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Virtual Connection: Teaching Religion and Politics in East Asia Online in the Era of COVID-19

Esther Chung-Kim
Claremont McKenna College

As an instructor, I am an ardent proponent of in-person interaction and the use of printed books, and I have never taught online before the COVID-19 pandemic shifted teaching to fully online platforms in the spring of 2020. Yet in this adjustment, the labor of starting anew, while frustrating at times, granted me the opportunity to experiment and refine pedagogical strategies to foster virtual connection for an upper-level undergraduate seminar on religion and politics in East Asia from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. In the transition to teaching fully online, I learned three lessons that have given me insight into equity in student participation, clarity of communication, and encouragement of learning through assignment choices.

The first lesson was that online teaching could maintain and even promote equity in participation if some basic standards were put in place. When the transition to online classes started, one widespread concern among faculty, administrators, and students focused on equity in terms of access to technology, especially reliable internet connection and a learning device, such as a computer, laptop, or smart phone. As a small, liberal arts college, my school chose to provide iPads with cellular data to those who needed it for the duration of the semester. We also had a small percentage of students who remained on campus because their situations did not allow them to reasonably return home. This was by no means a perfect system. Depending on modem speed, quality of the router, and the number of simultaneous users in a household, virtual conversations could lag and skip words, while video images could freeze, sometimes capturing warped facial expressions. For those who used Zoom meetings, the unsolicited attacks of zoom bombers meant adding a password, enabling waiting rooms, and continuing to mute participants upon entry. Once all the participants drowned out their background noises and figured out how to use their unmute button and microphones, we entered the possibility of having a thoughtful discussion. Ensuring that all students could hear and talk via online platforms was an important first step toward equity, but I soon realized that more changes were necessary to encourage students to continue engaging with the material and not give up on learning. I spent much of my two-week spring break brainstorming and reconfiguring the online course format. The most challenging aspect was how to evaluate student participation for students on a Zoom meeting. I was surprised to learn that it was possible to be more equitable in the specific area of evaluating student participation. In the transition to a predominantly asynchronous modality, I started using online platforms, such as https://www.sakailms.org/ Sakai Forums, Chatroom, and Google Forms https://www.google.com/forms/about/ to encourage student participation. Using these online platforms as additional forms of participation helped to promote equity among the students for two main reasons. Instead of only recognizing the students who spoke up first or most in class, every student regardless of time zone had a twenty-four-hour window to respond to the reading questions checking for comprehension of the main arguments. Sorting through their short answers did not take too long since the maximum grade was two points based on completion. The pedagogical benefit was that I could quickly clarify any vague or confusing responses anonymously during the next Zoom meeting.

In addition, these posts were automatically saved on the platform, which meant I had an online record of each student’s comments rather than just a notation on my class roster that a student spoke up in class. In order to keep students engaged with each other and foster higher levels of conversation, I chose to go smaller and split the class of eighteen students into three groups and met each group separately.1 To balance the demand on time, these smaller group Zoom meetings were limited to thirty to thirty-five minutes so that I could fit two Zoom meetings per class period. The third Zoom meeting was at a totally different time for the sake of my international students. For several Zoom meetings with the entire class, I randomized students into six breakout rooms of three students each where one student would volunteer to be the scribe (to post their group’s answers to a learning activity, usually a fill-in-the-blank quiz or a few discussion questions) and another student would be the spokesperson (to share a summary of their answers when they all returned to the main room). I encouraged all group members to take turns filling these roles through the remainder of the semester. Contrary to my initial expectation, participation grades in my class went up during the remote learning period because students could demonstrate their engagement by posting responses to reading questions in forums, raising their hand in a Zoom meeting, and/or volunteering to be the scribe or spokesperson in their small group discussions.

The second lesson was that setting up clear pathways for regularized communication helped minimize confusion during this transition. When I considered how to communicate with students, the question that guided my thinking was: What would be the easiest habit to form with the least number of barriers? After all, adapting to all the restrictions under the shelter-at-home mandates provided enough barriers to daily living. In addition to the logistical and pedagogical challenges of switching to online teaching, the abrupt transition required the adjustment of expectations. Further the issue of caring for students living through a global crisis while faculty themselves lived through the same crisis threatened to minimize all learning that was not urgent or practical. Although I had the privilege of a dedicated workspace at home, my spouse was a full-time healthcare worker dealing with patients and facing the possibility of being furloughed; my kids were home doing online school for a couple hours a day while turning into part-time video gamers; and my parents in New Jersey were losing their friends, especially those living in nursing homes who had succumbed to the COVID-19 disease. Students were also juggling a variety of concerns and pressures, yet I knew that many of them wanted to finish what they had started and graduate college. The one tangible thing I could do for my students was to lay out a clear pathway to course completion. In my first announcement to the students after the official college closure, I enumerated all the assignments that the students had already completed in the first half of the semester. Then I provided a simple list of “remaining tasks” that showed the remaining requirements to complete the course. The purpose of these two lists was to demonstrate how much they had already done and hopefully motivate them to finish. As a result of the move to distance learning, I dropped the second group presentation because the amount of synchronous collaboration required of students living in different time zones and the necessary monitoring by me made the assignment difficult to manage on top of everything else.2

After organizing the channels of communication, I created a five-minute video laying out the new format for turning in assignments (Dropbox), signing up for office hours (Sign-up), finding all video links (Announcements), and posting answers and group work (Forums). Since this was my first video, I told students that I was testing out a new software program called Soapbox as a way to record lectures for the new online format. In my instructions for watching the first video, I admitted that I was still getting used to this platform and to overlook my fumbling over some words since it was done late at night, the only time when I could ensure that it would be quiet in my house and I would not be interrupted.

The third lesson learned was that creating multiple options for the final research project became a way to expand learning opportunities. In the effort to rethink the usual final research project for students without reliable access to library sources, I offered alternative final projects so that students could have a choice in the most important assignment of the course. While the research paper was still in place, students could also choose to do a teaching video with an outline and bibliography, or a mini ethnography based on interviews. Since I was teaching a course that started in the early modern period and ended in the contemporary era students had the option of interviewing people who had lived through the traditions, movements, and events we had discussed in class. I typically do not offer students in the same class multiple ways to express their learning, but the circumstances of living through the COVID-19 pandemic encouraged this more flexible approach to assessment. While the teaching video and mini-ethnography assignments were in my past teaching repertoire, I had not offered the teaching video option in ten years. When students were on campus with access to a robust library including special collections and a religious studies librarian dedicated to helping them, nearly every student in the past ten years opted for the research paper final project, with one or two students choosing the mini-ethnography assignment. With limited access to the college library, especially primary sources, I introduced the teaching video option in addition to the mini-ethnography interview analysis. The common requirement was a section on integration that required students to synthesize multiple course readings. The cognitive preparation for integration meant that students had to recall and review previous class readings to compare and contrast the variations in Japan, China, and Korea within the particularity of their topic. The final project guidelines offered three assignment choices and coincidently the students chose one of the three final assignments in nearly equal numbers. Because students had many questions about the teaching-video assignment (such as how to do one), I introduced five different online platforms they could use for the teaching-video project based on programs that I and a colleague had experimented with over Spring Break. See below for the final project guidelines and five possible online formats for teaching videos.

In recalibrating my course, my teaching philosophy, which values empathy and perspective, guided me to create an online version that promoted equity, improved communication, and provided flexibility when one size did not fit all.3 While the transition was not seamless, students expressed appreciation for the multiple way to participate, early communication about course adjustments, and the assignment choices. Several students told me that they wanted to try a teaching video or a mini ethnography because they had never done one before. This attitude demonstrated that multiple students were willing to take up a challenge with guidance and acquire new skills to share their knowledge. We were adapting to learning in a new way, even as we missed many aspects of our on-campus, in-person experience.4 While I am proud of my top-performing students who said that they learned a lot from the course and from each other, especially during the final project presentations, I also gauge the effectiveness of teaching when a student who struggled in the first half of the semester demonstrates a noticeable learning curve and finishes strong. For example, a graduating senior who struggled in the first half of the semester submitted an extensive teaching video for his final project. After the semester was over, he contacted me about sharing his video because he wanted to find a way to share the information that he had learned through his research. Although nothing can replace in-person interactive learning, online education turned out to be a viable alternative to complete the second half of the spring semester 2020 amid the unexpected challenges imposed by COVID-19 on California residents. Whether teaching in person or online, the reconsideration of participation options, virtual communication, and assignment choices revealed that the professor always has room to refine her craft of teaching to achieve the pedagogical goal of shaping new generations of students into lifelong learners.

Final Project Guidelines

Label all doc or pdf attachments with Last Name-Assignment, such as Choi-Proposal-Outline

  1. I. Proposal-Outline (50 points) due 4/14 (2 pages single-spaced) should include:
    1. 1) Working Title: What is your topic for your final project?
    2. 2) Significance: What is the significance or importance of studying this topic?
    3. 3) Key Question and Tentative Thesis: What is the problem or key question your paper addresses? What is your tentative answer or best guess at this time of your main argument?
    4. 4) Outline: List the structure of your argument. Include possible examples or evidence you will be using to support/prove your thesis.
    5. 5) Working Bibliography: Option 1: at least 1–2 primary and 4–5 secondary sources; Option 2: at least 4–5 secondary sources; and Option 3: at least 1–2 interview participants and 3–4 secondary sources.

During working hours, librarians at the college are on Chat for general questions like how to get this article, what to do if I want a chapter scanned from a print book in the library, etc. Religious Studies Librarian is still available for consultations via Zoom. Appointments can be made via library website or by emailing her directly @ RSlibrarian@claremont.edu

  1. II. Short Oral Presentation (100 points). Students will give 4 min oral presentation with no more than 3–4 slides that summarize the main thesis of their final paper on 4/29 (Group 1), 5/4 (Group 2), and 5/5 (Group 3).
  3. III. Final Product (150 points) 3 Options: 1) Research Paper, 2) Teaching Video, or 3) Mini-Ethnography Interview Analysis due 5/6.
    1. Research Paper: 7–8 pages, with up to 2 additional pages of endnotes and bibliography, double-spaced, 12 pt font, one-inch margins. Grading is based on the following: 1) clearly stated thesis and analysis of primary and secondary sources that proves/supports your thesis; 2) thoughtful integration of course readings, lectures, and class discussions; and 3) clarity of the writing.
    2. Teaching Video: 15–18 minutes, with a final outline of topics covered in video and bibliography, meant to be a teaching lesson on a topic related to scholarly inquiry or debate with the purpose of answering a specific question from your proposal. Grading is based on the following: 1) clearly stated question and accurate background to the guiding question; 2) thorough answer based on further research and integration of course materials; 3) clarity of the video presentation.
    3. Mini-Ethnography Interview Analysis: 7–8 pages, with summary or transcription of interviews, for understanding how people experience and interpret their encounters with religion, politics, and culture. Grading is based on the following: 1) insightful analysis, comparison, and interpretation of interview content; 2) providing religious, political and/or cultural background to understand the interview in its broader historical context; 3) integration of previous course readings and discussions.
Possible Video Programs
  1. 1) Zoom Record: all students have access; example is Prof. Chung-Kim’s 2nd Video on SAKAI Announcement
  2. 2) Soapbox: free for simple version; splits screen between PowerPoint slides and speaker and can be customized between slide only, speaker only or split screen after the recording is completed; example is Prof Chung-Kim 3rd video.
  3. 3) VoiceThread: free for simple version; good for presentation with lots of images/pictures; because each clip records in short sound bites (usually 30 seconds to less than 5 minutes), video preparation can be done in short segments rather than a continuous lecture.
  4. 4) PowerPoint voice record: can finish your slideshow completely first, then add recording afterwards, but no live image of speaker; good for presentation with visual learning through maps, charts, graphs, equations, and formulas, where all or most of the content is on the slides.
  5. 5) iMovie: allows the mixture of photos and video clips that you have already saved in files; good for showing short video clips, including home-made performances.

Esther Chung Kim is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Associate Director of The Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. In addition to her research, which focuses primarily on religious and social change in early modern Europe, she regularly teaches courses on the History of World Christianity, European Reformations, Religion and Politics in Early Modern Europe, History of Poverty, and Christianity and Politics in East Asia.

1 Khe Foon Hew and Wing Sum Cheung, “Fostering Higher Knowledge Construction Levels in Online Discussion Forums: An Exploratory Case Study,” International Journal of Web-Based Learning and Teaching Technologies 5, no. 4 (2010): 44–55.

2 Lisa Soon, “E-Learning and M-Learning: Challenges and Barriers in Distance Education Group Assignment Collaboration,” International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning 3, no. 3 (July 2011): 43–58.

3 Faye P. Wiesenberg and Elizabeth Stacey, “Teaching Philosophy: Moving from Face-to-Face to Online Classrooms,” Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education 34, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 63–79.

4 Aaron Einfeld, “Prospects and Limits of Online Liberal Arts Education,” Liberal Education 104, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 40–45.

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