Considerations in Hybrid Learning
Lest it seem that hybrid courses are the definitive answer to changing student demographics and the rise of media culture, it is important to note that some students genuinely struggled with aspects of the course during the semester. Within the first three weeks, four students either withdrew or moved to audit or pass/fail status; these same students had enrolled in the class as an overload. While the syllabus and description clearly stated that the course would require eight to ten hours of work per week, and that online and in-class participation would be of equal importance, some presumed that an online class would somehow be less rigorous than a conventional one. Indeed, about half of the students that semester reported that the course felt as though it had “more work” than conventional courses.
I suspect that this perception was due in part to some of the shifts in thinking and work habits necessary to succeed in an online environment. The amount of reading and number of writing projects required were commensurate with – even less than – other typical classes offered at IREPM. Students most likely to succeed in the class were those willing and able to negotiate the new requirements and commit themselves to the regular practice of reading and posting several times a week. Students who typically allocated a single large block of time for coursework or who waited until the last minute to prepare found themselves with the steepest adjustment curve. Those who had problems relying on visual/reading styles of learning and preferred the auditory/conversational modes typically used in conventional classes also had difficulty. Online work is simply not the best mode of learning for those easily overwhelmed by the volume of postings. Still others found it hard to move beyond their conditioning to more passive learning styles.
In short, the initial disorientation sparked by the unfamiliar learning environment raised explicit awareness of learning preferences for many students. As the instructor, I found the same to be true. I stood alongside the students in working outside my comfort zone and, in doing so, had to confront certain difficult truths about myself as a teacher. As committed as I have been to incorporating multiple intelligences and active learning into my courses – and this is reflected in the texts I privilege in class – it was still challenging to relinquish the control I had enjoyed in conventional classrooms. Having spent the past twenty years learning how to engage and challenge students in person, I had to relearn strategies for relating to and motivating students in an online environment. The presence of the Internet as a teaching partner and the explicit participation of students in shaping the learning content meant that mine was not always the dominant voice. This required me to develop deeper capacities for improvising and responding to students' initiative. It is much easier to walk into a classroom and allow familiarity with material and hard-earned interpersonal skills to complement any gaps in classroom chemistry or preparation.
In the end, I believe that many of the students' difficulties could have been remedied with a more explicit pre-enrollment introduction to the course requirements and a self-assessment to help students see if they were well suited to online learning. It is also critical to incorporate skill-building techniques into online and hybrid courses to help students succeed in an online environment. At a deeper level, however, moving from a paper and in-person culture to an online culture raises key epistemological questions: What and where is knowledge? How do we come to know? And who has access to this knowing?
Questions of epistemology are foundational to any education for peace and justice because they raise issues of inclusion and power. During the course, I placed a premium on developing a shared sense of community and knowing among the students, encouraging them to collaborate in constructing an informed sense of what constitutes the common good. In part, I was motivated by a commitment to inclusion and participation; I was also concerned about the newness of the environment for most of the students and I wanted them to feel a sense of connection in the unfamiliar context. Yet as one student wrote in the final evaluation, it is easy to be seduced by a desire for “theological consensus” at the expense of the harder conversations necessary for the genuine work of justice. The appearance of agreement, the student argued, can subvert the voices on the margin and keep people from looking at difficult ideas; “how difficult it is to get people of faith to think out of the box even when we are engaged in a course which is supposed to encourage us to do just that.”
Does this mean that these “hard conversations” are up for scrutiny only in online and hybrid environments? Of course not – any education for peace and justice requires us as educators to help our students develop capacities to communicate across the particularities that can divide us, toward the end of developing what poet Adrienne Rich calls a “partly common language” (1980). And as Maxine Greene points out, the work of justice only becomes possible when one recognizes the presence of obstacles and becomes attuned to the places where deeply ingrained patterns and complacency might well subvert one's commitment to the common good (1995).
While I don't have an easy response for this student's insightful critique, my experience with hybrid learning leads me to believe that such skill-building is possible, even encouraged, by the hybrid format. During the times I have experienced moments of successful “hard conversation,” it has typically been within the boundaries of a carefully constructed, safe environment, in which participants trusted the embrace of colleagues who would continue to hold them – and hold them accountable. I suspect that the emphasis on active learning, the diversity of the personal narratives and Internet resources, and the reassurance of in-person contact posit the hybrid course as a uniquely rich opportunity for cultivating such capacities. Furthermore, I am convinced that the development of such capacities is integral to the process of forming persons able to minister and educate for justice.
Final Thoughts on Webbing the Common Good
The rise of technology and changing student demographics invite us to revisit the intentions we have in teaching our students and the practices we engage toward those ends. Do our pedagogical structures and practices, as familiar as they are, best serve those ends? Are they epistemologically and practically consistent with what we intend and hope for? And within these concerns, what might the hybrid course and online technologies contribute to this work?
In the recent Educating Clergy (2006), Charles Foster and his research associates identify three foundational competencies vital to the successful formation of clergy. The effective educator of clergy, they argue, is able to teach in a way that both apprentices students to and integrates these competencies. The intention of such education is to ground students in (1) the resources necessary for responsible enactment of their responsibilities (cognitive competency), (2) the ability to fulfill the tasks and duties of their role and reflect critically on this practice (practical competency), and (3) a sense of professional identity and membership in a larger community of peers (normative competency). As I reviewed the literature for this article, I observed that most of the criticisms of online learning seemed to be rooted in the technology's perceived bankruptcy for normative and practical formation. Furthermore, the bulk of articles appreciative of the pedagogies focused on using online tools for the effective transmission of information and content – which, of course, reinforces the generative suspicion that online teaching is one-dimensional. My experience, however, elicited insights that moved beyond the polemics of these discussions and revealed the possibilities of online or hybrid pedagogies as effective tools for engaging and integrating these competencies, particularly toward the end of justice. What are some of these possibilities?
First, we return to the justice issue of access. As discussed earlier, changing student demographics are necessitating creative responses among schools of theology and ministerial formation. Hybrid courses allow for new models of accessing the kind of education necessary for students to pursue their profession and calling. Furthermore, the justice issue of access extends to the epistemological presumptions embedded in hybrid learning and the uses of technology. Hybrid teaching and online technologies can facilitate epistemologies that are constructive, collaborative, and participatory. Students not only have access to the information they need for effective cognitive formation, they also begin to see themselves as learners and professionals able to access the resources necessary for their ministerial practice and critical reflection on it. Online learning's heavy reliance on student participation contributes to the formation of working relationships among students and active learning capacities. In sum, students can be cultivated in the practical and normative competencies expected of them as professionals.
The hybrid course also allows for the in-person contact lauded by critics of online pedagogies as necessary for effective practical and normative formation. Yet I wonder if the emphasis on “incarnational” approaches to clergy education is adequate: does this formation require physical presence, or does it refer to attentiveness to the ways in which we are pastorally present to each other? As I observed my students during this course, they developed a strong sense of community through the sensitivity and intentionality of their online participation. This connection was reinforced during the in-person meetings and further supported by the sense of safe space they created together by sharing personal narratives and insights. Indeed, some observed that the extraverted, speedy pace of class meetings would not have allowed for the depth and quality of sustained attention that blossomed online. The capacity for such reflective attentiveness and presence is key to an incarnational theology as well as effective ministerial practice.
In short, the value of this teaching experiment is not just in the technology itself, or even in the hybrid format, and online learning is not simply about information processing. It is also about becoming aware of how we participate and interact with each other and with sources of knowledge as students and faculty. As I discovered, hybrid learning and other online pedagogical models are able to invoke the kind of critically reflective and integrative learning we intend. As such, they can be effective tools in both the formation of ministers and educators and the practice of justice when they become occasions for this kind of learning. When considered from this angle, it might well make good pedagogical sense to incorporate some hybrid teaching into an overall plan for theological education, with the particular configuration discerned in light of a school's specific needs. Becoming an effective minister or educator, like doing the work of justice, requires apprenticeship into critically reflective practices that unfold over time and the capacity to be responsive to the present – two of the evident strengths of the hybrid course. A pedagogy that encourages these capacities makes students agents of their own learning, encourages self-reflective movement between course content and life, facilitates collaboration, and sparks the possibility of social change – all of which happened, to some degree, in the course. As such, the technology used in a hybrid course becomes a pedagogical partner, a tool among others employed towards the end of forming pastoral ministers and educators and deepening our capacities to construct a web of common good.