I am among the ranks of those in religious studies, who, at least for a time, seriously doubted that our discipline could be successfully imported into an online learning environment. Surely, I thought, interactions between students and professor would be trivial, discussions would be sanitized, and the depth of learning would prove inconsequential. Admittedly, for a time, I was influenced by the narrative that online education is a sorry excuse for the treasures that await those in traditional, face-to-face learning environments. Even more, I questioned the commitment and mettle of students who preferred online courses. If they were truly serious about the profundity of their learning, I thought, they wouldn't have taken the online path of least resistance.
Practically speaking, this amounted to conceding to a curricular status quo. Why make improvements or attempt to be innovative if students don’t really care? Why be conscientious about the quality of each element of the course, if at the end of the day, online education would always succumb to a learning ceiling? Online teaching became a handbag, a necessary evil, to my “real career” of teaching face-to-face courses. And a handbag is...just a handbag. Handbags go in and out of style. One day you’re carrying them around, the next they are buried in your closet or gathering dust on the shelf at a resale shop. Online education would be no different; it was just a temporary bubble that would one day burst when everyone came to their senses.
I was wrong.
Online Learning on the Rise
According to the 2016 WCET Distance Education Enrollment Report, from 2002 to 2014, the number of students enrolled in at least one online course increased from 1.6 to 5.8 million. Federal data from fall ‘15–16 showed another increase to 6.3 million students, amounting to 31% of all students (mostly undergraduate) enrolled at Title IV-eligible institutions. These increases occurred while overall college enrollments remained flat or began declining. At the moment, there are no convincing signs of this growth plateauing; the New American Foundation discovered in 2012 that the full-time undergraduate student living on campus was becoming the exception, not the rule—only 14% of all undergraduates satisfied this description.
Some might anticipate that for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix enrolled a large portion of these students, but this isn’t true. Looking at the federal data from fall 2015 to fall 2016, more than two-thirds of the students that took at least one online course in 2016 were at public colleges and universities (community colleges and four-year public institutions), while 18% were enrolled at private colleges and 13% at for-profit institutions. Community college students were the most likely to enroll in online courses (30.9%).
This consistent growth in online education could be attributed to several factors, including the convenience and flexibility of online courses, their popularity among nontraditional students, lower costs in some cases, and a corresponding growth in online courses at the K-12 level. Connections Academy discovered that in 2013–2014, 75% of all school districts in the United States offered online or blended courses.
Some may concede this growth in online learning, but seriously question whether students are finding their online courses to be quality learning experiences. By and large, students have expressed satisfaction with the value of education they are getting in online courses. In 2018, the Learning House and Aslanian Market Research surveyed 1,500 students who were taking online courses, had taken them in the past, or would be starting soon. Among students who took courses exclusively online, 86% felt “the value of their degree equals or exceeds the cost they paid for it.” For students who experienced both online and traditional face-to-face courses, 85% felt that their online courses were as good or better than the face-to-face courses. Institutions also seem to benefit when they offer online learning opportunities; an Arizona State University study found that student retention rates (keeping them on the path to graduation) improved as a result of online learning.
There remains, however, a lack of scholarship on how online education is suited to religious studies curricula. The scholarship that is available has focused almost exclusively on theological education in the seminary context. For some, their exposure has been limited to grandiose-scale efforts, like when religious studies professors at Harvard launched MOOCs (massive open online courses) to combat religious illiteracy in the American public. They anticipated that as many as 50,000 people would enroll, without any credential or cost required to join. Could a small cohort of faculty really help 50,000 people achieve learning outcomes akin to those in a credit-bearing course? Findings released by Harvard and MIT on these courses from 2012 to 2016 did not present meaningful data in this regard.
The absence of an online tradition of excellence in religious studies could be partly to blame for why online education still feels like the neglected stepchild in our field. Fortunately, some have noticed this vacuum and have started producing scholarship on best practices. In one standout piece, Beverly McGuire discussed the importance of the online religious studies instructor combining synchronous teaching methods (interacting with students “live”) and asynchronous teaching methods (interacting at different times). She also emphasized keeping one’s course intuitive (what she calls “humanizing the course website”), breaking the curriculum down into manageable slices (“chunk the course content”), monitoring rather than intruding in the online discussion board, and offering timely and constructive feedback on assignments.
McGuire offered two additional best practices unique to religious studies courses. First, faculty should be clear on their approach to religious studies. Students are prone to engage in more self-disclosure in an online course than in a face-to-face course, and many students anticipate that a religious studies course will be of some personal spiritual or existential benefit to them. Some students use online religious studies courses as an opportunity to proselytize, which may be easier to do in an online environment. All the while, the faculty member may wish for students to adopt, for example, a critical or phenomenological lens. This divide that often exists between the approach of religious studies faculty and the expectations of students prompted McGuire to begin each of her courses with a special module that introduces students to the study of religion and asks them to consider their social location, assumptions, biases, and the difference between religious studies and theology. She found that these introductory activities provide a nice precursor to discussing the course’s unique approach and learning objectives.
Second, McGuire recommends that religious studies faculty consider how to make their online courses relevant to students. When it comes to religion, this would mean considering how to help students see the relevance of religion to their own lives and the lives of people in the world around them. Like many religious studies faculty, McGuire structured her courses around religious texts. To make her courses more relevant to students, McGuire replaced essays on religious texts with experiential learning activities such as fieldwork and replaced multiple-choice exams with journal reflections. She found that “given adequate instructions and guidelines, learners can still engage in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation outside the confines of a traditional essay with an argument, evidence, and counter-argument” (39).
Some Change Will Do You Good
In my first few years of online teaching, students frequently reported that my courses were easier to navigate than other online courses they had taken and that my feedback was constructive and encouraging. However, they also reported a desire to have more interaction with me outside of grading feedback. I took McGuire’s advice to add an asynchronous element to my courses, which was to discuss course content with students over appear.in, a virtual conference call service. Though I am still making improvements, I could tell almost instantly that many students appreciated the opportunity to interact with me and their classmates in this way. Students that typically offered little evidence of critical engagement in the course discussion board were far more expressive during the calls about what they had been learning. At the end of each call, I give students an opportunity to ask questions or voice concerns about the course, which adds an extra layer of trust and rapport between my students and me.
Like McGuire and I assume many others, my courses were also at one time cognitive-heavy and centered around religious history, text excerpts, and facts. Informed somewhat by my graduate education, I bought into the idea that religious literacy could be vetted exclusively by one’s familiarity with historical traditions and doctrines, irrespective of how relevant those might be in actuality to everyday people today. In grading course assignments and especially final exams, I found that this approach did not lend itself to students feeling confident about their ability to engage with religious expressions in the world around them, and ironically, their level of comprehension of the historical concepts they were learning about in the first place. In other words, while the course content was interesting, this didn’t mean that it was relevant to students’ questions and hopes for the course.
Taking a page out of McGuire’s playbook, I started asking students to read news articles, op-eds, national reports, and blogs from reputable sources for assignments I call “In the News.” These quickly became students’ favorite assignments, and as it turns out, their appreciation for the historical elements of religious traditions also seemed to grow as they realized their relevance to current events, issues, and attitudes. These, in addition to my consistently successful assignment asking students to interview a religious leader, have helped students cultivate a base of religious literacy of the past, present, and future that they can build on, and a small window into how religion is operating in their local community.
As I have witnessed these changes produce learning gains for my students, I have come to realize that the attitude I had going into online education was short-sighted. In focusing so much on the status quo—which was likely a straw man—I didn’t appreciate that the status quo could be improved in ways that are consequential for my students’ learning. Furthermore, I have discovered that students in my online courses are just as invested in an excellent course experience, and perhaps even more so, than students in my traditional courses. When improvements are made, they notice, and it is reflected in course feedback. Seeing that online education continues to grow in popularity, I am now electing to dig in and invest generously in the quality of my online courses. More than just a handbag, I now see the success of my online courses as being intricately connected to my success as a teacher. Along with McGuire and others, I hope to see religious studies develop a tradition of online excellence that ensures that our discipline remains adaptable and relevant for years to come.
Originally Published in Religious Studies News on September 5, 2018.