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Holy Ground in Cyberspace

One of the perennial concerns raised about online learning is that some sorts of education simply must occur face to face — that group process, for instance, or the forming of strong interpersonal bonds, or the intimacy of peer to peer mentoring, requires the physical proximiity of teacher to student, and students to one another, in a shared culture of presence.

This has always seemed to me a somewhat questionable assumption for those of us in the Christian tradition, whose main source of authority is itself the product of the discovery of the technology of writing, and is shared with the remoteness of 2,000-3,000 years of history, and across unshared cultural boundaries and barriers of language.

St. Paul, who wrote the earliest parts of New Testament, used this technology of inscription, delivered by the technologies of sailing, in the form of letters to remote communities around the Mediterranean. In doing so he intended to serve as their mentor and spiritual guide, encouraging them into deepening bonds of affection and commitment and faithfulness that have been shared across the millenia thanks in particular to the technology of the printing press.

The following is a post from the Daily Episcopalian blog about one counter-intuitive discovery about online learning written by Ann Fontaine, an Episcopal priest and General Convention deputy from the Diocese of Wyoming. It may make all of us think differently about the potential of cyberspace for religious education.

By Ann Fontaine

Rainbow PriestSeven years ago the Diocese of Wyoming’s Canon for Ministry Development, Lynn Wilson, wondered if we could offer Education for Ministry (EfM) via the internet to our isolated and rural churches and their leaders. I have been a mentor and trainer with EfM since the early days of the program. This was a challenge I could not resist. How could we replicate this small group experience with its transformative theological reflection and study? Dr. Norm Peterson, a mentor and Dean of Education at the University of Wyoming and I recruited our first class of students for a pilot project with Blackboard, the popular distance education program that most colleges use.

I thought it would be possible to carry out the program but did not believe it would be as good as face-to-face EfM. I could not have been more wrong. Now the online groups are spreading around the country with students from as far away as South Africa, Bahrain and Korea. Originally we thought it would be great for rural isolated students. We have discovered that it is great for those who travel for work, those who live in cities and don’t want one more night out, those who have children at home and snowbirds. The intimacy and depth of sharing is beyond my dreams. When we do find time to see each other in person – we are like old friends.

Other EfM Online mentors have had similar experiences. Jenifer Gamber, Diocese of Bethlehem, finished her 4th year in an online group then became a mentor. She writes:

Who could have predicted the impact the decentralized network of the internet would have by connecting individuals separated by thousands of miles, history, culture, and much more? One of the greatest joys of participating in EfM Online for the past three years has been hearing the stories and insights with people from all over the United States who have vastly different experiences. My first year one of the participants joined from her mission work in Brazil. A participant from Mississippi shared first-hand experience of the effects of hurricane Katrina. Even seemingly mundane differences, for example, the weather, (snowing in Casper, WY but 70 degrees in Bethlehem, PA in May) enriched our time together because we came to know how our differences provided both opportunity for seeking commonalities and for treasuring a diversity that deepened our understanding of God’s work in the world.

Paradoxically, our separated-ness has created a kind of intimacy has provided a place for deep sharing. Perhaps it is from a deep yearning for connection or the safety of cyber boundaries. We have shared at deep levels of vulnerability and tenderness.

Another joy of EfM Online has been sustained conversations about our readings. Because we post reflections to our weekly readings on a discussion board, we have many days to consider one another’s contributions before responding ourselves. It’s like having a living, yet suspended, conversation. Issues of faith matter deeply; our conversations challenge and confirm; they sometimes present one with new ways of thinking and time to consider how to understand new ideas in light of my experience and positions.

A student from South Africa, in a group mentored by Kathy Araujo in Oregon, writes:

I’ve spent a big chunk of the weekend going back through all our postings in all the various threads this year–a big advantage over the face-to-face format, where all one has to rely on is memory and perhaps some journal entries.Two big things jump out at me. First, I am struck by how much my reflections have been shaped by where I am and by my ex-pat experience. This is a distinct difference from the prior three years. …The fact that we were each coming to our EfM year from different places in the world, different places in our lives, and different points on our spiritual journey was probably the single most enriching aspect of this year for me.

The second thing that just zoomed off the screen for me was that at some point or another, every single one of us said to another one of us some variation on “you made me think” or “I need to give that some thought” or “I had never noticed that before” or “I’ve never thought of it that way” or “that comment changed me.”

A student living in Korea, who finished the program in a group mentored by Jo Freeman, writes:

I am humbled and thankful that I could have the opportunity to complete EFM. I began in a TEE (Theological Education by Extension…as Sewanee called it then) class in the early 1980s. When I came to Korea I thought my chance of finishing might never come because there were no live EFM groups in Korea. I was so excited to find EFM online!This year EFM has meant so much to me. Because of our studies, our reflections, our sharing, having to do the hard introspective work of writing the Spiritual Autobiography and other explorations of ministry, I now see my purpose, my world, my ministry and relationships in a much different way. There is new meaning and passion…and a heightened sense of how I am already following God’s call for me…. and how I can continue to grow into what the next phase might be. I am so grateful to this program and to you for “herding us cats”, and for your expert way of leading us into how to do TR.

Canada is using the program for its long distances and need for connection. The average age of participants in EfM Online is lower than traditional groups. More and more people are becoming familiar with online classes and use of technology to connect with others around the world. One student mentioned she would like to start a group in Second Life. Possibilities for community continue to grow.

Attention to relationships and guidelines for interaction are even more important in the online environment. Since we cannot see or hear each other we have to take care of what we say and let each other know when we are hurting or joyful. Body language is non-existent so we develop ways to compensate. On the other hand – signs that might create barriers like how people are dressed or how they look do not exist either. I am often asked how we can build community when we are never together in “real” – I say “come and see.”

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blog what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

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