Are professors increasingly becoming avatars in virtual classrooms housed in cyber communities?

That and other questions in distance learning were discussed on Oct. 23 and 24 at Fordham University as part of a conference sponsored by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities for deans of adult and continuing education.

In attendance were representatives from 20 of the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges, as well as spokespeople from Jesuit Distance Education Network (JesuitNET), a Web-based clearinghouse for some 500 online courses.

“Jesuit education has a centuries-old tradition of attending to the whole person—intellectually, ethically and spiritually,” said David Robinson, S.J., of the Nestucca Sanctuary Jesuit Community. “Such values are not left as a sidebar when the learning venue moves to cyberspace.”

Rev. Anthony Ciorra, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE), said that as rollouts in online courses climb among Jesuit universities, it’s important to focus on embedding quality Ignatian pedagogy in those courses.

“Distance learning is neither good nor bad, and you are not going to get all faculty on board,” said Father Ciorra, who helped teach the first wave of Fordham’s online courses last spring. “But at the end of the day, you have to look at the customer.”

Calling his personal experience teaching online “transformational,” Father Ciorra noted some distinctly Ignatian characteristics of the distance-learning model developed by JesuitNET. They include:

•    cura personalis: personal care becomes tantamount to online learning because each student must be contacted directly by faculty, who also must frequently measure a student’s level of comprehension;
•    men and women for others: online learning focuses on answering the questions ‘What are you going to do with the knowledge, and how is it going to change your life?’
•    creative thinking, deep thought and reflection on the material presented.

“Part of the transformation to online courses was realizing it is not the quantity of information, but it is teaching students how to think creatively, how to connect the dots,” Father Ciorra said. “And it is not just [becoming]a Stepford wife. Your personality as a teacher comes into the course.”

The informational session included a cyber-demonstration, as Ron Prindle, Ph.D., a professor from Gonzaga University, answered attendees’ questions via Skype.

Michael Gillan, Ph.D., dean of Fordham College of Liberal Studies (FCLS), noted the importance of distance learning in adult education.

“So much of enabling adults to successfully pursue education has to do with logistics,” Gillan said. “Being able to schedule a time for their classes, in the midst of work, family and other responsibilities, is a real trick—a challenge.”

Vicki Rosen, M.L.I.S, librarian at the University of San Francisco, gave a presentation on virtual worlds and the possible use of avatars as an entertaining means to teach online instruction. More than 40 universities have a presence in the virtual community known as Second Life, including Harvard and Princeton.

“I know of a nurse going to Montclair State in the second world,” Rosen said. “Not only can you attend class and study, you can fly . . . and you can teleport.”
“Even the Jesuits want to go there,” she said.

The event was hosted by FCLS and took place at Lincoln Center and Rose Hill campus venues.


Janet Sassi is editor/associate director of internal communications. She can be reached at (212) 636-7577 or [email protected]