Monday, January 25, 2016

BookPastor >> "Character Formation in Online Education" (Joanne Jung)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on October 31st, 2015.


TITLE: Character Formation in Online Education: A Guide for Instructors, Administrators, and Accrediting Agencies
AUTHOR: Joanne J. Jung
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2015, (144 pages).

Is it really possible to have Christian Formation happening in online education? If it is, how do we go about doing that? With firm conviction, author Joanne Jung believes it is entirely possible and doable. Jung teaches at Biola University as an Associate Professor in the Biblical and Theological Studies department. With a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary, she is particularly interested into spiritual formation and Puritan piety. Through this book, she extends this interest into the online arena. Other than the usual "face to face is better" argument, Jung puts forth other compelling arguments for an online involvement.
  • It allows students who needed time to process to come back to the teacher with questions. Students need not be restricted during the limited class time.
  • It increases participation level above the typical 15%
  • It gives teachers an additional resource for teaching, to use online resources to teach and to maximize face to face opportunities for teacher-student interactions
  • It enables students to get to know their teachers beyond the classroom setting.

Indeed, with these arguments, it is hard not to agree with Jung. It oozes experience (and frustration) with existing structures that are not mobilizing the online technology available right now. The three parts of the book are as follows. The first part is about preparing and planning. It is about asking: "What are the students to learn?" For "character formation" to be possible, the teacher need to find ways to inspire students. This means time investment. It means professors need to know their stuff that they can inspire with humility, skill, wisdom, and with empathy. It means knowing the basics of developing an online course. It is not mere technical skills but the art of education. Five basic qualifications are needed:
  1. Effective and winsome communication skills that show one cares
  2. Know and communicate content well
  3. Understand the factors behind good online learning
  4. Articulate well the expectations and objectives
  5. Build relationships
Calling it the Learner Management System (LMS), Jung calls this system as the "internal framework" on which course materials can be added on. She supplies nine basic components of a web-based or online course. Due to the size of such an endeavour, Jung recommends a "tag team" approach to develop the system. The work is too much for any one person. If the professor can work with a "Course designer," the technical aspects can be delegated while the professor does what he/she does best. For that, Jung supplies lots of advice on the requirements of such a course designer. This will help those of us who are new to the online environment. With the instructor, the course designer, and the LMS, all of these three can work toward helping students be formed in Christ through the course.

The second part is the actual nuts and bolts of the whole framework. It covers the elements of online character formation. It is about asking: "How will they learn it?" We need to ask how the LMS can engage the whole student, to understand their heart. Asking the right questions is crucial. Giving space for meditation is also necessary. Being community aware is paramount. How do we move beyond mere content creation to inspiring creativity? We learn about collaborative tools that enable students to talk openly about themselves, about the topics, and about learning. Making it "conversation friendly" is key to character formation. In an increasingly complex environment, learning to blend in relevant parts of culture and resources is also key to learning. Whether it is blended learning of online and offline engagements, or flipped classes where students learn content online while everything else done offline, Jung connects both the head and the heart but also introduces the meaning of character formation. She warns us of online pride. She points out with examples that we can learn to speak the truth in love. She understands the predicament felt by some regarding faith and academic discipline. Chapter 7 addresses the different challenges pertaining to online ministry to students. Both the "what" and the "how" of teaching online courses are important. Jung gives us helpful tips about using social media. With rising mobility, multi-tasking expectations, and the lack of attentiveness, one way to deal with the challenges of teaching in a social media environment is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each social media platform. Jung supplies ample information on the major social media engines. She even gives readers five do's and five don'ts that should give all of us a head-start in good responsible social media participants.

The third part is about assessment where one asks: "How will that learning and its impact on students' lives be assessed?" It is also a humbling experience for teachers. Usually, despite the best of efforts, the results often do not match up with our expectations. Here, we learn about good online assessment for all. Often not emphasized as much as the rest, especially once the course reaches its end, the feedback offered may bring a lot of insights to future revisions of the online courses. For me, this phase is an important beginning to the next version of the course.

So What?

There has been lots of debates and discussions surrounding the merits and demerits of online education. Twenty years ago, such an idea seems far-fetched and impractical. With technology advancements and the improved capability of online platforms, technology is here to stay. With it comes the changing expectations and use of technology for the educational arena. What about character formation? Traditionally, it has been more face to face discipleship and spiritual guidance. In the Foreword, David Nystrom believes that "Good teaching is student-centered and outcome driven." That is a practical definition, which is played out in this book through the many different strategies and methods used that put the needs of students as the center of the tripartite arrangement: The instructor; the LMS; and the course designer. Christian character formation is the work of the Holy Spirit. A theological definition for me would be, "Good Christian teaching is helping students to be Christ centered and kingdom led." While I appreciate the thinking process and planning of the nature of learning, I think the book lacks the spiritual formation component that the title has suggested it to be. It is more scientific than spiritual, at least from a readers' standpoint. While on the one hand, more could have been written about spirituality, I think there are two reasons why the book seems heavier on the science. First, the online education is still very much in its infancy and this book tries to fill in the fundamental building blocks. This means going through the basics of what is needed for an online course. It also means equipping the equipper. For that reason, there tends to be a lot more description on the "visible stuff." Second, having said that, spiritual formation is a lot more "invisible" because it requires time and effort to get to know the students and for the students to know the instructor. It is also very dependent on the personality and spiritual maturity of the persons involved. Third, we cannot expect online mediums to do the spiritual magic. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, and all that we can do is to form bridges of communications; to cultivate an atmosphere of trust; and to facilitate learning in such a way that every one would come face to face with God at some point of their learning.

I remember a time years ago when bulletin boards were discussed which didn't gain much traction or acceptance among most academics. Those who experimented with it eventually lost interest. For the most part, these are the feelings and experiences of "digital immigrants," people who grew up with traditional forms of education and are relatively recent "immigrants" into the digital world. With a rising number of "digital natives," where students grew up with Google, Facebook, online and social media interaction environments, more students are perfectly at home with all things technology and online matters. For this group, online education is the next big thing, and might even be, a most necessary thing.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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