Technology in Theological Education Webinar - February 15-28, 2010

The second Technology in Theological Education Webinar, on the topic
Virtual Incarnations: Community Interaction in Cyberspace, is planned for February 15-28, 2010, with online discussions talking place on this ning site. A flyer for the event is below. Register online for the event here:

Questions, email John Kahler,

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Robert, take a look at

Concerning chat formats, I think you've identified a key to understanding them when you write that they favor students who can type rapidly. The thing I've noticed is that students want to type complete thoughts before they click submit to post the sentence. By then, the conversation may have moved on. I tell my students to click submit at the end of each clause or phrase and not to worry about leaving the thought partially unfinished for the time it takes them to submit the next clause. The reason for this is because social presence in an online chat is established by having one's text appear onscreen. If people know you're in midthought, they'll wait for the rest of it while they're continuing to type. It's like sign language in that regard, which is the only language where two people can talk at once and be mutually intelligible to one another.

This observation, though, speaks against the idea that chat formats are strictly linear. In any given chat, you end up with, because of variable typing speeds, three or four threads of conversation running simultaneously depending upon the number of participants. Even a facilitated chat finds itself falling into this pattern. To test this, copy the text of your next chat (presuming more than 8 students) and run a discursive analysis on it, highlighting in different colored pens threads of conversation. You'll see that you use at least three pens in any given half hour. Those who succeed well in online chats are able to separate conversation that is outside their topic with conversation inside of it. They get their practice in other chat fora online - take a brief tour of any evening, and you'll find the phenomenon at work. For this reason, students involved in one line of discussion may miss entirely points being made in another line of discussion even if everyone's looking at the same screen. Of course, this is dependent upon the number of participants. Chats of only four or five run fewer independent threads, and chats of three largely stay on one thread though two may break off on a tangent from time to time.

I prefer to do my chats in visual space - the link I cited above provided my cyberethics class with opportunities to "see" the presence of others while those others remained silent - similar to what we experience in a lecture discussion when 5 people talk in an hour but 20 haven't said a word.

Robert, I can definitely see your concern in the need to train Christian Ministers who can be effective in person-to-person contexts. Depending on the subject matter you're teaching, that can have small or large implications on the design of the course.

A word about online tools for videoconferencing. While this may sound like a rather negativist assessment, let me say that you will not find any video conferencing tools that restore the classroom "give and take" of a lecture. That said, different tools can provide a variety of results in the context of restoring some degree of "live" interaction between students and teachers.

There are two primary criteria to consider when looking for video conferencing solutions for teaching. The first is very practical - from where will you be lecturing/speaking, and from where will your students be viewing/interacting? If the answer is "I'll be sending my video feed from the school," we can perhaps assume a quality bandwidth connection, a quality camera, a quality microphone, and media services support with lighting, backdrops, etc. If you're presenting from home, your equipment and internet connection could be problematic. What about your student technologies? Does your school equip students with a laptop on admission? If not, you are dealing with potentially dozens of different hardware setups, and troublesome, non-standard home bandwidth speeds. In our experience, with a class of only 8 students and one auditor, there was simply no way to ensure a reliable connection from student-instructor, student-student, and instructor-student. It was very frustrating for all parties, and we ended up asking students to participate by telephone in order to restore some measure of interaction to the synchronous meetings. This is after all of the students technologies were vetted and approved by our IT department!

The second concern is related to the hardware issues, and in fact drives the choice of hardware/software solutions. Simply stated, What does classroom interaction look like for you when you lecture? What is the ratio of Student Talking Time to Teacher Talking Time? Do you ask questions of the students while delivering content, or as a way of "waking them up?" When one student has problems answering your questions, do you call upon other students to help them formulate an answer? Do you prefer to wait until after a module of content has been delivered, and then solicit student questions, or do you invite them at any point of the lecture?

I believe that the only reliable synchronous, live video solution that preserves some measure of student interaction is a "U-Stream" type service. Livestreaming a class with a chat bar on the side allows for students to post text questions as you speak. A TA can compile those questions for you for agreed-upon breaks in the lecture material, or if you feel up to it, you can monitor the chat feed while you're speaking. There are many solutions like this - UStream, BitGravity, Go-To-Webinar/Meeting. The choice should be made after you've answered the questions about teaching methodology first.

Again, I hope I'm not being gloomy here. I am fully confident that one day, ubiquitous bandwidth and affordable computing devices will grant us the ability to do bi-directional video conferencing with our students, "face to face." Be very careful before counting on today's solutions for that kind of interaction.

Hope that helps?
One way to restore that synchonous give and take, I've found, is to host online office hours and invite students to round table discussions on a given topic. The way it works is the first 15 minutes of office hours are open to general questions and orientation to the chat environment, etc., and the next 45 minutes is a facilitated discussion. For it to work in an online environment where flexibility in scheduling may be the key reason students enroll in the course (it may be distance in some instances, but distance learning often deals with flexibility issues - 95% of the distance learning students at the University of Virginia in Roanoke, for instance, lived within 5 miles of campus in 2000, and the courses I teach online through Webster University in St. Louis are still half-populated with people who live in St. Louis), office hours should be offered a couple of times each week depending on student schedules. I usually ask my students to name their convenient times and dates within a range I prescribe - Thursday evenings or Saturday mornings have been most popular - times when I'd normally be online doing other work anyway and can have the chat room open in case anyone chimes in with a question or for a conversation. I then post the text from the chat in either my coffeehouse forum or within the weekly discussion forum so that those who were unable to come to the office hours can participate in the discussion asynchronously.

As far as showing some DVDs online, more movie services are showing up these days that facilitate that kind of work. My cyberethics students, for instance, used to have to rent their movie week videos from Blockbuster, but now they can get many of them from Those with Netflix subscriptions can download other movies.

I like your use of Wikis and blogs. I did a presentation on them in the spring of 2008 at the formational meeting of the Technology in Theological Education Group. It can be viewed online at along the with others in the root directory at

On our campus we use most of the features of the course management system: video lecture, discussion forums, journals, links to other resources, quizzes, blogs, email, PowerPoint and the synchronous tool for a live classroom (one or two sessions per semester). Beyond the CMS, we also use streaming media with a polling feature for some courses. I think one concern is integrating newer products and tools in the form of mashups when we don't have a lot of technical support for faculty.
Actually, I have done the vast amount of my teaching online and most of my fears have to do with face-to-face teaching! I did teach one face-to-face class, but it's not one that I have had to move online; most of my online courses were built that way from the get-go. I have better luck stimulating discussion online, actually. As an introvert I tend to be afraid that face-to-face discussion will get away from me and so I tend to lecture in person.

I actually use fairly similar techniques in both: discussion, debate (for the online debate I assigned my students groups and had them prepare their side of the debate, then post the result in a forum where the other side could access it), video (lots of YouTube) and visual images, and some lecture (my online "lecture" consists of several pages of information I particularly want them to note in that module plus more visual images, maps, and links to additional resources).

Jennifer, I can see what you are saying. The online teacher definately has a different set of gifts. We have some very talented profs here at CTS, who are great lecturers/entertainers, but when they have to do an online course it is very difficult for them. There are two factors that really throw them, I think: 1)the time necessary to moderate online discussion boards, and 2)the organization required for the development of the online course. So, I'd say, we all have our strengths--and weaknesses--when it comes to the different appraoches to teaching/learning. Doug
My teaching style depends on a lot of class discussion of inductive questions based on an introductory lecture, reading, or video clip, etc. I find the spontaneous nature of interaction with an enthusiastic group of students invigorating. I would admit that I do find myself "lecturing" at times, but I also pay attention to non-verbal and verbal clues and adjust my lecture accordingly. That is the hardest part of online learning for me.
Douglas, you have named the aspect of approaching on-line teaching that most frightens me--that is, my teaching style is very interactive and even intuitive. Moreover, I tend to "layer" my courses--so that each class introduces some aspect of the next class session, as well as picking up and reinforcing aspects of the last class session. I will admit to being quite nervous about how my approach to teaching will translate from the classroom to a more structured, less feedback dependent kind of teaching.
Carolyn, That is a challenge. Most of our faculty who are involved for the first time in designing their online courses comment on the need to be "more organized." I'm not sure it's just organization, though. It's no doubt also a matter of teaching style. On the other hand, if I have thought of some good, inductive reflection questions, I've been amazed at the level of interaction among the students on the forums. In fact, often, those students who normally don't speak up in class--I find out--actually have a lot of good things to say. So I would suggest that you make good use of the discussion forums. That is also a big challenge because of the time involved, though. Doug
I have actually found that the students get much more involved than in a usual class--partly because they're required to. I use a method, which I learned in an online ATS webinar (!), that involves a group leader posting a response to a question I've given based on their reading and my own ruminations by, say, Monday. The others in the group have to reply by the end of Tuesday. The group leader has to reply to each of them by the end of Thursday. In addition, each person has to reply at least once in the other groups (usually one or two). The various groups allow for different issues for the week to be posed. The idea is that more discussion than the minimum is generated, which is usually the case (though not for each student).
Another key to good online discussions is creating well thought out prompts that allow space for different answers and reactions. Specific and explicit time points and expectations like you've noted are essential. The use of students as leaders helps them develop skills, reduces the burden on the instructor, and introduces a certain of collegial pressure to the process.
In the class I teach on the book of Jeremiah, every meeting is structured as a group discussion of that week’s topic. Content “input” comes from reading and textual analysis students do between weekly class meetings. The purpose of the class discussion is either to develop a critical and integrated understanding of a topic and its relevance for our work in interpreting passages in the book, or to engage each other as an interpreting community around the historical and then contemporary meanings of a specific passage and multiple interpretations of it. My function is to stimulate and facilitate these conversations.

I hope that this kind of class might work well in the online environment since the nature of the learning community and my role appears similar to what is often suggested for the online environment. So I can’t say I have any fears, but I do have a worry or two. Most of my experience of online tools for discussion is of asynchronous discussion boards. I prize the way these allow conversations to fit into students’ lives and to be engaged with more deliberation than in face-to-face or chat. I worry about the loss of the “energy” that the immediacy of response found in face-to-face settings and in chat can bring. I worry that this – together with an attenuation of social accountability to stay with the conversation - makes online conversations harder to sustain. When the discussion sessions are the center of the course, the risk feels acute - the more so because two thirds of our students are part-time students with full lives.


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