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October 24, 2002 Online seminar is centrepiece of doctoral program



by Carol McQueen

Religion PhD student John Bilodeau will only see some of his classmates in the compulsory 890 seminar, The Study of Religion: Theory and Practice, four or five times during the year when they can all come together in one location.

However, he will interact with them online several times a week, through a Web CT system that enables users to post messages, enter discussion groups and chat with each other. Bilodeau is one of six Concordia students in a joint seminar, and one of 32 PhD students in religion at Concordia. All 32 are taking part in a joint PhD program that combines the scholarship and expertise of Concordia University, UQAM and Université Laval in Quebec City.

“Part of this joint venture is that all PhD students take a joint course which is interactive between the three universities,” said Religion Professor Lynda Clarke, who is one of the animators of the 890 seminar.

“To make the collaboration more like collaboration, and also to solve the problem of geographic distance, we rely on a Web CT site,” she added.

Effective and user-friendly

“It’s a virtual classroom,” explained Roger Kenner, coordinator of research and development for IITS, who designed the site to make it as effective and as user-friendly as possible. Each of the universities posts their syllabus and reading materials in their preferred language, and then students from all three campuses are free to converse on the course topics, their own research or on a number of thematic threads outlined in the discussion fields.

So far, Bilodeau is pleased with the results. He is working on secrecy in religious conflict, looking particularly at heretics and inquisitors in medieval Languedoc (France). His interactions with francophones from the other universities have been particularly helpful to his research.

“It’s useful to me to have native French speakers who are familiar with some of the texts help me out,” he said. It has also been beneficial to be forced to post his own work and ideas on the Web site.

“Sometimes it’s good to be forced to answer a lot of questions and be clear about what you are studying. If it’s all just in your head — if you’re working on it all by yourself — you don’t really get a sense of what exactly people will be interested in, what’s going to confuse them, what you have to clarify.”

Bilodeau says he logs on to the Web site at least twice a week, and engages actively in several of the discussion groups.

Leslie Orr, chair of the Religion Department, believes that the 890 course, with its Web-based interaction, is the centrepiece of the joint PhD program, which initially consisted of Concordia and UQAM, but incorporated Laval at the start of 2002.

“The joint program really opens up for each university a range of different kinds of scholarship,” she said, “and it enlarges the pool and the diversity.” Orr added that the 890 seminar “gives our students the opportunity to see all kinds of different approaches and perspectives, both from their fellow students as well as from their professors in the different departments.”

The Web site facilitates this communication between students and professors from different universities. “Someone at UQAM is working on raves,” said Professor Clarke, “and he posted a comment about trance and dance. I thought he might like to look at some Sufi material, so I answered in that theme. If he wants to have any more discussion, he can.”

Overcoming language barriers is another positive result of the 890 seminar. Students assimilate the appropriate religious terminology in their non-mother tongue, and learn to express their scholarly ideas in both English and French, which is an essential skill within the Canadian academic community.

Orr said, “By the time students come together in person in the second term, we’re hopeful that they will have already acquired certain vocabulary through their contact and interchanges on the Web site.”