Contemplative Online Learning Environments
Journal of Online Education, 2007
By Laura Sevika Douglass
184 Boston Av.
Somerville, Ma., 02144
Online courses are gradually becoming a central aspect of education, from high schools to major university doctoral programs. As online courses are embraced to serve curriculum that focuses on spirituality and wisdom traditions, questions arise as to how the teacher can encourage contemplative online learning environments. This paper is an effort to outline ways in which the body, social isolation, identity and aesthetics in online education can be approached mindfully.
Online courses are gradually becoming a central aspect of education, from high schools to major university doctoral programs. Currently 40-60% of schools that offer traditional classes now offer online courses and it is believed that half of all current university students take courses online (Ausburn, 2004) . Despite the increase in use of online education, many professors and institutions approach technology centered education with extreme hesitancy, reluctance (Cox, 2005) and emotion (Rhodes, 2004) . The relative newness of online education means that as educators we are still in the process of outlining borders to contain and sustain this relationship of higher education with technology. We are still struggling to grasp the uses and limitations of online learning environments. This paper is an effort to outline ways in which the body, social isolation, identity and aesthetics in online education can be approached mindfully.
My motivation for writing this article came from being asked to translate a weekend intensive course to an online format. The course, “The Psychology of Yoga,” is an exploration of the classical literature of Yoga ( Taittreya Upanis?ads , Patañjali's Yoga Sutras) , and a critical examination of the idea of Yoga as therapy and as psychology. The class offers an embodied practice that includes meditation, asanas (physical practices of Yoga), chanting and yoga nidra (systematic deep relaxation) to give the students an opportunity to experience some of the practices we discuss. Initially I questioned online educations capacity to be as effective as the traditional classroom for this complex subject. I questioned whether the format would really serve my students, or negatively contribute to their isolation. As I struggled to find news ways to integrate contemplative practices and group work within the class, I began to uncover some of my own resistances to technology. This article is an exploration of these resistances in my attempt to create a contemplative online learning environment.
Spirituality, Contemplative Practices and Technology.
Spirituality within education is a subject in its own right and one that has received increasing attention since the turn of the century (Chickering, Dalton, & Stamm, 2006; Mechthild, 2004; Steingard, 2005; Tisdell, 2003) . I am defining spirituality in education as an education dedicated to freeing the student and teacher from preconceptions, to liberate into inquiry, and to ema ncipate our selves from habitual thinking patterns. Spirituality in education emphasizes the building of relationships between teacher and student, student and ideas, others and ourselves (Dillard, Abdur-Rashid, & Tyson, 2000) . The term “spiritual” points to a pedagogy that understands the difficulties inherent in making these connections and developing these relationships. Spiritual pedagogy addresses these difficulties by first examining the individuals relationship to his or her own mind. The relationship inherent to spiritual pedagogy is best examined by a mind that is calm, centered and focused.
To achieve a calm, focused mind spiritual pedagogy uses contemplative practices. Contemplative practices are those activities that assist the individual to construct a calm mental landscape from which to thoughtfully build a relationship with one's own self. These practices are varied and have their roots in different wisdom traditions. They could include meditation, breath awareness, physical movements, thought awareness, arts based learning, and/or journaling. While much work is being done on the value of contemplative practices in higher education (Chickering et al., 2006; Ellyatt, 2002; J. P. Miller & Nozawa, 2005; Speck et al., 2005; Tisdell, 2003) , I found only a single published article linking spirituality (Catholic perspective) with online learning environments (Gresham, 2006) .
The relative dearth of material linking contemplative practices and online education is somewhat surprising. Online curriculum is embraced by institutions such as Naropa, California Institute of Integral Studies and Hindu University – all educational centers that pride themselves on bringing spirituality into the discourse. The lack of written material lead me to question, “can electronic communities of learning be spiritual environments?” Some proponents of online education state that electronic communities are human, and thus all have a spiritual component (Palloff & Pratt, 1999) . While it is true that electronic communities are human, we have not shown ourselves to be a species that naturally gravitates to creating reflective, peaceful and spiritual communities. War, violence, crime and social injustices continue to overwhelm many communities across the globe. It seems somewhat naïve to assume cyberspace would be different. Spirituality requires cultivation. It is a process. This process when engaged in consistently and over time can lead to greater awareness of our selves and the way that we and the communities we are engaged in do and do not embrace contentment, non-violence, self-study and reflection. To bring the process of mindfulness to online education takes considerable time, reflection, and dialogue. We must give ourselves time as educators and students to explore and find the pedagogical techniques that best support student's mindful use of and relationship to learning with computers.
All wisdom traditions and their associated contemplative practices highlight that the process of mindfulness and contemplation starts with self-knowledge. This is no different as we begin to intimately engage with online learning. Contemplative online learning starts with a deep reconsideration of one's own relationship to technology. As I began to rethink my course, I reflected on the ways that I thought about my computer and about technology. I wanted to re-design this relationship so that mindfulness pervades the process of teaching online. For example, if I sit down to answer a threaded discussion and hope to get it done quickly due to not wanting to be on the computer, the lack of contemplation will be reflected in my answers and negatively effect the student's own experience of online learning, as well as his or her own relationship with technology. We need to inquire into the ways that our own contemplative practices and wisdom tradition inform us about technology, and allow the strength of this self-awareness to color the way in which we approach technology in the classroom.
Cultivating a Mindful Relationship with Technology
A more mindful society and learning process cannot be achieved by technology alone. Students need to be empowered to find opportunities for self reflection and self-appraisal in all learning environments (Derrick et al., 2003) . This becomes particularly salient for online students. The self-reflection process starts with our relationship to technology. Increasingly computers are being viewed as “social actors,” that is objects with which we have a direct relationship and that influence the way we work, think and feel (Langer & Moldoveanu, 2000) . People may “trust” their computer or feel antagonistic towards their computer. The nature of this relationship directly affects the teacher and/or students ability to work with technology as a learning tool. It is very difficult to ask someone to work with an individual (or computer) who they feel is unethical, untrustworthy or unreliable. A central aspect of teaching online is to draw attention to this relationship. The first questions we must ask ourselves should be related to our own relationship with technology: what is my thinking regarding online education? What is my relationship with technology? Do I approach technology with the same mindful inquiry that I might approach different forms of “otherness”? Am I open and receptive to this relationship? Or closed?
As we begin to cultivate a mindful relationship with technology it becomes important to work with an ongoing contemplative practice that continually revisits and challenges our initial assumptions regarding online education. Mindfulness is not a product, but a process (Langer & Moldoveanu, 2000) . Tools that can enhance our relationship with online learning in a contemplative fashion aid this process. For example, I have installed the mindfulness clock ( http://www.mindfulnessdc.org/mindfulclock.html ) on my computer. This is a free program for those with a sound card in their computer that sounds a bell every hour, quarter hour or at random. I set the clock to ring every hour at which time I pause, take five deep breaths and assess the way that I am interacting through the medium of my computer. I encourage students to install this free program and to dedicate themselves to learning about how they engage with and express themselves through technology as part of the course.
Online journaling is another platform that can enhance the student's and professors reflexivity regarding computers, technology and learning. The online platform our institute uses, Ecollege, provides a journal which users can choose which portions of their journal will be private, public, or for the professor. I use this platform to actively note how I am reacting to learning online. It is my hope that by fostering awareness regarding my reactions to the technological aspect of pedagogy I can increase my own awareness about the process of learning online. Exploring this intersection between self –subject and community - technology is also an excellent exercise for students. Most educators heartily endorse reflexivity when teaching about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, body ability, or age but hesitate to encourage such self-reflection regarding technology use. We often accept our prejudices regarding technology as valid with little questioning.
The Body in Online Education.
The “missing body” (Cohen, 2006) in online education is one of the primary concern with teaching in cyberspace. Students do not have face-to-face contact and are frequently not in the same geographical area. Teachers and students alike are suspicious that online education is socially isolating and diminishes the quality of learning. Body language is viewed as essential to communicating subtleties of content and relationship between ideas (Blake, 2000) . I agree with the importance that the body has to learning. I find it problematic that there are vocal concerns with the lack of the body in the online environment when scholars are struggling to integrate the body into the traditional classroom (Berdayes, 2004; Cohen, 2006; Shusterman, 2006) . It seems ironic that the body has been dismissed and missing from higher education for so many years, and now it is upheld as one of “the” reasons online education is not effective. Disparities like these need greater attention for they call attention to the way that we may be using our scholarship to support our views only when and where it pleases us.
While vocal intonation, facial expressions, hand gestures and postures are all believed to convey important information in the classroom (Blake, 2000) , these aspects of learning are not unproblematic. Feminist scholar, Bell hooks states “ …to remember yourself is to see yourself always as a body in a system that has not become accustomed to your presence or to your physicality” (Hooks in Kazan, 2005, p. 379) . Online education obscures the way that the body has been traditionally used to evaluate the scholarly potential of the individual. Age, gender, class, sexual orientation, race, and religion are all intimately linked with our physical presence. Is the complaint regarding the lack of physical presence really discomfort with not being able to judge knowledge and scholarship based on these common markers of appearance?
Online education asks us to directly confront the ways that we use face-to-face interaction within higher education. For example, my friend Toni actively engages in many political forums online. Most people she is communicating with do not realize that she is a woman, and she notes a difference in how people interact with her both prior to and after they “find out” her gender. Teaching online is thus a great opportunity to explore some of the specific ways that we make judgments, and intellectual assessments based on the body. If we miss “seeing” facial expressions, this can inform us about the experience of blind students. If we long for the subtleties of “hearing” vocal intonations to help us discern the meaning behind words, this can inform us about the deaf communities experience with knowledge construction.
Comfort and discomfort with our physical selves aside, working with our embodied sense of self is something that those in higher education (particularly those who are white and/or middle class) have considerable mastery over. We have learned ways to mask aspects of our less than ideal self and body through expensive clothing, hairstyle/hair dye, jewelry, make-up, “expertise,” power dynamics conveyed in voice and tone or other signifiers. We have yet to devise ways to mask those aspects of our self that are less than ideal in cyberspace. Our inability to post to the web, download files, design a simple “myspace” profile, create digital videos or other aspects of web-based teaching are much more difficult to hide. The inability to work with and through technology positions highly intelligent individuals as inept. Whether we like it or not we, as educator, will be and are judged by our students, our colleagues and our selves regarding our proficiency in this new medium. Most technical issues can easily be learned in a short six-week online tutorial. It is the rare professor who could not master the technology behind online education. We should question whether is really lack of technical expertise that sustains resistance to online education. Scholars are intelligent and capable individuals who are constantly engaged in learning new information, and finding new ways to convey it. The discrepancy between how the body is viewed in traditional and online instruction requires a rethinking of our relationship with the body even more so than it does with our relationship with technology. This tension may ameliorate itself over the next ten years as more and more scholars are focus their attention on how the body is and is not acknowledged in the classroom. Considerable attention is being given to age (Norris, 2006; Woodward, 2006) and dis-ability (Breckenridge & Vogler, 2001; Samuels, 2003; Ware, 2002) in the classroom.
Social Isolation and Interactivity in Online Education.
The second major critique of online education is the social isolation of the student caused by the lack of interactivity in online education. Simultaneously proponents of online education hail technology as creating a deeper sense of community (Blake, 2000; Connick et al., 1997; SÃderstrÃm, Hamilton, Dahlgren, & Hult, 2006) . Online education directly confronts the tension between visibility - invisibility, social isolation - community in the classroom. By examining both sides of this critique we will better understand the role of education in supporting community or social isolation.
Critiques regarding lack of interactivity in online education revolve around the suspicion that online teaching is socially isolating. The classroom and on-campus setting is seen as ideal setting for connecting students to an active community of learners. Online learning not only does not connect students to this community, but is also seen as diminishing communication and debate of ideas by not providing a physical space in which students can meet to informally discuss and critique what they are learning in the classroom. Spontaneity is also seen as lacking in the online learning environment as threaded discussion topics are frequently “pre-decided” by the professor.
Proponents of online education see these critiques as relevant only to the needs of the traditional student (early 20s, living on campus, full time student, generally with financial support). Online education is strongly linked to serving the “untraditional” student, who is often working class, ethnically diverse, older and juggling parenting, work, and school (Aries & Seider, 2005; Leadiwood & O'Connell, 2003, p. 599; M. T. Miller & Mei-Yan, 2003) . These students frequently cannot benefit from the strong campus life of many universities. The choice for many of these students is between online education and no education. The link between non-traditional students and online education needs a more mindful exploration. Is this link itself causing us to approach online education with trepidations? Do we link online curriculum with inferiority due to the population it serves? In what ways can we create an interactive and socially engaging online learning environment that directly serves non-traditional students?
Creating online curriculum that is both contemplative and socially engaging may mirror many of the familiar techniques already used in higher education. The following are a few examples of how we can engage the online student in communities of learning:
We can make our online curriculum interactive by having students write a 1-2 page “reflection” on some aspect of the course content. They can then share these responses in small groups of 2-3 were they provide feedback to each other via e-mail and compose a short synopsis of what they have learned with the entire class.
We can link students to outside communities by creating assignments were they themselves are responsible for linking to a larger community. Students can be assigned to organize a study group around one of the topics covered in the course in which they serve as the facilitator.
Students can be connected to top professionals in the area of study by inviting two (or more) professionals to dialogue over email around a topic that concerns them in the field. Students read these emails and then as a group decide on two questions that they will ask both professionals.
Mentoring is another way for students to directly experience inter-connectivity. For students who are doing entire degrees online (without any regular classes), it could be beneficial to pair new students with an experienced student so that they have someone that they can directly connect with over the experience of learning through and with technology.
There has been substantial work written on the effectiveness of having students move through the curriculum in cohorts (Connick et al., 1997; Santally & Raverdy, 2006; Speck et al., 2002; Tallman & Fitzgerald, 2005) . I have spoken with several faculty who work primarily online and they feel that it takes an entire semester for students to really bond, and began to explore their intellectual boundaries. As exploring these edges is the role of much contemplative and spirituality based education is about, teaching in cohorts may be an essential ingredient.
Have a community space for students that is not related to the classroom. This can host forums, show films, share music reviews, poetry or creative writing.
These techniques are a few examples of ways that online education may be adapted to be more interactive, and to foster a sense of relationship that is so essential to contemplative practices and spiritual education.
Proponents of online education state that there is increased social interactivity online. Online educators proclaim that k nowledge is essentially a social construct that necessitates the existence of communities, and because online education fosters the development of such communities of practice it is often superior to the traditional classroom (Ausburn, 2004) . I initially questioned whether this could possibly be true. Yet t housands, if not millions of people every day interact over the websites “myspace,” and “youtube.” Online forums are prolific. Students already engage in text messaging, streaming videos, and instant-messages. These technologies are acclaimed as connecting, not disconnecting. I thought about how I hear technology refereed to and realized that students complain of too many emails, too many ways to be accessed and communicated with. It has been the rare instance in which I have heard complaints that technology is decreasing the individual's interactivity with the outside world. Perhaps the question for us as educators is what can we do to make our online classes a meaningful place of social interaction? Mindful inquiry will allow us to thoroughly examine the way that we may be using technology to isolate or connect.
In her article The Turn Within: The Irony of Technology in a Globalized World , Douglas argues that we do sometimes use our increased communication to self-isolate, and to increase our ethnocentrisms. She argues that this does not stem from the technology, but that we as humans make the unconscious choice to use it this way. Douglas explores the static nature of our complaints regarding technology; citing the invention of the telephone, which was at once scathed as an invasion of privacy and saluted as something that brought us together (Douglas, 2006) . More scholars need to be involved in the shaping of our relationship with technology. How can we be contributing to the “digital revolution” in a way that is positive and constructs more mindfulness in our daily interactions and with our use of media?
Another idea that educators struggle with is the concept that online students do not need a set identity. Students can fashion themselves as anyone because there is no physical reality for them to be tied to. Students may develop entirely false identity, or multiple identities. Students can develop profiles with pictures of their current self, or from five years earlier when they were younger and lighter. This dilemma has not yet been reported in higher education, but has certainly been looked at as socio-cultural phenomena in online community and chat rooms. In Davies articles, Negotiating Feminities Online (2004) she states that young girls and women present multiple identities online as a way to negotiate the multiple roles that they play in life – those that are public and private, those as mother and lover, worker and creator. By developing alternate identities online they are able to give voice to a particular aspect of themselves that is not “seen” in their “real” life. They are able to explore what it would be like to have some invisible aspect of them selves as more visible. By using the online environment to negotiate meaning between these different aspects of self (seen and unseen) is primarily problematic when we seek a coherent unified self (Rhodes, 2004) .
A unified sense of self is sometimes promoted in larger universities who ask students to develop a “professional profile” that students comprise and maintain. It usually has a picture, with a list of academic interests, internships and other aspects of professional identity highlighted. This profile is automatically uploaded to the course website once a student has registered for a course. This is an interesting concept, as it conveys the “formal” information and unified sense of self that a professor is likely to get from a student. It is naive to assume that this profile summarizes a student in his or her entirety. While such a profile can help students understand what is acceptable professional behavior, it also may inadvertently reveal what aspects of self are seen as intolerable or unacceptable in the classroom.
The question of identity in the online classroom raises similar issues for the traditional classroom: do we pressure students to create a specific identity for the classroom? Do we encourage a single visible identity, while encouraging other aspects of self to stay invisible? Acknowledging that students may have multiple identities, and inviting them to share those that are most relevant to the course work may be positive for both online and traditional classrooms. I, like most online educators, start every course by having students introduce themselves in a threaded discussion in the same way one would in a traditional classroom. Each student shares something about him or herself and what he or she hopes to learn in the class. I also invite students to share their myspace.com profiles, as well as give fellow-students links to their websites (which most students have), or websites they particularly enjoy. Students frequently take advantage of this tool, finding out their fellow students interest in music, literature et cetera and start “conversations” outside of the “class.”
Issues of identity are not confined to online education, but are part and parcel of education. Students struggle in the classroom with how their identity is being affected by understanding such complex issues as class, race, gender and heterosexism. The search for an authentic self is often citied as the reason for increased body enhancements, elective surgeries, and sexual reassignment surgeries (Pena, 2006) . We need to inquire into why people think they do not have an authentic self to begin with? How does education demand that we clarify our identity to others? And in what way do online forums and education provide a safe space for students to explore such issues of identity?
Environment and Education: Changing the Aesthetic of Your Computer.
Imagery helps us access and negotiate constructs of self (Grushka, 2005) . Due to the importance of our visual world in informing who we are, it is a good practice to invite students to change the aesthetic environment of their computer. When we are using the computer as our primary learning tool, the implications of allowing or accepting that someone else (Microsoft or Macintosh) decide on your aesthetic environment send a subtle but persistent message that “you” are not present. That your world and your learning experience is controlled and controllable. Seriously reflecting on my own reservations regarding technology and the classroom I came to see this as one of the unspoken aspects of learning online that I needed to directly address. We can and do affect technology. The following are a few simple ways that students and faculty can directly change the aesthetic environment of their computer:
Often students and faculty keep the same background on their desktops. Encourage changing the desktop to reflect one's own personal aesthetic choices. For example, a visual artist may choose a Picasso print as the image to which their computer opens.
Font and font size can also be customized to aesthetic preference (in email as well as on the computer). This can help those with slight visual impairment or just difficulty working from a screen for prolonged periods of time.
Students and professors can download audios of music to be played in the background during online chat time to help them stay focused or to set a tone.
These aesthetic choices are subtle, but I think important reminders about our own influence on the way that we choose to use and live with technology.
Methods for changing the aesthetic environment of our computer are not new. They may need to be emphasized for student and professor alike as we design courses that we hope open students to authentically explore the intersection between themselves and their culture, technology and community. We cannot expect mindful learning to “happen” in the online environment any more than mindful learning just “happens” in the traditional classroom. If we are committed to a holistic vision of learning we must inquire in to how we can structure this type of learning in the online environment.
Those resisting online interaction have been labeled a type of fundamentalist (Hotchkiss, 2003) . By using this label proponents of online interaction may mean that the movement against online education is premised on a strict and literal adherence to a set of unspoken, but basic principles education. These rules, especially as they relate to the body, community, and issues of identity are brought to the foreground by discussions of online education. To assume that these issues solely relate to online education is a mistake. What online education does do striking well is provide a forum for us all to rethink and re-engage around pedagogy.
Online education also highlights how education is thought of by the larger culture. Those seeking to earn degrees are not the only ones using online education. There are podcasts from MIT, lectures on biology, students can learn meditation or Chinese. With many sites such as free-ed.net offering entirely free self paced education, the issue of online education brings up many questions regarding the identity of higher education institutes themselves. How are we unique? How do we fit within a larger framework of a society interested in and dedicated to learning? Who has authority in education? In what ways could and can we offer some of our services for free? (For example Wayne State University offers an online tutorial on violence against women that is required for all first year students, and is also free to the public). Would this detract or add to the attractiveness of attending a degree-based program?
Contemplative education aims to address the questions of online education with a willingness to encounter what one brings him or her self to the relationship. There is space for openness and for not-knowing. There is space for curiosity, transformation, and authentic relationships. We do not really know the full possibilities of contemplative online education, yet we are beginning to understand some of the questions inherent in technology mediated learning. As institutes of higher education begin to embrace these questions regarding online learning we may reach greater insights into how we view the ever-shifting landscape of education. As we reflect on our relationship with technology with mindfulness, we may be able to shift how a new generation of students reflects on and engages with technology.
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