Cyberspace has become somewhat crowded since 1993s
introduction of the World Wide Web initiated a new form of
acronym-based Esperanto and the kind of mindless
technological stampede best choreographed by lemmings and
marketing consultants. Observers of the Internet can be
forgiven if a survey of webworld, with its megalomalls,
marketing wormholes, and porno-driven technology spurts,
suggests nothing more auspicious than the latest incarnation
of Newton Minnows vast wasteland.
But when David Batstone and Brett Greider look out over
that electronic cyberscape, they come to more positive
conclusions. Batstone is an assistant professor of religion
and ethics at the University of San Francisco and Greider is
a professor of religion at Virginias Sweet Briar
College. Together with USFs Michael Benedict,
theyve created a unique experiment in online learning,
a religious ethics program they have housed in the cozy
Global Ethics Cafe.
The first semesters online study, "Women,
Ecology, and Religion," has just concluded. Batstone
cant wait for September to roll around.
"Weve really just scratched the surface of how
communication is going to take place in the future," he
Greiders mostly Southern, East Coast students have
been "meeting" their cyberclassmates,
Batstones West Coasters, in the semester-long online
collaboration. The regional differences are only the
beginning of the cultural divides Batstone and Greider hope
to cross through the cafe. The current class connects men and
women from different ethnic and regional cultures within the
United States. Future efforts at Internet cross-cultural
pollination will be more ambitious. Next year Batstones
students connect with a class in Beijing.
THE "PROPRIETORS" hope the cafe can take
advantage of the Internets inherent qualitiesits
ability to connect people across vast distances and
experiences and the opportunity it allows to engage guest
lecturers that is literally global in scopebut the
program follows a lot of the traditional classroom forms.
Students have assigned readings and meet weekly for actual
real-life classroom encounters at their respective schools.
Both classes meet together periodically in as yet somewhat
"pixelated" online video sessions. But as far as
Batstone is concerned "the centerpiece of the learning
experience is what happens in the cafe." Here the
students meet in message conferences following the
intellectual cyberthreads of the courses themes.
The site itself is elegantly organized around the motif of
the cafe. The two classes are broken down into small groups
which regularly meet at cafe "tables" to trade
insights from the weekly reading assignments or information
and observations collected during cyber travels to other web
sites linked as additional resources for each of the
classes areas of study. Its a refreshingly
optimistic application of the World Wide Web that takes
useful advantage of the webs inarguably vast resources.
Batstones students report some distinct advantages
to the online classroom: The written messaging encourages
students to work out more thoughtful responses than
spontaneous classroom eruptions normally afford, and
its harder for stronger personalities to dominate
But a visit to the cafe suggests there may be at least
some disadvantages to online learning. Unfortunately few
things in life can "feel" as prickly as the naked
written word. Notoriously sparse e-mail-speak especially can
come off as snappish and short-tempered. The cafes
tablemates seem instinctively aware of the problem,
qualifying a lot of their rebuttal threads with "I may
have understood what you were saying..." Or
"Correct me if Im way off base, but..."
before sounding off on their classmates.
There are also none of the visual or tonal cues students
are used to in "normal" face-to-face dialogue to
help moderate intellectual volleys. Another drawback is the
general style of messaging dialogue itself. Theyre
called threads for good reason. Sometimes participants stay
on the subject; sometimes they dont. The issue that
begins one thread may be completely unraveled before it
reaches a knotty conclusion on a different subject.
Overall though, table chatter at the cafe appears slightly
more elevated than youd probably endure in a college
classroom. And you dont have to watch fellow students
snoozing into their elbows while youre trying to make a
BATSTONE HAS NO qualms about unleashing the high-tech
wizardry of the Internet on such subtle and subjective
material as religion and ethics. He argues that too many
contemporary classrooms still rely almost entirely on written
text-based learning and teaching models of the all-knowing
professor droning on before a classroom of scribbling
students. "Were using a 12th-century model in a
"Where is the significant information in terms of
shaping our community and our values coming from at this
point in our culture? Written, audio, and visual texts,"
Batstone says. "Its a disservice to our students
if they dont become multilingual in this way."
The interactivity of a website is ideally suited to
Batstones "multilingualism," allowing
students to be engaged fully in their own learning and
creating an atmosphere where all participants are both
student and teacher in a collaborative learning environment.
Greider calls this a "community of education."
Technologically the web has also reached a stronger
position to facilitate Batstones
"multilingual" education. The communications
breakthrough that may allow cyberclasses like GEC to become
more practical is the development of so-called streaming
software for audio and video playback. Using Progressive
Networks RealAudio and RealVideo players, students in
the GEC trade audio and video clips theyve composed
themselves to illustrate their classroom points and projects.
The streaming software allows these sound and video clips to
be heard and viewed in real-time as they are
"played" by the server computer. The cafes
students dont have to wait for what in the past would
have meant a lengthy file download before they can review the
online resources. (Anyone who has survived 47 minutes
downloading 24 seconds of Nixons resignation speech
will happily testify to the value of this innovation.)
Greider sees the World Wide Web as an opportunity for his
students to study religion in a new way. Liberated from their
text books, they can hear and see the religious ritual of
obscure cultures, or those without a written tradition, and
appreciate them at a distinctly more visceral level.
"We can now have access to another cultures
social texts in a way we couldnt before," Greider
says. "We can see a dance procession or a Mayan ritual
or a base community in Nicaragua and see how they celebrate
Mass." And ethical dilemmas dont have to be
interpreted according to the dry logic of written text;
students can view video depictions of ethics in action and
develop their ethical thinking according to more emotional,
But can a sense of the sacred ever really be, well,
downloaded? Batstone sounds almost impatient. "Why does
religion remove itself from the rest of our lives? We have
this sense that the sacred takes place in holy sites and in
holy moments. Well, it does, but the Spirit also moves where
people come together in community with each other." In
their response to the changing experience of daily life,
Batstone argues, religions have remained just about as mired
in traditional models as educational institutions.
"If we dont have a spiritual sense to
[cyberspace], were surrendering a great part of our
culture," Batstone says. "Cyberspace is not the
cause of our lack of community, its a response to
You can drop in at the Global Ethics Cafe at http://www.busstop.
usfca.edu/cafe. Though visitors dont enjoy full
access to all the cafes resources, they can eavesdrop
on the students conversations. A "sampler" of
how the students audio clips and interactive essays
work together is available at www.busstop.usfca.edu/cafe/debate.
KEVIN CLARKE is managing editor of online products for
Claretian Publications in Chicago, which includes Salt of the
Earth at http://www.claret.org/~salt/
Global Ethics Café. David Batstone and Brett Greider.
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