Character Formation in Online Education: A Guide for Instructors, Administrators, and Accrediting Agencies

Written by Joanne J. Jung Reviewed By Dave Deuel

The author is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola University and chair of the Talbot School of Theology committee for online learning. She writes to invite those with online instructional interests to think creatively about developing character and facilitating formation in online students.

Other studies by the author demonstrate her commitment to formation, including Knowing Grace: Cultivating a Lifestyle of Godliness (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011) and Godly Conversation: Rediscovering the Puritan Practice of Conference (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2011).

Online instructors have been waiting for research and publications addressing formation. The author’s caricature of online learning run amok hits a nerve with online instructors: “The course is essentially taken in isolation with no requirement to interact or converse with anyone—the professor or other students. It is easy to simply go through the motions of learning in order to earn course credit” (p. 13). But this need not be the case. A well-organized and carefully designed online class “uses a variety of visual, audio, and written media. Assignments are designed to foster interaction with fellow students and the professor. The depth of students’ interaction is developed as they process thoughts, ideas, perspectives, and even feelings. The online format, an education without borders, provides a plethora of opportunities to engage with students in their learning and character formation” (p. 14). Indeed, “online education, if it is going to effect character formation, deserves a pedagogy that inspires” (p. 15).

Five qualifications characterize a successful online professor. First, they communicate effectively and winsomely, manifesting care and dedication to students and their learning. Second, they know and communicate your course content well. Third, they understand what makes a good online learner. Fourth, they articulate instructions and expectations clearly. Fifth, they recognize the important of relationships in learning (pp. 26–29).

Learning management systems (LMS) are essential in online learning: “The structure that combines learning and community in an online class is the LMS. . . A good LMS is like a Swiss Army knife…. The LMS is the internal framework into which the course materials are added. All information associated with the course becomes part of the LMS and is archived or stored” (p. 31). Dr. Jung advocates using nine of the myriad functions of an LMS: home, announcements, syllabus, modules, discussions, assignments, grades, conferences, and collaborations (p. 32). “With the communication features of most LMSs—discussion threads, collaborations, video conferences, written or media comments on graded assignments, and of course, announcements, emails, and audiovisual comments—professors have no excuse for not being present in online courses” (p. 103).

Critical questions drive online discussion and practice. What are the students to learn? How are they to learn it? and How will that learning and its impact on students’ lives be assessed? These questions, fundamental to any learning experience, must be asked and answered more carefully in light of the unique needs of online learners. In fact, questions play a critical role in online education: “Questions are at the heart of learning. A good question affects intelligence, interest, attention, memory, and conduct. The quality of questions is more critical than the quantity to generate transformative learning and an integrative learning community” (p. 56). Questions prompt reflection and reflection is how our minds make connections in grasping a concept or truth. Questions in the form of discussion prompts are critical to formation. The author identifies three levels of prompts based on how directly they support character formation goals: low quality, mediocre, and transformational (p. 68). Understanding students’ lives will be essential to successful prompt questions.

The ability and willingness to integrate is crucial to a student’s formation. But the true key to integration may surprise us. Jung advises:

Researchers continue to affirm Randall Sorenson’s findings that what contributes most to a student’s integration of faith and learning is how well students can determine the convergence of a professor’s authentic, dynamic, and growing relationship with God and the professor’s nondefensive, emotionally unguarded, and even vulnerable relationship with students….The relational attachment that students, both graduate and undergraduate, have with their mentors is the most effective way they learn integration. (p. 101)

Attributes most crucial for mentors who teach their students to integrate include the ability to be self-revealing, caring, welcoming, dedicated, and open-minded (p. 102). All of these attributes are rooted in a spirit-led and Christ-like life.

What about actual presence of instructors and students? For those wrestling with the loss of presence in online learning and the gain in face-to-face instruction, a thought-provoking read is Paul R. House, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015). Reading both books together increases awareness that seminary preparation requires a different kind or another level of character formation than do programs that train students for non-ministerial vocations.

For the instructor or administrator involved in distance education, this book is beneficial. The reviewer recommends this book for the beginning online instructor as well as the seasoned veteran. The author’s infectious enthusiasm for teaching carries over to all forms of instruction, not just online learning. The book is rich with graphics and descriptive illustrations, particularly when the author introduces complex matters. In this regard, the book models instruction in print so essential to online learning. Much of the book is sage instructional advice that would also strengthen face-to-face classroom teaching. A glossary of online terminology supports the book’s content.

Dave Deuel

Dave Deuel
The Christian Institute on Disability
Agoura Hills, California, USA

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