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Wabash Center fosters teaching excellence

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Teaching religion and theology to today’s university and seminary students becomes more complicated in the Internet age. The Wabash Center in Indiana stands ready to assist faculty with a variety of resources.

Nowadays, a professor in a religious studies department or a seminary needs to keep one foot in ancient Scripture and the other in cyberspace.

Helping educators keep their balance is one of the goals of the Wabash Center  in Crawfordsville, Ind.

The center fosters excellence in the teaching of religion and theology – whether that teaching takes place in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, on the Web or some combination of the two. Associate Director Thomas Pearson describes the mission as crucial.

“Religion is being recognized more and more as being a key to understanding differences between cultures and between people,” Pearson says. “To understand the world that we live in, we’re realizing that we need to understand the role that religion plays in people’s lives and in social groups.”

Likewise, recognizing the role that technology plays in students’ lives can result in a better understanding of how they learn — one of the keys to becoming an effective teacher, says Pearson.

Dr. Mary E. Hess, associate professor of educational leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., has been fascinated for nearly two decades with the Internet’s place in society and education. It’s part of her interest in the ways media culture shapes how we understand religious community and identity.

Hess has written and taught extensively on enhancing teaching with technology and was tapped to assist with an October 2009 Wabash conference on the pedagogy of online theological education. Participants – alumni from the center’s online course for faculty who are teaching online – examined the challenges and opportunities this teaching method presents.

Such conferences are just one way Wabash reaches out to educators. The center also funds pedagogical research and projects, publishes a journal and provides other help for religion and theology faculty at colleges, universities and seminaries.

The center’s website includes extensive links to other resources, as well. Professors can find a wealth of information on its Teaching and Learning Resources page, and students as well as teachers make frequent use of the site’s Internet Guide to Religion.  

Adapting to technology and its influences isn’t always easy for faculty, Hess concedes. Professors who aren’t fluent in how media culture operates may find it challenging to relate to students who are. She encourages those teachers to “think of this in terms of a cross-cultural engagement.”

“That becomes a way that faculty can begin to think, ‘OK, it’s not just a scary, disembodying, awful, commercial, commodified thing that is coming into seminaries,’ which is where some of them like to start,” she says. Instead, it becomes “how do we meet our students?”

One outcome of online teaching already discovered is how it can change the dynamics of class discussions, Pearson says. In chat rooms, “a lot of the quiet students in class who never speak up because they are intimidated by the over-speakers are much more likely to join in,” he says. “So there are some ways in which you have better discussions online because you don’t have the same people dominating all the time.”

Drawbacks have become apparent, as well. “Plagiarism has become a huge issue. People just cut and paste off the Internet all the time,” Pearson says.

One question still being explored is what implicit habits and skills are being taught in online learning.

“Are we teaching people the instant availability of information on the Web?” Pearson asks. “I think there’s some concern about what this instant gratification culture that the Internet encourages is doing for theological reflection and community.”

There’s no turning back from technology, though. “These tools have penetrated too far into our culture to not use them,” says Hess.

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