by Margarita Mooney on July 5, 2012

This post originally appeared on the the Black, White, & Gray blog. It is the first post in a series about Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

Next week, I start my first online course in sociology of religion at the University of North Carolina, and I’m about as nervous about it as when I first entered the college classroom 5 years ago as a new professor. Despite my trepidation, I agree with New York Times columnist David Brooks who wrote in a recent column that online education can certainly be done easily and quite poorly, but that when top schools start adopted online education, amazing things could happen.

Coursera, a free online education service has created partnerships with top institutes of higher education. My graduate school alma matter, Princeton, has one sociology professor, the famous ethnographer Mitchell Duneier, teaching introduction to sociology online for six weeks starting on June 11, 2012.

When I tell people I am teaching online, I get strong and opposing reactions like from “I think online teaching is awesome!” to “I think online teaching will never work.” Others are a bit more moderate, saying, “Well, I will have to wait and see more before deciding what I think.”

Have you ever seen a bad Power Point presentation? If so, did you conclude the technology had no future or that the speaker didn’t know how to use the technology? I conclude the latter. The many hours of training and practice I put into learning Point Point undoubtedly made me a better communicator in my teaching and research. So when I decided to join the online teaching world, I didn’t do it lightly.

I started learning how to teach online because I responded to an invitation at UNC for a summer training program in online teaching. For eight weeks in 2011, I met in person and online with staff from UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence and Information Technology Services to learn about  teaching online. Anyone who wants to do online teaching well should start off with precisely the kind of support UNC has given me: expert staff in pedagogy and technology who know about teaching effectiveness–from how to engage students, how to present materials, and how to structure individual and group assignments.

Most faculty have never been online students, so that was Step 1: be on the receiving end of online instruction. At times I fumbled with the technology or instructions, but when it worked well, it was exhilarating. I recall my joy last summer when I sat outdoors at a coffee shop near UNC with my headphones on, participating in an online session on teaching health courses online. The instructor was in Dubai, the moderator was in Chapel Hill, and the students were other faculty like me all over the campus and surrounding areas. Just to continue my experience as a student, a few months ago I participated in a free webinar with students all over the world. I felt like the professor was sitting right in my living room, and I loved seeing the names and locations of my fellow students. Why don’t you try an online course this summer through Coursera? How about the University of Pennsylvania’s Coursera course on Greek and Roman Mythology?

Step 2, producing online teaching, has been more challenging, but with every challenge, the staff at UNC who helped me last summer and a few more have been available to help me. I hired an undergraduate student to give me feedback. She has also taken my class in sociology of religion in the classroom, and knows my teaching objectives and pedagogical tools well. After seeing how I designed my course website with the help of an instructional designer from UNC’s Information and Technology Services, this student got so excited she exclaimed “I wish all my professors organized our course websites this way!”

Now just a few days away from my debut online, I realize that this venture will take more hours of work than I initially imagined. But the payoff for teaching well online is huge–and the main beneficiaries will be my current students and anyone in the world who wants to benefit from the mass of great knowledge and teachers at America’s top institutes of higher education.

Once I have mastered online education, just like I have mastered Power Point and in-person lecturing, why not follow the lead of Coursera and expand my audiences beyond traditional students? Just like my blog posts present broad audiences with important textual and visual information on sociology of religion, why not envision an interactive site that combines readings, links,  assignments to apply concepts and tools, and even independent observations and research? In fact, while I taught sociology of religion in the classroom in the fall of 2011, many of my blog posts summarized lectures and linked to web-based material I used for teaching.

Why don’t you join my students in taking an online quiz about your religious beliefs and practices that will use data from the 2005 Baylor Religion Survey to compare you to a nationally representative sample. Just visit the Association of Religion Data Archives online learning modules to take the quiz, then reply here on this blog about your results. What surprised you? What questions do you have about the survey instrument or sample?

If you feel motivated, then please visit my website to see the syllabus for my undergraduate sociology of religion class and send me other ideas of online material in sociology of religion that I could use for teaching. And be sure to check back right here for more great online tools about teaching and learning about sociology of religion.