Originally published on June 9, 2011 on nashru.wordpress.com for EDTECH 501 – Introduction to Educational Technology.
June 9, 2011 – Hello to any who take the time to read this. I’m Russ. I’m a new graduate student in Boise State University’s Educational Technology program. I currently work as a released-time seminary instructor for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is my learning log. This post contains religious content.
Why I am Here
I am pursuing a graduate education in Educational Technology because I believe that online course delivery may be the only way—or perhaps it will merely be the most feasible way—to reach some of our potential seminary and institute students. In making this statement, I acknowledge an assumption on my part that I am speaking of a small, target demographic among those we would refer to as our potential students. I further acknowledge my assumption that this target demographic for online courses is primarily defined by students who are isolated, physically or otherwise, from other Church members in their communities and areas. I have yet to test (or learn how to test) the validity of these assumptions.
It seems cold to me to refer to these students as a target demographic. As a seminary teacher I’m more comfortable referring to these potential students as members numbered with the flock in the Church. Knowing as I do that some have also wandered like the lost lamb, I pose my first question today: Can online, formal religious education help families and Priesthood leadership in our church search for these lost sheep? I’m not sure that anyone in the field of educational technology can help me answer this question. It can only be answered internally in my organization.
Face to Face
Formal religious education in our church exists to (1) help youth and young adults come to Jesus Christ, (2) to assist them in preparing to make covenants with Him, and (3) to help them ultimately realize the promises He extends through those covenants. Teachers are responsible to lead students to seek spiritual experiences with the Spirit of God, or the Holy Ghost. The introduction of this third-party (the Holy Ghost) into the spiritual learning process places a unique teaching dynamic on our classes.
Each religious educator in our church has certain tools that he or she can use to invite spiritual experiences to take place in the classroom. Chief among these tools are the scripture canon, the teachings of living prophets and Apostles, and a personal testimony. Students are also responsible for inviting spiritual edification. As persons endowed with agency, or the ability and responsibility to act for oneself, students in seminary and institute classes carry the same obligation to take charge of their religious education as they do their formal education in a more traditional school, pursuing each in its own prescribed way.
With that information as context, let me add that another tool traditionally regarded as very important to the outcome of teacher and student efforts in our classrooms is face to face interaction. I will explain more of this rationale in the section below titled, “A Question of Measurement”.
My limited experience thus far with online education has left me with a third assumption that I need to address in this post (this is where my fellow students in EdTech who have experience with online classes can help me): Does online course instruction generally lack, or has it historically lacked, this face to face interaction? What challenges has this posed to teachers in other disciplines?
Personally, I think this is one of the main reasons our organization doesn’t have a greater offering of online seminary options. I have started to hear about some online institute courses now being offered, but not seminary courses. For those unfamiliar with the distinction we make between seminary and institute, seminary classes are offered to teens typically aged 14-18 years and institute classes are typically offered to young adults aged 18-30 years.
A Question of Measurement
The power of religious conviction, or testimony, can be transmitted through written words. We count on this happening when our students study the scriptures. However, it has been an ongoing struggle for me, as a seminary instructor, to assess how effectively testimony shared with students is being received. When I have contemplated forms of assessment designed to measure progress in this regard, I have consistently come to only one conclusion: it is not easy to formally test for the presence of a testimony, and it is even harder to measure one.
Most religious educators in seminary or institute settings test only for outwardly measurable performance, like scripture study habits, scripture memorization, and information retention through quizzes and tests. This is so because it is so difficult to reliably test for belief and conviction. Traditional classroom settings in our organization, however, sometimes give teachers enough personal interaction with students that they can generally sense where individual students stand spiritually (in terms of conviction and testimony). As mentioned above, losing this face to face contact could be a problem in the development of online seminary courses. I think it could be a very large problem.
Now, having added that last line of reasoning to the reasoning in my post, I turn my attention to a few additional questions related to assessment. First, when it comes to assessment, how have educators in other disciplines found ways to compensate for diminished face to face communication in virtual classrooms? Second, can other educators’ forms of assessment shed light on a situation like ours where qualitative assessment discerned along the road of mutual experience is the best show in town? Third, could we apply adaptations to traditional assessment from other teaching settings to our situation to help us compensate for a lack of face to face contact in a virtual seminary classroom? Perhaps this last question, again, can only be answered internally in our organization.
Let me try to explain further the meaning of my second question above. Remember that I said our primary purpose as religious educators in our church is to bring our students to Christ. Coming to Christ means individuals are becoming Christ-like. It is a process driven by personal implementation of religious and moral principle and completed by divine facilitation. Try putting a letter grade on that and not being driven from town!
Without personal, face to face interaction, how can I assure that my primary purpose a religious educator is being fulfilled? Even now, in a traditional classroom, I can’t put a grade on this process (nor do I dare try), but I can usually sense if it is happening or not and know if I’m achieving my primary purpose.
Some of my questions or assumptions given above can only be addressed by persons and standards within my organization, but their input may only serve to facilitate improvement. As I begin now to explore the standards, methods, and advances which have been made in the field of educational technology I hope to move beyond facilitation to innovation. I suppose I could just settle for assessing the measurable indicators of discipleship like most of us do in religious education, but I’m not willing quite yet to settle for that outcome.
Author update: Feb. 1, 2014 – I am no longer employed by Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, but have retained this learning artifact from this time period because it reflects my thought processes and struggles at that time. It demonstrates reflection on learning environments and learner characteristics and gives evidence of disposition to be a reflective practitioner. I have made minor edits to improve the flow of the article and reduce cognitive load for readers.