Friday, June 26, 2009
  Virtual sacraments or real sacraments at a distance?
Communion To Go by jasoneppink
Talk about "virtual church" becomes really focused when the Eucharist becomes the focus of discussion. What is a eucharist celebrated in a virtual environment (for example Second Life)?

In a short essay, reproduced on Mark Brown's blog, Paul Fiddes provides a typically ellegant and thought provoking answer, summarised like this:
An avatar can receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist within the logic of the virtual world and it will still be a means of grace, since God is present in a virtual world in a way that is suitable for its inhabitants. We may expect that the grace received by the avatar will be shared in some way by the person behind the avatar, because the person in our everyday world has a complex relationship with his or her persona.
The discussion of this radical proposal by Second Lifers in the comments is as fascinating as Paul's neat "solution" to the theological issues. Wilfried for example was quick to object to the reification of the avatars that Paul seems to suggest. Rather, "We do not pray indirectly, through the avatars; the avatars are simply useful in providing an enhanced feeling of proximity..." In short Second Life is not a "virtual world" but a communications medium, presumably like any other. So, the question ceases to be: Is "virtual communion" a real communion? But becomes: Can communion opperate at a distance? Just like the question of whether a pastor can celebrate communion with congregants over a telephone or radio link - e.g. when the recipient is serving in the International Space Station.

For Wilifried Second Life is NOT a virtual world. I agree. It is a means to make virtual presence richer, but the presence is a phenomenon of the "real world". Such presence can be local, when two or more people are present to each other in the same room. It can also be more distant, as when one of the persons is on a raised platform at some distance from the others, as in a typical church. Or more distant still, as mediated by a telephone rather than by direct sight and sound (or in the case of the church building direct sight and an electronic sound system). Other cases can easily be imagined on this spectrum. At what point does presence cease to be real and become virtual?

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008
  Oh, use your Moodle!
Geoff (at Theologians Without Borders) has been asking to hear about creativity in theological education, in an off blog email "conversation" he has asked about how we use our use of the Moodle CMS in Carey's distance program. I also agreed to do some guest posts with the theme "What if..." dreaming of things that could be done to enrich distance teaching of theology. Here's what I am thinking as a "What if..." post about Moodle. Please tell me what I've missed, or missed explaining - before I send it in to Geoff!

What if... we really used Moodle to the full

Some years ago at Carey we began to "move our distance teaching to the next level". Part of the plan was to install, and make good use of, an open source (means free) online "Course Management System" called Moodle.

Moodle allows:
  • a central store of documentation for a course, which can be updated as soon as something changes
  • students to be reminded of assignments that are due soon and other important dates
  • one central place to email a whole class
  • a place to store and deliver marked assignments
  • a place to provide course related material like pictures, videos, links, PDF files of readings that did not get into the course anthology...
  • teachers to set simple "quizzes" (with questions in various formats like multiple choice, short answer etc.) that can either count towards the course marks or simply provide feedback to students or check that they have done required reading
Moodle is:
  • cheap - no software costs, and even a professionally hosted option is not expensive
  • easy - it takes very little time and instruction for even our less techie colleagues to work the basics, and usually not too long for someone to show you how achieve the less obvious goals
  • scalable - anything from one course with one teacher to the whole British Open University (which with over 150,000 students is a but bigger than the average theological seminary ;-)
  • fairly easy to manage, and there are plenty of people around with experience who can help.
In short Moodle is great, and even better value, and it will allow a Seminary to really support Internet connected distance students, and through discussion forums and emails integrate them into a "class".

Some courses at Carey really quickly began to make real use of the system. Brian Smith (our retired principal who had not used a computer before retirement) clocked up the most student contributions to a discussion simply by asking really thought -provoking leading questions. I used the tests to reward students with up to 10% simply by doing the "required reading" and as a result turned what I think before was 80% of the class in real life do about 20% of the reading, to 80% of the class do at least 80% of the reading.

But there are gaps. Some teachers hardly use Moodle - though not difficult it is one more thing to learn in a life that is too busy. Few of us actually get organised to post pictures and links relevant to our courses... So, implementation and take up of the possibilities are a bit hit and miss...

What if...
  1. We had a "Moodle consultant" (alias a technically minded senior student) who could spend an hour or two each week helping us to use Moodle more or better - guess how much more most teachers would achieve!
  2. We had a policy that all teachers and students in every class promised to take a serious look at the discussion forums for that class at least twice each week (maybe one or two hours of work to timetable in each week, but think of the greater communication with distance students and how much more time effective than individual emails replying one-on-one to questions)
  3. One of the Moodle consultant's jobs was to check what pictures and other resources we used in teaching the class onsite, and helped us make them available to distance students.
  4. A scattering of our courses set as an assignment to present readings online and then interact with other students presentations - I have seen such an assignment put a student in South-East Asia in contact with one in the South Island of NZ and "watched" the experience open the student's eyes to a wider world producing real formative change.

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Friday, August 17, 2007
  Online meetings, PDA evangelism and more...
I spent an interesting evening yesterday with Chris (who is helping this year with PodBible - he'll be running a PodBible free lunch on Sunday, so if you are interested in seeing how the brainstorming of Think|Pray|Do ideas works email me and I'll send you details) and a friend of his who does web programming.

He is the guy behind the highly featured rich learning environment Collaboroom, which he briefly demonstrated... I can see so many ways to use such a tool, with shared whiteboard, the ability to present PPT live with audio or video of the presenter, file sharing, chat etc.

He also did the programming for an evangelism tool for PDAs
ProclaimIT "ProclaimIT is a multimedia presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ." His problem with both products is similar (and familiar) no one wants to pay for things online, yet he has spent time (for ProclaimIT I guess months, for Collaboroom years) work and needs the income...

We need a different economy unless the cult of the free one day dies online, but after all these years I see no sign of that... but how does one connect the dots?

Dot One: producing software and content takes time - people need to eat, etc...
Dot Two: the culture of the free - we have to somehow operate a gift economy...
Judging by the increasingly hard sales pitches from long term shareware sellers like WinZip shareware does not work. Advertising may, but do we want to live in a 100% commercialised world, were even the gospel comes with advertising!? Maybe the answer is a return to patronage, but wouldn't it be nice if this could somehow be patronage of the masses rather than of the already rich and powerful!

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Thursday, March 15, 2007
  Online and face to face teaching
Way back in December Kevin posted on A Semester with Moodle ever since I've had it bookmarked intending to reply and follow it a bit further. First the similarities:
  • we also use Moodle which works well, is fairly intuitive, free, has lots of modules and is scalable (the British Open University uses it for their 154,660 students)
  • I have found online machine marked "quizzes" brilliant to check that students have done their reading. Basically I use them as a reward for reading the set texts and it turned the 80/20 rule on its head - before 80% actually read only 20% of the material (I suspect ;-) now 80% read almost all the set readings!
  • I too have some reservations about totally distance teaching - though we do it - as the face to face personal component has been important to me over the years.
But, the big difference is that Kevin seems not to have used the discussion forum feature, even in onsite classes I encourage this. Often I set a "reading blog" as one of the assessments. This encourages students to read exploratively, by rewarding them for doing so. Gets them to share this reading and comment on its value, and makes them interact with other students and their reading. (They are required to both "post" new readings, and "comment" on what others have posted.)

This extensive encouragement of discussion forums (which email the posts to students as well) has produced some of the most obvious personal growth I have ever seen come out of the interaction of students. In a class on the prophets one student began with a narrow judgemental approach that assumed that anyone who was desperately poor had to be lazy. Another student was working in Southern Asia and began to describe small events from is family life, like the way their son felt for the boy selling flowers on the road side... through their interaction the first student over several weeks evidently came to change their understanding of the world, and therefore their attitudes.

Real personal growth through purely online communication. What's more I suspect that in the faster world of a face to face classroom little change would have taken place. Because:
  1. the student with Asian experience would be speaking about last year not last night (the breadth would be less immediate)
  2. the interaction requires an instant response, I've seen it in the past a knee jerk "the flower seller was just pretending to be in real need, like all the false beggars" - more thought and perhaps follow up questions undo the knee jerk!
  3. Face to face macho males take "sides"
  4. Face to face the extrovert and aggressive dominate the "discussion"
So, my conclusion is that - though face to face teaching is great for some things - online teaching is too. That means that the absolute ideal is a class with a mix...

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