Teaching the World is a welcome volume on online theological education that seeks to ground educational practice with a theological foundation. The work is a critically needed guide that directs leaders and administers in developing online education programs. Readers will find practical insight on program development on three levels: framework, faculty, and classroom.
An introductory chapter entitled, “Past Patterns and Present Challenges in Online Theological Education,” describes the delivery of theological education from the early days of correspondence in the eighteenth century to the current practice of providing multimedia curricula fully online. After advocating the legitimacy of online theological education, the authors maintain that educational institutions have often not built their online programs on theological foundations. Instead, they have unwittingly overlooked this step in their rush to launch programs for primarily pragmatic reasons – increased enrollment and profitability.
The balance of the book is divided into three sections. Section I, “Better Foundations for Online Learning,” examines the role of the Pauline Epistles in theological education, ministry preparation, and spiritual formation from a distance. The authors argue that Paul\'s Epistolary practice provides biblical support for theological education from a distance and an example of how to deliver it. Subsequent pages integrate “social presence theory” with Paul\'s epistolary practice, resulting in a conceptual framework for online program development.
Section II, “Better Faculty for Online Learning,” provides theological guidance for faculty roles in online programs. Here the authors argue for faculty who: (1) emphasize the spiritual formation of students over the mere transfer of knowledge, (2) demonstrate the ability to leverage the medium of online education to accomplish the desired outcomes for students, and (3) model the theological and professional standards for ministry. In such an environment, online faculty members embody the values of the institution and effectively facilitate the desired outcomes of programs.
Section III, “Better Practices in the Classroom,” maintains that the students’ ministry contexts make effective online learning possible. Students in online programs are typically older and engaged in some form of ministry. Consequently, online programs should incorporate adult learning theory and facilitate learning in the student’s ministry context – the local church serving as an active partner in ministry preparation.
A concluding chapter, “To Teach, to Delight, and to Persuade,” argues that online programs are not a replacement for residential programs, but are a means for developing stronger partnerships for ministerial preparation. This book’s emphasis on using theology as a conceptual framework for online theological education is its conspicuous strength.
Teaching the World: Foundations for Online Theological Education presents a grand vision for online theological education that is particularly valuable for leaders of theological schools who seek to develop online programs that are effective in fulfilling the educational outcomes of their institutions.
As a twenty-plus year veteran professor in a face-to-face classroom environment, I know to expect adjustments due to technological advances. These adjustments typically include learning to use new technologies and including them in your established and comfortable pedagogical practices. These adjustments are additions to your teaching norm. Now, with entire programs being converted to online interface, the norm shifts continually. With shifting norms in mind, I chose to review this book and actually apply its approach while converting one of my own classes to online delivery.
The brevity of Jump-Start Your Online Classroom should not be underestimated. Based on practical application of the content and concepts, its organization contains helpful hints on various aspects of successfully constructing a learner-centered, virtual classroom experience. The organization of the book is its greatest strength. Its five-day approach is based on five challenges: (1) Making the transition to online teaching, (2) Building online spaces for learning, (3) Preparing students for online learning, (4) Managing and facilitating the online classroom, and (5) Assessing learner outcomes.
One to three chapters are devoted to each of the five tasks and guide in confronting, conquering, and mastering each challenge. Embedded in the chapters are the almost clairvoyant voices of novice online instructors as well as online learners. Additionally, each chapter includes highlighted “Points to Remember” and ends with a section “For Reflection.” This reflection portion, if done in depth, makes the five-consecutive-day plan less realistic. The reflections may include assignments such as developing a communication or time management plan, an assessment of technology tools, or a careful consideration of your own teaching philosophy or pedagogical approach.
The fourth challenge, on classroom management, was especially helpful, as it contemplates interpersonal interaction and community building with people that may never meet. The section on teaching presence was especially helpful and thought-provoking. The authors use the analogy of the working parts of a car. For example, teaching presence is described as the “transmission component that allows us to set the pace, sequence, and activities that support and encourage students to work with materials and build their understanding of the content,” and also as the “timing belt that helps us manage learners, the dialogue, and the conditions for learning” (78). I understood those analogous functions even though I could not pick out either of those parts on an actual car! Challenge four also looks at dealing with group work and disgruntled students. The perspective of the novice online instructor underscored the importance of modeling the behavior that is required of the students.
Although this book is marketed toward the novice online instructor, its approach, organization, and content make it a foundational tool that could have long-term value in troubleshooting and future course design.
As post-secondary institutions, theological schools continue to participate in various forms of online learning, and the criticism (or question), “It’s not really the same as being in a classroom with a real instructor” is commonly heard. The simple reply to this concern is the concept of social presence. Starting with the initial definition of social presence from Short, Williams, and Christies (1976), this compilation of articles attempts to summarize the historical perspectives and present the current state of discussion, recognizing the constant updating of online course options.
The authors successfully present the historical perspectives, grouping them in three broad categories – as technologically facilitated, as learners’ perceptions, and as critical literacy. However, the chronological and developmental approach leaves the reader realizing the earlier chapters have minimal application to current teachers and learners since the understanding of social presence and the technology used have changed so dramatically. The initial discussions about social presence whether through computer-mediated communication or later within the community of inquiry framework were informative, but the reader quickly realizes that the later frameworks and models have improved. Thus the earlier discussions in the book are of little value for today’s teaching-learning environment. In essence, only the last section is relevant, except as historical background.
The editors demonstrate their breadth of knowledge of the literature and are involved with and connected to the latest research in social presence. A useful chapter (11), “Cultural Perspectives in Social Presence,” provides valuable guidelines for communicating effectively in a multi-cultural learning context. Multiple examples explain how one subset of students find an online learning activity contributes positively to social presence while those of another culture find it impacts social presence negatively. Variations in anonymity, informal chat, self-disclosure, trust building, and conflict resolution are considered. The chapter concludes with useful tips for monitoring and mediating communication which could be misunderstood because of cultural differences.
Likewise, various practices for building social presence into discussions, feedback, and interactions are shared throughout the book. The literature reviewed includes a range of educational levels from K-12 and post-secondary as well as a range of disciplines. The final section provides interesting chapters (17 and 18) about the future of online learning and incorporates social presence into various models of instruction. They suggest social media tools enable instructors to incorporate cohesive and affective elements into courses to enhance social presence. The authors conclude, “Never stop learning because life never stops teaching” (210).
The information shared is relevant for any faculty member teaching online, including theological and religious studies professors. While the final chapters contain valuable tips as noted above, I cannot recommend the book as a whole since it is predominantly a historical overview of the concept of social presence. Though it contains various up-to-date strategies in the closing chapters, it was tedious for the reader to sift through the detailed literature for meaningful insights.
Anyone who has developed an online course knows how important the design of the course is. Poorly designed courses make the course navigation difficult, causing unnecessary frustration and limiting the ability of students to achieve learning outcomes. The author of this book understands these difficulties. Drawing upon her own negative experiences with initial online offerings, she provides readers with important lessons on designing effective online experiences for both teachers and students.
Davis suggests, rightly, that the reader should use the text like a workbook, drawing from the ideas presented in the text as the reader creates her/his own course in the platform the reader uses. She encourages readers to draw upon the backward course design model: begin with learning objectives, discern appropriate ways to assess those objectives, and then generate online learning activities that will enable success in the course. Such alignment will promote student success.
The author provides an acronym, L.I.T.E., for the design framework she encourages. Readers should be sure to create clickable links to external content (L), integrate well the multimedia included (I), use typography and white space to enhance the legibility of the course (T), and embed the content at the point of need (E). She identifies four types of content pages that should be part of the design: landing page, navigation page, instructional page, and assignment submission page. Of course, most learning platforms will provide these. The key, she contends, is to create them in a way that achieves the course objectives and is user-friendly for the student.
The remainder of the chapters illustrate how readers can develop the various components of a good online course, including images and videos, integrating multimedia, facilitating instruction and interaction, and the all-important assessment. Davis provides helpful hints regarding the tools included in software such as PowerPoint, like using it to download and edit images or to incorporate online media. She also points to a number of free online tools one can use to develop a course, such as the presentation tool Brainshark, and the interaction tool VoiceThread. At the same time, she cautions users not to incorporate too many technologies into the course. The focus should be on learning the content of the course, not on overwhelming students with too many technologies.
As with any text, there are some limitations. Parts of the book require knowledge of html language. Many faculty do not know html language because they use software to develop their courses that does this automatically. In addition, for a book that emphasizes visual design, many of the illustrations are difficult to read, leaving the reader to wonder how well the text follows its own advice on legibility. Yet over all, the text is a useful step-by-step guide for developing an online course or for improving the visual design of existing courses.
A key issue in distance education is how to establish a vital two-way, personal communication between learner and instructor. Borje Holmberg, among other theorists, argues that the primary role of an instructor is to empathize with the learner; imparting information is a secondary matter. What, then, are the most effective ways to form a dyadic alliance between a learner and instructor? This is the major question that D’Agustino’s Creating Teacher Intimacy in Online Learning Environments seeks to answer.
This is a reference work, so it can be read profitably article by article or completely. The volume begins with a helpful detailed table of contents that provides a brief synopsis of each chapter. There is also a useful foreword by Karen P. Kaun which underscores the importance of the human component in teaching and learning regardless of the instructional format. The preface speaks to the impact of the “interactive turn,” the “undesigned remainder,” and the “modelling function” in asynchronous learning. In addition, there is a brief description of each chapter that complements the summaries in the table of contents. Every chapter also starts with an abstract and an introduction.
Pedagogy, not technology, is the focus of each chapter. Therefore, this reference is valuable for course designers, media specialists, instructors, and researchers across a range of academic disciplines. That said, there are a few chapters that all will want to read and ponder.
Oliver Dreon’s “Building Teaching Presence in Online Classes,” for example, provides an overview of the main issues along with strategies that support learning and interaction. A list of design principles is included, suggestions for future research are indicated, and there is a concise paragraph of conclusions plus an extensive list of references. A central contention made by Dreon is that practices that contribute to high quality, traditional undergraduate instruction also apply to establishing meaningful instructor presence in online classes.
Many readers will also want to look closely at Caroline M. Crawford’s “Instructor Immediacy and Authenticity: Engaging in Cognitive Vulnerability within the Instructional Environment.” Often, learner success in an online course – synchronous or asynchronous – will largely depend on the instructor’s efforts to generate worthwhile interactive opportunities. These activities require that the instructor have a clear philosophical belief system united with an understanding of the learner’s cognitive vulnerability in an online environment. Crawford explores these core issues while calling for the development of a “talent propelled” instructional environment.
Neal Shambaugh’s “Interactivity and Immediacy in Online Academic Programs” addresses quality issues in higher education distance classes. This is an important theme because, as D’Agustino notes in the preface, “online learning still has a perceived lack of legitimacy” (xxiv). Shambaugh advocates interactivity as a method to counter this concern. He offers a list of best practices for creating and sustaining online immediacy. Then he sketches a series of recommendations for undergraduate, master’s, doctoral, and specialized programs, such as teacher education, certificates, and professional development.
There is an extensive compilation of references and notes about the contributors that conclude this collection. The references alone are an excellent guide for further research and course syllabi.