The Common Good
July-August 1997

Surfing the Sacred

by Kevin Clarke | July-August 1997

Meeting God for lunch @ the Global Ethics Café

Cyberspace has become somewhat crowded since 1993’s introduction of the World Wide Web initiated a new form of acronym-based Esperanto and the kind of mindless technological stampede best choreographed by lemmings and marketing consultants. Observers of the Internet can be forgiven if a survey of webworld, with its megalomalls, marketing wormholes, and porno-driven technology spurts, suggests nothing more auspicious than the latest incarnation of Newton Minnow’s vast wasteland.

But when David Batstone and Brett Greider look out over that electronic cyberscape, they come to more positive conclusions. Batstone is an assistant professor of religion and ethics at the University of San Francisco and Greider is a professor of religion at Virginia’s Sweet Briar College. Together with USF’s Michael Benedict, they’ve created a unique experiment in online learning, a religious ethics program they have housed in the cozy Global Ethics Cafe.

The first semester’s online study, "Women, Ecology, and Religion," has just concluded. Batstone can’t wait for September to roll around. "We’ve really just scratched the surface of how communication is going to take place in the future," he says.

Greider’s mostly Southern, East Coast students have been "meeting" their cyberclassmates, Batstone’s West Coasters, in the semester-long online collaboration. The regional differences are only the beginning of the cultural divides Batstone and Greider hope to cross through the cafe. The current class connects men and women from different ethnic and regional cultures within the United States. Future efforts at Internet cross-cultural pollination will be more ambitious. Next year Batstone’s students connect with a class in Beijing.

THE "PROPRIETORS" hope the cafe can take advantage of the Internet’s inherent qualities—its ability to connect people across vast distances and experiences and the opportunity it allows to engage guest lecturers that is literally global in scope—but the program follows a lot of the traditional classroom forms. Students have assigned readings and meet weekly for actual real-life classroom encounters at their respective schools. Both classes meet together periodically in as yet somewhat "pixelated" online video sessions. But as far as Batstone is concerned "the centerpiece of the learning experience is what happens in the cafe." Here the students meet in message conferences following the intellectual cyberthreads of the course’s themes.

The site itself is elegantly organized around the motif of the cafe. The two classes are broken down into small groups which regularly meet at cafe "tables" to trade insights from the weekly reading assignments or information and observations collected during cyber travels to other web sites linked as additional resources for each of the classes’ areas of study. It’s a refreshingly optimistic application of the World Wide Web that takes useful advantage of the web’s inarguably vast resources.

Batstone’s students report some distinct advantages to the online classroom: The written messaging encourages students to work out more thoughtful responses than spontaneous classroom eruptions normally afford, and it’s harder for stronger personalities to dominate cyberdiscussion.

But a visit to the cafe suggests there may be at least some disadvantages to online learning. Unfortunately few things in life can "feel" as prickly as the naked written word. Notoriously sparse e-mail-speak especially can come off as snappish and short-tempered. The cafe’s tablemates seem instinctively aware of the problem, qualifying a lot of their rebuttal threads with "I may have understood what you were saying..." Or "Correct me if I’m way off base, but..." before sounding off on their classmates.

There are also none of the visual or tonal cues students are used to in "normal" face-to-face dialogue to help moderate intellectual volleys. Another drawback is the general style of messaging dialogue itself. They’re called threads for good reason. Sometimes participants stay on the subject; sometimes they don’t. The issue that begins one thread may be completely unraveled before it reaches a knotty conclusion on a different subject.

Overall though, table chatter at the cafe appears slightly more elevated than you’d probably endure in a college classroom. And you don’t have to watch fellow students snoozing into their elbows while you’re trying to make a point.

BATSTONE HAS NO qualms about unleashing the high-tech wizardry of the Internet on such subtle and subjective material as religion and ethics. He argues that too many contemporary classrooms still rely almost entirely on written text-based learning and teaching models of the all-knowing professor droning on before a classroom of scribbling students. "We’re using a 12th-century model in a 20th-century world.

"Where is the significant information in terms of shaping our community and our values coming from at this point in our culture? Written, audio, and visual texts," Batstone says. "It’s a disservice to our students if they don’t become multilingual in this way."

The interactivity of a website is ideally suited to Batstone’s "multilingualism," allowing students to be engaged fully in their own learning and creating an atmosphere where all participants are both student and teacher in a collaborative learning environment. Greider calls this a "community of education."

Technologically the web has also reached a stronger position to facilitate Batstone’s "multilingual" education. The communications breakthrough that may allow cyberclasses like GEC to become more practical is the development of so-called streaming software for audio and video playback. Using Progressive Network’s RealAudio and RealVideo players, students in the GEC trade audio and video clips they’ve composed themselves to illustrate their classroom points and projects. The streaming software allows these sound and video clips to be heard and viewed in real-time as they are "played" by the server computer. The cafe’s students don’t have to wait for what in the past would have meant a lengthy file download before they can review the online resources. (Anyone who has survived 47 minutes downloading 24 seconds of Nixon’s resignation speech will happily testify to the value of this innovation.)

Greider sees the World Wide Web as an opportunity for his students to study religion in a new way. Liberated from their text books, they can hear and see the religious ritual of obscure cultures, or those without a written tradition, and appreciate them at a distinctly more visceral level.

"We can now have access to another culture’s social texts in a way we couldn’t before," Greider says. "We can see a dance procession or a Mayan ritual or a base community in Nicaragua and see how they celebrate Mass." And ethical dilemmas don’t have to be interpreted according to the dry logic of written text; students can view video depictions of ethics in action and develop their ethical thinking according to more emotional, visual-reality-based experiences.

But can a sense of the sacred ever really be, well, downloaded? Batstone sounds almost impatient. "Why does religion remove itself from the rest of our lives? We have this sense that the sacred takes place in holy sites and in holy moments. Well, it does, but the Spirit also moves where people come together in community with each other." In their response to the changing experience of daily life, Batstone argues, religions have remained just about as mired in traditional models as educational institutions.

"If we don’t have a spiritual sense to [cyberspace], we’re surrendering a great part of our culture," Batstone says. "Cyberspace is not the cause of our lack of community, it’s a response to it."

You can drop in at the Global Ethics Cafe at http://www.busstop. usfca.edu/cafe. Though visitors don’t enjoy full access to all the cafe’s resources, they can eavesdrop on the students’ conversations. A "sampler" of how the students’ audio clips and interactive essays work together is available at www.busstop.usfca.edu/cafe/debate.

KEVIN CLARKE is managing editor of online products for Claretian Publications in Chicago, which includes Salt of the Earth at http://www.claret.org/~salt/

Global Ethics Café. David Batstone and Brett Greider. http://www.busstop.usfca.edu/cafe, 1996.

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