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Increasing Online Student Engagement with the Spiritual Disciplines Project

Alice Wood (Bethune-Cookman University, USA)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 9:15am
HBCU Innovations (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Asia 2
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 5

Students in online world religion courses participate in spiritual disciplines found in almost all of the world's religions thereby improving student engagement, interaction, and learning.

Extended Abstract

HBCU students in my online world religion course actively participate in six traditional spiritual disciplines found in almost all of the world's religions. The first three disciplines, practiced for three consecutive weeks, are the "inward" disciplines of prayer, fasting, and silence. The second three disciplines, practiced for another three consecutive weeks, are the "outward" disciplines of chastity, simplicity, and charity. The Spiritual Disciplines project takes place outside of "class" but it is anchored to the course through several discussion threads on the topic and reflection papers submitted after each part of the project. Students support one another through the discussion board, praising successes and encouraging those who are tempted to give up. Posts about the project are more numerous than discussion posts on other topics. At the end of each of the three week periods, students are asked to write reflection papers about their experiences and connect their practice to spiritual disciplines around the world. As I grade these papers I select at least one quote from every paper and put these together without names in a document that I post for everyone to read. It is from these collections of quotes that I have taken examples for my presentation. The popularity of the project speaks to students' desire for connection between learning and lived experience.
This project has been developed over 12 semesters in response to two problems I encountered concerning student engagement: 1) most of my African American students are from very religious and very conservative Protestant Christian backgrounds. There are very few foreign students and little diversity. Most of my students have not encountered forms of religion, even forms of Christianity, other than their own and they are very hesitant to study world religions for fear that it will threaten their faith or subject them to evil influences. 2) Many of my students (mostly sophomores) are taking an online class for the first time and are shy about posting to the discussion board. The things that they find easiest to write about are their own experiences and perceptions of the world. The Spiritual Disciplines Project has helped mitigate both the suspicion of "other" religions as well as the awkwardness of sharing their ideas with their unseen classmates. In addition, I have learned a great deal about my online students much more quickly than in my face-to-face classes because their personal accounts of both successes and failures with the disciplines provide remarkable insights into their collective values and personal struggles.
Using student quotes taken from discussion boards and reflection papers, the presentation will demonstrate the use of the Spiritual Disciplines Project as a tool for engaging students in an online world religions course, increasing self-reflection among student participants, and discovering cross-cultural connections through spiritual practices. Data collected over several years will be presented to demonstrate improved class interactivity on discussion boards. The session should appeal to those teaching undergraduates in online survey courses in the humanities. Session participants will become familiar with an active learning project that today's online students find relevant and engaging, will obtain teaching resources (bibliography, teaching materials, handouts) for implementing similar projects in their own courses, and will learn how students' responses to the challenges of the disciplines reveal important considerations for advising and teaching at an HBCU.

Lead Presenter

Ph.D. from Rice University, Houston, Texas in Religious Studies. I have been at Bethune-Cookman University for over fifteen years and have been teaching online for 8 years. I teach a variety of courses for the department but my online work has mainly been with a world religions course.