Electronic Chalk Dust:
Online Collaboration in the American Religion Classroom
--Briane Turley From May 1998 Religious Studies News
I spent a significant amount of time during my childhood designing and building electronic gadgets. I vividly recall the excitement I felt when I picked out the strains of Herman's Hermits on my first "fox-hole" radio that I built from an old piece of plywood, motor wire, a razor blade, and a piece of pencil lead. During my teenage years, my interests expanded to include the transmission of data on "homebrew" amateur radios that I built in the attic of our family's home. My avocational childhood fascination with electronic modes of data transmission now dovetails with my professional interests in helping students explore the academic world of religion. The medium of my interest has changed: transmitters and receivers have been replaced by CPU's, and the Morse code key has given way to a computer keyboard. I have pulled down the outdoor antennas and have installed an internal
As an instructor in the religious studies program at West Virginia University, I wanted to convey my interests in the revolutionary technologies to the classroom and determine the potential benefits for my students. This experimental merging of information technology and the academic study of religion has proven worthwhile, not only for the students, but for their instructor. What began as a set of tools designed to enhance my students' ability to gather and transmit information has developed into
a means of collaboration that has been extremely helpful to me as well.
As a demonstration project in the College of Arts and Sciences, I developed my American Religious History course into a forum with a highly significant internet component. During the spring 1997 semester, I initiated a World Wide Web resource guide for my students titled "American Religion Links" (http://are.as.wvu.edu/link.htm). The project serves as a clearinghouse for over 100 hypertext links related to some aspect of American religions and American religious history. Many sites represent truly outstanding scholarly resources that other scholars and organizations have published on the internet. Other link sites offer useful information and interesting images.
I select those readings that relate to course themes during the semester and link them to the calendar section of the American Religious History online syllabus. This linkage gives my students immediate and simultaneous access to various documents from any library or dormitory room. The system works something like an online selected readings reference shelf, but it eliminates the common problem of waiting in lines when too many students try to access one or two books or photocopy folders at library reading rooms. The number of worthwhile primary readings currently on the web is
limited, but the list is rapidly growing, and every semester the options expand dramatically. Currently my American Religious History syllabus displays 15 reading links.
"Classical education is alive and well. Only the medium of communication is changing: chalk dust
is giving way to electrons. The internet furnishes an unprecedented means for collaboration, not only among religion scholars but between instructors and the students they serve."
My students' response to the Links site was favorable enough to encourage the creation of a closely related site called "American Religious Experience" http://are.as.wvu.edu). A collaborative effort involving the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Louisiana State University, and West Virginia University, the Experience project offers students of American religion and culture a publication forum for their academic projects. Students at these schools develop term papers that
are converted into HTML and published at the Experience site. Those students who are interested in publishing their material in article form may submit their manuscripts to an informal jury process that the Experience directors arrange. Once the student makes the appropriate revisions, the paper becomes a permanent part of the Experience project under a topical area located at the main page. Most student papers never make it this far, but it is noteworthy that, with proper supervision and an ongoing liberal revision policy, those manuscripts and images that do survive will provide a useful
contribution to the growing body of information on the internet. Those students who successfully navigate the process receive a sense of satisfaction that they are players in the education process and not just passive recipients.
Electronic mail and related modes of communication such as our class list service offer students an opportunity to collaborate more closely with the instructor and other students than was previously possible. While I still maintain office hours and encourage my students to visit me during those times, I am discovering that many of my students prefer communicating with me via the internet. Our class list service provides an especially useful extension to our weekly class schedule. Students use the
service to post questions about the readings and other materials that we discussed during previous class sessions. I encourage students to post academic questions on the list service since other students may benefit from reading both the question and the response I send back. Moreover, the list service gives me a useful way of ommunicating with the entire class between meeting times. I send bibliographic references, study guides, schedule changes, and even brief study questions that
will help prepare the students for our forthcoming class meeting. In many respects, the list service and electronic mail help foster a better sense of community between the instructor and the students. The online syllabus facilitates the student's access to these services by providing direct connections to my internet address and easy subscription access to the class list service.
My students are not the only beneficiaries of the Experience site. I have discovered a wealth of information as more of my colleagues at other schools have joined the project. For example, Thomas Tweed at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has developed an excellent online course syllabus complete with lecture outlines that has helped me reorganize some of my own classroom material. Moreover, with Tweed's permission, I have linked some sections of his online syllabus with mine. In several important ways, instructors at UNC, LSU, and Arizona State University are team
teaching and interacting with my students.
Recently, a group of American religion scholars collaborated in a unique interactive project at the Experience site. The "Ask Hester Prynne" page was established to help undergraduate American religion and culture students develop a richer understanding of their topic. Any undergraduate currently taking a course in American religion or a related field, is invited to visit the site and ask Hester a question. Hester's approach to students can best be described as Socratic. That is to say, she seldom offers patent explanations. Her responses are intended to help the student with his or her ability to reason critically. Consequently, the answer may appear as another question, a riddle, or a set of clues. Actually, Hester Prynne is an anonymous American religion specialist. As this medium develops, it should become a useful means for undergraduates to interact with religious studies scholars at other institutions and, at the same time,
have a little fun.
With the increasing sophistication of video and audio compression and the ready access at most universities to high-speed computer connections, we are rapidly approaching a time when it will become commonplace to turn on a digital camera, microphone, and computer at one university classroom and transmit an instructor's lecture— voice and moving image—across the internet to another classroom at another university.
Moreover, the guest instructor will see his audience and interact with the distant class. The new technology allows instructors greater flexibility to invite colleagues from other colleges and universities into their classroom. My students will participate in West Virginia University's first live two-way computer lecture in April when Benjamin C. Ray at the University of Virginia makes a presentation to my class in Morgantown on American civil religion. Current video transmission speeds across the internet make for choppy images even under the best conditions. Consequently, the universities are arranging for two-way transmissions over an ISDN phone line. The line will allow for significantly faster scanning speeds and a smoother-running video image at both ends of the network. The cost for setting up a two-way distance class for one hour is approximately $200. These costs are likely to drop significantly in the next few years.
Classical education is alive and well. Only the medium of communication is changing: chalk dust is giving way to electrons. The internet furnishes an unprecedented means for collaboration, not only among religion scholars but between instructors and the students they serve. The new information technologies are more than electronic gadgets; they are powerful tools that can strengthen ties among all members of the academic community. Their potential remains largely untapped in the humanities,
but as more scholars venture out onto the information superhighway, we will witness a gradual shift in the way we convey ideas with each other and with our students.