Infusing Lutheran Identity into a Digital World

May 24th, 2018 | Category: Lutheran Education Commentary, Secondary Education
By Ardelle Pate

The Digital Academic World

How is Lutheran identity fostered in a digital academic world? The digital world is taking on, and perhaps, taking over, the educational dialogue at the university level of most public and private universities. Lutheran identity can be fostered through one’s connectedness with a community of learners and through relationships built between students and teachers through personalized, differentiated education.

What was once a practice of instructors nurturing didactic talks with students face-to-face has now changed dramatically with the fast-growing phenomenon of online learning. One issue within a digital environment is how to support the mission and vision of a university and how to continue to help develop a student’s societal identity through personal and relational academic communication. Instructional design underpinned with theory, pedagogical approach, and strategy can respond to the need to focus on Lutheran identity within online academic environments.

The Philosophy of Digital Teaching and Learning

Two philosophical thoughts concerning the relationship between identity and moral character exist: John Locke’s understanding that personal identity is dependent on personal experience and G.W.F. Hegel’s assertion that identity is linked to a personal and social relationship with others. This secondary understanding is further supported by Wardekker and Miedema who indicate, “one cannot even make or retell individual memories without reference to the social relationships and schema that culture provides, and others understand” (as cited in Glanzer & Ream, 2005, p. 14). Their findings purport that the structure of the curriculum engages some form of identity formation, and that universities should make curricular changes to form students’ Christian identity (Glanzer & Ream, 2005).

Erikson also adds his philosophical thought indicating that the primary task of young adults and adolescents involves the stabilization of identity (as cited in Glanzer & Ream, 2005). Glanzer and Ream further assert, “the Christian tradition is that one’s Christian identity is one’s most important and fundamental identity over and above one’s other identities (e.g., national, ethnic, familial, vocational, etc.). In fact, one can only properly understand oneself and these other identities in light of one’s Christian identity and the Christian story that gives meaning to that identity” (p. 17).

Vieker (2015) claims that Lutheran DNA loaded up-front is something that encodes who Lutherans are as they develop and function as God’s people. Lutheran identity is distinctively infused with the identity of a Christological Church and rooted in the Bible; it considers the Bible a rule and norm for judging doctrine. In essence, to be Lutheran is to be evangelical, sacramental, and confessional. Following the teachings of Martin Luther, Lutherans summarize their beliefs in three phrases: grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone.

Lutheran Identity and Digital Communication

Lutheran identity sees faith and life as relational, and part of Lutheran identity is to serve others (serving our neighbor) and thus honor God for the gifts he has given mankind. Oberdeck states, “Vocations provide something of benefit to Lutheran neighbors. Here, “neighbor” is defined in the broadest terms possible, from our spouse to our employer to the nameless person who receives the benefit of our labor” (as cited in Bull, 2016, p. 44). Thus, servant leadership places a person in relational bond with others, which translates to assisting all those in need. Basic denominational and confessional teachings involve Lutheran behavior as much as belief (Cimino, 2003). Lutheran identity is also found within the history of the church, and it is demonstrated through a rich tradition of liturgy, creeds, arts, and public service.

Lutheran identity also pertains to Lutheran educators who model servant leadership, spiritual leadership, and visionary leadership. In addition, they practice stewardship of resources, and give support and empathy to others. Through leadership, stewardship, and support, Lutheran educators also build relationships with their students. Oberdeck states,

…the vocations of learner and educator exist in an intricate relationship as one influences the other in a whirl of cognitive, affective, and psychomotor skill acquisition. The vocation (i.e., dedication) of learner is lifelong and scripture supports the enduring nature of learning across the life-span, especially when describing our relationship to God. (as cited in Bull, 2016, p. 43)

The Community of Learners

To be part of a community of learners, one needs to be interconnected within the university. A university is an environment rich in activities, conversations, and academic pursuits. These rich resources need to connect to all online students, who represent a cross-section of generations from baby boomers to millennials, all of whom exemplify needs resulting from societal changes; they all have different backgrounds and influencers that have shaped core values to varying technological communication needs (West Midland Family Center, 2016).

Students entering the university “are beginning to reject the cookie-cutter mold of traditional education in favor of one that promotes innovation, creativity, and adaptation to new environments and unique situations” (Saba, 2016). As in the traditional classroom, the learners look to the online instructor who is the facilitator of learning and the one who provides the social equilibrium. Swan, Garrison, and Richardson (2009) indicate that a dynamic balance of social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence enhances learning, giving the learner an equal voice in the teaching and learning process. However, the dynamic balance is upset when the textual conversation overshadows verbal subtleties.

When universities use linear and static instructional systems, learners are less likely to engage in dynamic interactions with others as their focus is to achieve predetermined objectives. When the instructional design is non-linear and organic and dynamic, interactions with the instructors, peers, and materials occur (Saba, 2017). Part of being non-linear and organic is to establish the community of learners, specifically for those who learn within the digital environment. This community of learners would allow students to communicate with each other outside of the parameters of the online class. If the online students can become part of a supportive community of peers, with activities and resources outside of the online course, they can generate and validate new knowledge and begin to assimilate into the university-at-large. As Glanzer and Ream (2005) state, “the final goal of transformation is not only for students to learn the Christian story, but also to own the story of the Christian church as their communal and individual identity” (p. 26). These students look for a dynamic, innovative experience that offers differentiation. Within the differentiation, students need the opportunity to converse in a non-linear, organic space. Because online conversations are textual, they hold no emotion and no identity. To augment the university’s identity into the community of learners, synchronous (real-time or same time) conversations spaces need to be added.

To infuse Lutheran identity into any digital environment, instruction needs to be personal (focusing on social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development), relational (responding to one’s recognition of an interconnectedness with others), and theoretical to distance learning theory. Just as personalized instruction enhances the learning environment for the individual, relational acumen motivates adult learners, who want both respect and a positive relationship with a caring instructor (Scott, 2015). When instructors help students form communities of learners, they are “equipping students to serve and lead with integrity, creativity, competence and compassion in a diverse, interconnected and increasingly urbanized church and world” (Concordia University Chicago, 2017).

The Role of the Instructor

Distance learning theorists agree that teaching/learning is a personal and individual act, with the instructor playing a key role in facilitating learning (Saba, 2016). Holmberg, a distance learning theorist who advocated personalized education and guided didactic conversation, saw empathy as the primary role of the instructor and imparting knowledge as the secondary role. He postulates that if personal communication between the learner and instructor takes place in the framework of a friendly conversation, students understand the material more readily (as cited in Saba, 2016).

Moore’s theory of transactional distance states that transactional distance is really a psychological distance that varies based on the modulation of autonomy, structure, and dialogue which is measured by the quality and quantity of communication between the instructor and the learner. Shearer demonstrates in an experimental study that there is an inverse relationship between dialogue and structure. When dialogue increases, structure and the level of transactional distance decrease. When structure increases, dialogue decreases, but transactional distance increases as well. It takes skill, practice, and dedication to incorporate distance learning theory to achieve personal and relational instruction in online education (as cited in Saba, 2016).

Without the ability to freely converse with an individual outside of an academic, textual environment, personal and relational instruction becomes problematic. Every course needs to contain a dynamic balance among the social, cognitive, and teaching presences during the course of study. While research reveals that synchronous (real-time or same-time) communication offers more benefits than asynchronous (anytime, anyplace access) communication, merging both methods of communication is the best practice

Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication

Synchronous communication is more authentic, as it parallels traditional face-to-face practice, giving students immediate feedback, which promotes a sense of community (Boling, Hough, Krinsky, Saleem & Stevens, 2012; Haythornhwaite & Bregman, 2004; Hrastinski, 2008; Levin et al, 2006; Mabrito, 2006, as cited in Journell, 2013). Synchronous instruction can allow for fluidity in personal and relational nuances of Christian education, such as the ability to enlist Christians through the witnessing, one of the fundamental purposes of a Lutheran university.

Asynchronous communication is best with reluctant and independent learners (Harastinski, 2008; Larson, 2003; Lyons, 2004 as cited in Journell, 2013). In a research study using Blackboard Collaborate (Politis & Politis, 2016), the researchers found employing additional online interactive tools might enhance learners’ motivation and determination towards online learning. The study suggested connectedness and readiness to use instructional technologies benefited both the student and the instructor. The use of any synchronous tool that allows for real-time video-streamed dialogue also allows for personalization and relationship-building.

Online Education at Concordia University Chicago

At Concordia Chicago, we walk together and act as the Latin meaning of the word Concordia suggests; the translation of “with” and “heart” describes the single heartbeat of all those Lutherans who share the commitment to the faith, doctrine, and confessions. Wardekker and Miedema state “there is no such thing as one right outcome regarding identity formation” (as cited in Glanzer & Ream, p. 17). In this complex, diverse 21st century world, the university fabric, especially the fabric of those within the faculty, draws from a diversity of backgrounds. Relationships must first be interwoven into the instructional design of the course, with careful consideration to promote and facilitate more personalized interactions beyond the textual to occur between the instructor and the student.

Because the media of the second decade of the 21st century offers a plethora of options for interacting beyond text, the instructional design must explore every option and school each faculty member on effective, personal interactions on these platforms. While many may be hesitant to venture into this venue of synchronous interaction, it is the only method of creating social and teacher presence that constitutes the essence of relationships that promote personalization. Through more online synchronous interaction, teachers teach in a manner that is personal, relational, and learner centered. LEJ


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Author Information

Dr. Ardelle Pate is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Concordia University Chicago. Her background is steeped in educational experience from K-12 teaching to higher education. A graduate of Valparaiso University (BA), Kent State (MS), Northern Illinois University (MA, Ed.D.), and other institutions of higher learning, she is a Christian educator who is blessed with the teaching of graduate students.