Dr. Johnston is an Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies and the Director of Fellowships at Emmanuel College. Her special interests are in Christian social ethics, war, peace and religion.
At the recent “Teaching with Technology Faculty Showcase” in the fall of 2014, she was recognized and awarded the first place for best design of ECLearn site for her online “Exploring Religion” course. It is a fine example of effective utilization of the learning management system for pedagogical purposes. The course is designed with an inviting homepage, modular structure of learning activities, and pages that set students expectations as a part of the syllabus. The Professor has an excellent command of the environment and her students. She creates a welcoming virtual meeting space, provides timely feedback in weekly narrated summaries, and includes out of class activities that help students stay connected with both content and classmates. The course has a learner-centered approach emphasized by student discussions and project work. As Dr. Johnston says in her Emmanuel College profile, she “particularly enjoys debating controversial ethical issues with students, and giving them a chance to explore issues of social justice through service learning courses.”
Following her win, ATIG asked her to share her course design concept as an example and an inspiration to other Emmanuel faculty. The following is her response.
1. How did you go about designing your course? Did you start with the facts, the trees, or did you introduce the big picture, the forrest, first?
The course closely follows the textbook I use (which is unusual for me, but I feel like an online course needs clearer structure than an in person one.) We start with a big question – what IS religion? The first photo discussion is a fun part of that. What is e difference between an iPad, a super bowl trophy, or a communion host? Then we move on to talking about the various components of religion.
2. What are the big ideas for your students upon successfully completing the course?
Big ideas: I want students to grasp the idea that religion is a universal human phenomenon, and examine their own beliefs and practices a bit more deeply in light of that.
3. Did you have synchronous and asynchronous sessions in the course?
Nothing in the course is synchronous. I worry about technical difficulties.
4. The “Site Visit Assignment” is an exploratory activity tied with a paper assignment. How does this assignment connect students’ experience with the concepts they learn throughout the semester?
The site visit requires them to actually observe some of the components of religion that we are discussing in the class. Students usually find it to be the most interesting part of the course, especially because they can choose which kind of religion they want to observe. The students find the site visit paper a challenging assignment because it is different from other kinds of papers. For that reason I have them read and comment on a sample A paper before they submit their first drafts. They also have to complete an Atomic Learning tutorial on writing an MLA paper, so they know what is expected.
5. What are your lessons learned from the peer review task your students had to do in regard to the site visit assignment?
Peer review can be tricky, especially if some students don’t turn in their assignments on time. ECLearn’s peer review feature works, but it is a little tricky to assign the peer reviews, especially if you need to revise the assignments at all. I have learned that it is important to give guidance on peer reviews, so I use a grading rubric and ask the students to evaluate each other using the rubric. This has the added advantage of forcing them to look at the rubric and think about how it might apply to their own paper as well.
6. How did you come up with the idea for a weekly audio recap? Have you heard from your students how they like it?
It is hard to give effective feedback in an online course and make sure students are actually absorbing it. The recap is my chance to address/clarify whatever ideas the students appeared to be struggling with in the quizzes and discussions. And then there is a password in it that they need to access the next week’s quiz, so they have to listen to it! I think they find it a bit of a pain to listen to, but ultimately appreciate the human touch.
7. What are the major technical difficulties you or your students encounter?
GPP students tend to struggle with simple things: how do I post to a discussion? How do I submit a paper? All students sometimes have trouble accessing external resources: Atomic Learning, for example. And at the beginning of the course, there are usually a few students who are added to the course late and have trouble getting access to ECLearn right away.
8. What can you advise us regarding conducting online discussions – what is your experience and lessons learned?
I think it is important to mix up the discussion boards: sometimes just a written prompt, sometimes images or videos to respond to, etc. One board, I do, requires students to find and post an example of a religious group reciting/singing/performing/re-enacting their scriptures in some way. That is fun because they find neat stuff – everything from Gregorian chant to Katakhali dance.
For any questions regarding ECLearn, Atomic Learning tutorials, course design and pedagogy, email us at AT@emmanuel.edu.