Dr. Bill Millar is the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Linfield College. He earned his B.A. degree in English from Linfield, a B.D. from Andover Newton Theological School concentrating in Old Testament and Historical Theology, and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from Harvard University concentrating in Hebrew Bible. Bill has taught students in the Adult Degree Program since joining the faculty of Linfield in 1984 and is currently teaching a sequence of online courses that move from Hebrew Bible/Old Testament to New Testament to the Holy Qur’an.
We interviewed Bill about the courses he teaches and how teaching and learning can thrive in the online experience.
Why are these courses of particular importance in today’s world?
These are the three Abrahamic faiths, in that each claims Abraham to be one of its founding ancestors. It is no secret that these three faiths are often at odds with each other. My interest is to see if we can find a vocabulary to find grounds for dialogue that encourages mutual understanding.
As a Religious Studies department we are committed to providing opportunities for spiritual growth and for dialogue among the religions of the world. Religion courses I offer are offered in that spirit.
Who are your students, in terms of where they live, and their life occupations and backgrounds?
The strength of the program is that people can live anywhere. I have had classes with a student in China, Hawaii, Iraq, Texas, as well as around Oregon. During the summer months a student may have temporary commitments elsewhere and go on a trip for a week. If internet access is available, they can keep in touch with the class. I have many nursing and business students taking courses to fulfill general education requirements.
One criticism of online learning is the lack of social interaction for students. What kind of interaction do students have with each other in your online classes?
It is a valid critique of online degree classes if social interaction is a primary goal for taking such a course. There are better ways to meet other folks. Many skills, however, can be accomplished in online courses. Discussion groups work well online. I ask that students post what they perceive the author is seeking to persuade them to believe whether or not they agree with the author. Groups discover that people see different things in a reading. That becomes a catalyst for conversation and an attempt to come up with a thesis sentence that all in the group can buy into with integrity.
What kind of interaction do they have with you as the professor?
I respond to all the postings offered in the discussion group work. My assumption is the reading is the lecture. Our role in the online class is to discern the issues, clarify the problems, find the bottom-line thesis and then give the student the opportunity to respond in a Response Paper. Students are offered the opportunity to generate their response paper topics. I return Response Papers with detailed comments entered electronically. Students may always contact me inside or outside Blackboard via email.
What kinds of written assignments and/or tests do Linfield students complete in the courses you teach online?
They write 5-7 page Response Papers to the readings of the unit under discussion. The thesis of a Response Paper is to be the student’s personal voice, apart from the author under discussion. Once that is established, the student is to critique two relevant illustrations drawn from the reading. My job is to assess if they have presented a plausible case and have been fair to the author under discussion.
What do you see as specific skills and abilities that adults gain from completing online college courses in the humanities?
We work on critical thinking skills. In the Religious Studies courses, our goal is to discern the often unexamined assumptions, within which we formulate our thinking. That involves an important shift from simply summarizing information to, once having summarized the information, step back or outside, and reflect back on the information gathered. The challenge has been summarized by some as “looking at and reflecting upon the color of one’s own eyes.” Because online courses do not require that all persons be in the same room bodily, it does allow for greater diversity of participation.
Do you feel learning about humanities subjects like the ones you teach (Religious Quest, the Holy Qur’an, Old Testament and New
Testament) lends itself well to an online format?
Yes. The initial challenge is to get to know the students as soon as possible.
Online courses are particularly vulnerable to the passive student. Online courses work best for active learners who post often. That is the only means whereby they become visible to the instructor and peers. There are many reasons for passiveness: the student is working full-time and has a family; textbooks have been delayed; reading assignments are unclear; students sometimes wait to be taught; some believe that because one doesn’t have to attend a class in body, that class is somehow easier.
What advice would you give a prospective adult student considering pursuing their bachelor’s degree through online learning?
The current DCE fall 2010 class schedule has some good advice on page 14 about what online courses are not:
- An online course is not easier or less work than a face-to-face class. Because it is text-based, you may find it more time-consuming.
- An online course is not self-paced. You’ll have assignments due at least every week and often several times a week.
- An online course is not independent study. You’ll be required to interact regularly with other students in the class.
- An online course requires timely participation and submittal of work. If you miss deadlines or don’t log in, you will probably be penalized.
- An online course allows the faculty member to see when you have logged in, which pages you visit, and how long you’ve spent in the classroom.
Where do you see online learning going in the next five years?
A look at the modern library is a good clue. Libraries used to have access just to the immediate collection organized by card catalogues. Now the library has access to the world with the creation of eBooks on the horizon. The faculty role is to discern what activities are best accomplished online and what is best done face-to-face. Hybrid courses and programs will become more and more the norm.