Graduate Theological Union

Digital Reformation: How Technology Shapes the Dynamic Classroom

by Stuart J. Moore

The world is literally at our fingertips. Pull out your smart phone <tap tap tap> and you can Google huge libraries of information, see the world thanks to YouTube, and even converse via discussions boards, Facebook, Skype, and text. This ability to access information has revolutionized our culture, particularly how we view education.

Jody Passanisi, a.k.a. Jacqueline Pearce, (M.A. '05) with her colleague Shara Peters astutely observes in a post at Scientific American, “[E]ducated people were those who knew a great deal of information about one or many subjects...In this 'Age of Information,' access to facts and data is no longer available only to the educated elite...So, as a society, what is an 'educated person'?”

Articulating an answer to that query is difficult, but most educators agree that the Digital Revolution has changed the way that students learn and how we live everyday. So it's no surprise that more conversations and alterations are taking place to incorporate technology as a key component in the classroom. Kyle Schiefelbein, Ph.D. Candidate in Liturgical Studies at the GTU and Coordinator of Online Education and Lecturer in Liturgical and Theological Studies at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS), equates the adoption of online education to the Protestant Reformation's use of the printing press. “The key is to start with the learning objectives, the same process for developing a face-to-face course. Just think if the Reformers went to the printing press without any well-thought-out content to print. At the same time, technology can open up new ways of teaching that have never been possible before, possibly leading to new or modified outcomes.”

Simply replacing traditional approaches with digital ones in the curriculum doesn't work. This new terrain requires a different set of pedagogical tools. Passanisi explains, “It is now our job to help students to be able to access these facts, understand their context and value, and then do something with them: create, analyze, synthesize, compare, evaluate.”

Faculty across the consortium agree that using technology accommodates different styles of learning while still providing quality theological education. Judith Berling, Professor of Chinese and Comparative Religions and former Academic Dean at the GTU, notes “Student bodies have become increasing diverse in age, by gender (and a spectrum of identities), ethnicity, countries of origin, social class, differently-abled, etc. Along with the diversity has come a recognition that people learn differently, as explained by Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences theory, and that learning styles are culturally shaped. The traditional classroom pattern is no longer appropriate.”

Christopher Ocker, Professor of Church History at San Francisco Theological Seminary, echoes Berling and adds that technology has increased his self-consciousness as a teacher. “I'm more aware of the smaller elements in the learning process. Teaching digitally is very different from face-to-face interaction but it increases my awareness of how students experience in-person learning.” This fall his Christian History course will available online to students and, for the first time, auditors, in addition to the traditional format. Ocker has taught online and hybrid classes over the past 10 years.

In a presentation at Pacific School of Religion (PSR), Jay Emerson Johnson (Ph.D. '98), Lecturer in Theology and Culture at PSR and Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies for Religion and Ministry (CLGS) Senior Director, Academic Research and Resources, noted that while attending a New Media Consortium Conference in June 2012 that everyone, from small schools to Ivy League, seemed to be anxious and unsure about venturing into this new realm and felt behind the curve. That sentiment is reflected here as different member schools are embracing technology at different paces.

Many courses already utilize Moodle to supplement in-class participation. Moodle supports online documents, video, discussion threads, and group assignments, allowing for interaction beyond the classroom. Both PSR and Church Divinity School of the Pacific are doubling traditional and hybrid classes with a fully online version. Starr King School for the Ministry and PLTS offer multiple courses only online. In fact, for PLTS, the courses that make up the traditional first year of the M.Div. (11 total) are completely online, allowing students to begin the degree off-campus. Students who come to campus for the entire degree follow a different sequence so the online courses are spread throughout the three years.

Not only are our students engaging in these online environments, they are learning how to use them after graduation. In Berling's annual “Seminar on Course Design,” not only does Moodle play a central component, as every student has editing privileges, but students attend a special session in the Teaching Lab to learn about online teaching methods and resources. The final project in the course is to develop a syllabus and many students opt to develop one for online.

No matter how much or how little technology is involved in these digital classrooms, it doesn't change the fact that it cannot replace learning. Berling emphasizes, “Technology is a tool for collaborative learning and critical conversations, and not an end it itself.”

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