The importance of faculty in religion gaining technology and digital skills

When I was attending university I persuaded my father, during a visit, to lug home the first generation IBM PC he used so I could see it. I was underwhelmed with the machine once it was assembled. Two 5.25” floppy drives, no hard drive, and a CRT monitor in green. The computer could not do anything without a program, and the program disks my father brought with him were simple business apps (Visicalc, if I recall correctly). It was, really, my first lesson in technology, and an important one. What I was viewing was the potential of the technology, not its realization. But I could grasp something of that potential.

I am reminded of this experience after reading a story in The Guardian recently about the lack of technology skills in universities. I know there are departments in universities where this obviously is not the case (think: the sciences and computer departments). In the areas of my speciality, the Humanities and Religion, I find this to be the case. A colleague at the institution where I teach told me of attending a workshop for new faculty in which those attending were asked how many enjoyed working with technology and teaching online, if not preferred it. Of the 55 attendees, only my colleague’s hand was raised. For the others, technology and online teaching is a necessary evil, since they prefer to teach residential courses (where, presumably, everyone reads print books). There is nothing wrong with teaching residential courses; I certainly enjoy it. But these were new faculty, people who only recently graduated with their doctorates and started teaching. Most of them grew up with technology and will spend their entire careers with it becoming more and more integral to academic life. I don’t consider this an encouraging glimpse into the state of technology appropriation among scholars of religion. So a different mindset is needed.

There are many reasons why faculty don’t jump on the tech bandwagon–or perhaps more accurately, accept the reality that technology is here to stay. Many of us use a computer to write our dissertations and other scholarship but barely know how to do anything else beyond click the icon for the word processor and then save our work. We’ve never taken the time to learn much about computers, so trying to use technology to teach is beyond our comfort zone. Besides, doing so might reveal to our students how much we don’t know about this stuff.

Such reasons are understandable. Gaining competence in our disciplines and then navigating through a doctoral program and early stages of teaching (or whatever else we do with our advanced degrees) are a lot of work. Trying to learn “technology,” if I may put it this way, is another thing on top of all this work. It’s like learning a new research language, culture, and skill set. It takes work and time. Few disciplines in the Humanities currently offer much by way of teaching students (and faculty) how to use the resources offered by technology, much less its transformational possibilities for pedagogy and research. In short, there are challenges to using technology in our teaching and research.

When the decision was made where I teach to begin offering online courses, I did not rush to teach such a course. Although I enjoy using technology, I knew it would take a lot of time and effort in order to do this well. And so it has. I’ve been teaching online and hybrid courses (where students do most of their work online and then travel to campus for a few days of intensive residential work before returning home to finish the course online) for several years. Conceptualizing, planning, organizing, and readying these courses takes longer than it does for residential courses because I must rethink every aspect of my courses in terms of digital space and the online experience. My teaching goals and objectives are largely the same for my students: developing critical thinking and reading skills, honing research skills, improving their writing and communication skills, introducing them to new ideas and thinkers and issues. How to achieve these goals and objectives online is not quite the same as residential work because the technology itself changes how I try to accomplish them.

Technology offers new and different ways to reach my teaching goals. They are not better or worse than those I use in residential courses, simply different. This is one reason why the work is increased, because I don’t know what is possible with technology, so I am constantly learning. I regularly meet with folks in the IT and instructional technologies departments to discuss what I want to do and to learn what new or modified technology may help me. Recently I began learning Python, a programming language. It’s helping me understand how programs and computers work, and thus beginning to change how I look at research questions and my teaching. I don’t yet know how it will change my teaching and research, but like looking at that first generation IBM PC, I know the potential is there. I wish more of us in the Humanities and the study of Religion could see this potential and accept the challenge to try and realize it.

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