I.R.E.P.M. Makes Distance Learning Foray

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry has made a foray into the evolving field of distance learning, offering a course taught exclusively through e-mail and the World Wide Web.

Developed and taught by Mary Hess, an IREPM post-doctoral research fellow and adjunct faculty member, Media Literacy and Religious Education is a three-credit graduate course with 10 officially registered students from locations such as Australia, California and Florida, and three other persons who are auditing with Hess' permission.

Hess, who offered a pilot course last academic year, says directing an online class presents unique teaching challenges. But at a time when technology and demographics are influencing academia more than ever, she believes distance learning can be a valuable component in higher education.

"Our student body at IREPM is so global, it makes sense to weave an online course into our structure," explained Hess. "Given our mission to educate for the world Church, we should be doing this. The technology makes it possible and the potential benefits make it worthy of strong consideration."

"Distance learning holds much promise for higher education," said Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties David R. Burgess. "It is an area Boston College is exploring on an institutional level with great interest. To have faculty members who are already familiar with the facets of distance learning is likely to prove a considerable asset for the University."

"Mary has worked carefully on developing good pedagogy for distance education," said IREPM Director Claire Lowery. "She has set high standards in her interactive teaching that provide the opportunity for depth, breadth and rigor throughout the learning process. Students also have remarked on the quality of Mary's interaction."

The course's premise parallels Hess' research, which deals with the challenges and opportunities for religious educators in studying popular media and culture. Students use media theory emerging from cultural studies, Hess explains, as well as contemporary Christian theology, to examine closely various popular culture texts drawn from television, radio, the Internet and film. The course explores practical ways to integrate media education into various religious education contexts.

"When I was putting the course together, obviously I had to think of who would take it," said Hess. "Certainly, our graduate students here at IREPM would be interested. But I also thought that, for example, high school-level teachers looking to update their expertise might find it useful. Using an on-line approach meant they could make a commitment and participate without having to uproot."

Instead of a lecture, Hess posts a presentation each week on the course's World Wide Web site which serves as the basis for discussion and contains references to related texts and articles. One recent presentation, addressing the depiction of beauty in TV commercials, asked students to reflect on the idea of "honoring the body" in religious tradition and how this might best be expressed in contemporary religious education.

The "classroom discussion" part of the course is conducted through an electronic mailing list, in which students must participate at least twice a week. Hess also is planning an Internet-based "live chat" during the semester, where she and the class would be able to communicate with one another more directly.

One of the major logistical challenges for Hess has been to ensure students have adequate computer equipment and software to participate, and feel comfortable enough to use it. Relying on sometimes temperamental Internet connections over thousands of miles also can be an adventure, she adds.

Another dilemma is whether students have resources available nearby to do the research required of them, continued Hess, who includes a page of links to Web sites containing material related to the course.

But it is the electronically-based discussion format which has meant the greatest adjustment, Hess feels, especially for students.

"E-mail has its advantages, because it allows you to give some thought to your comments and revise them as necessary," she explained. "But there are some interesting effects. People for whom the traditional classroom discussion was a daunting experience seem to enjoy doing it this way. Students who tend to be more extroverted and at ease in the classroom, though, can find the lack of immediacy takes some getting used to.

"It is not the easiest medium in which to work," Hess said. "As the technology becomes more and more familiar, and as we become more attuned to the role the Internet - like other forms of media - plays in our lives, this will likely change. But even now, it's exciting to see the possibilities in distance learning."

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