This article was originally published in Net: An eJournal of Faith-Based Distance Learning.

Many cannot imagine that real character formation can be achieved in any format other than in the traditional brick-and-mortar model of residential education with in-class face time. Profound character formation, however, can and has happened through quality and effective learning in online education. Good pedagogy toward fostering character formation begins with an understanding of the heart and soul and their relationship to one another. Allowing this knowledge to inform the creation of well-framed questions and prompts while fostering mutual engagement between students and between students with their instructor provides not only higher levels of learning but also lasting character formation in the student. This article addresses a foundational approach to character formation in online classes and some practical, user-friendly techniques to facilitate deeper learning and character formation. These are applied to various features of a learning management system, particularly discussion threads, video conferences, and collaborative documents.

The content for this blog series is drawn from my book, Character Formation in Online Education:A Guide For Instructors, Administrators, And Accrediting Agencies (Zondervan 2015).

Skepticism remains among educators whether a goal of character formation in online education is possible. Many cannot imagine that real transformation can be achieved in any format other than in the traditional brick-and-mortar model of residential education with in-class, unmediated face-to-face time. Character formation has and continues to be cultivated through online education. For some instructors, the question remains whether character formation can happen in online education, but for a growing number of educators, the question is how it can be achieved. The following pages offer a foundational approach to character formation in online classes and some practical, user-friendly practices to facilitate deeper learning and character formation. These techniques are applied to various features of a learning management system (LMS), particularly, discussion threads, video conferences, and collaborative documents.

The Heart and Soul

Character formation begins with a proper understanding of the heart and soul. The heart is often misrepresented in American culture, for the heart has much more to do with how we live than what we might be led to believe. Perhaps the closest we can come to this idea is when we speak of doing something “whole-heartedly.” In Proverbs 4:23, believers are warned: “Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life” (HCSB). Mentioned nearly one thousand times in God’s word, it is clear that the heart is important to God. Three components make up the human heart: mind, emotion, and will (Coe, 2011). The mind, the thinking function of the heart, is where our thoughts are received, processed, and formed. Emotions are tied to thoughts as we have feelings about all thoughts. The will is an expression of what we actually do (or do not do) with our thoughts. Components of the heart—mind, emotion, and will—are often examined separately but were created to function together. They make up who we are. Our lives are our hearts in motion because the heart is the control center of the soul.

What About the Soul?

The soul, too, is often misrepresented. Understood as the non-material “essence of who we are,” would unfortunately be only partially correct, as Scripture does not support the bifurcation between “soul” and body.[1] The two words translated “soul” in the Bible, nephesh in the Old Testament and psuche in the New Testament, describe living beings or human beings, not just the immaterial aspect of a person. Early in Genesis (2:7) we are told that the union of our body (the material substance) with our spirit (the immaterial substance) forms a living soul (nephesh). The soul, which includes the body, comes to mean “the whole person,” all of what makes up the “self.” All human beings are souls.

Considering the soul as only its immaterial aspect can minimize the impact the body and its actions have on character formation. When the body is excluded from an understanding of the soul, we unintentionally disregard the effect physical actions and behaviors have on our soul. In an organic and dynamic way, the heart impacts our actions and behaviors and these, in turn, influence our soul and thus the heart.

Character formation happens as we learn to think, reflect, and live as Christians with a conspicuous faith, allowing our souls to be vessels and conduits for the grace of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power. This kind of reflection in online classes is possible through well-framed questions that keep the whole person in mind and through the development of a strong learning community that fosters positive relationships for optimal learning.

The Well-Framed Question

A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.

-Francis Bacon

Questions are at the heart of learning. A good question affects intelligence, interest, attention, memory, and conduct. The quality, more than quantity, of questions is critical in generating transformative learning and an integrative learning community. Well-framed questions stimulate the students’ understanding of concepts and course material and encourage insightful engagement with peers and the professor. They help advance the line of discussion, inquiry, and reflection toward greater understanding of an idea or intellectual task. Vague or simplistic “yes or no” questions fail to do this, as do mundane, repetitive questions. Investigative questions help students discover truth for themselves and enable them to reflect on its impact on their lives.

Reflecting on a topic or idea is the brain’s way of making connections toward grasping a concept or truth. Puritan pastor Richard Baxter understood the power of consideration and meditation “for the moving of the affections, and for the powerful imprinting of things in the heart” (Baxter, 1650). Intentional reflecting helps connect thoughts with emotions. “The deeper something is in our heart, the more it influences our life” (Saucy, 2013), as the heart is the control center of the soul, the whole person.

Questions or prompts that impact character formation most are those whose responses make a close connection between the subject matter and human emotion. With a proper understanding of “heart” and “soul,” well-framed questions that include these words or are created with “heart” and “soul” in mind help promote meaningful meditation. This is particularly important as the Internet can make more matters more pressing, generating quick reactions rather than deep reflections. The addictive nature of Internet use can leave people little time to ponder more deeply on a matter and places more emphasis on the insatiable self than on the concerns for or impact on others. Human beings are designed to pause. Meditating on a response to an effective prompt touches the emotions and affects the will, which results in living out what has been learned and embedded in the heart.

Information, facts, or truths are applied to students’ lives in ways such that students can determine how their lives will be characterized. Here are a couple sample questions that are designed to elicit meaningful meditation:

  • Paul states in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily (with the soul), as for the Lord” (HCSB). In light of the biblical understanding of the soul, what challenges do you face in being obedient to God?
  • Consider Psalm 119:11-13. Which is more difficult for you, to get God’s word into your heart and soul or to speak having been impacted by God’s word? Explain.

Not only are we impacted as individual souls that are directed by our hearts, but as souls created to thrive in community.

The Online Learning Community

Our culture perpetuates individualistic isolationism with its emphasis on self. Such autonomy is a constant temptation in contemporary society. Anthropology professor Michael Wesch observes that students are fluent with entertaining self, not with educating self. They may be digitally adept but not adept at educating themselves.[2] The ease and ability of accessing information is not equated with acquiring knowledge. As educators, we have been placed in the unique position to impact not only what but how students mature in their learning and to further develop critical thinking and discernment of the information they retrieve.

The training in and for our various disciplines taught us to ask defining questions, think broadly for resources, pursue answers, wrestle with apparent contradictions, press through when we have “hit the wall,” and discover deep within us the motivation that what we are learning will indeed make a difference in our world. When we bring these to our students, they take notice of what education looks like.

A Christian education has always been more than content delivery or information transfer. It is committed to both academic excellence and spiritual transformation. Educators care about their academic discipline and Christian fidelity as they equip their students through an academic subject. They understand that knowledge without character formation limits true impact on students, their community, and the world.

Students learn more when the course content fascinates them and when they believe professors care about their learning. Create something they want to learn and that they want to learn from you. Students become more engaged in their own spiritual transformation when they are confident their professors value life transformation. The goal is character formation and educators can provide opportunities for students to change something about themselves and grow as whole persons. Consider these words from a student:

A few weeks ago I thought I knew most of what it meant to be a Christian. I thought I had a good grasp on my faith if I did little things to improve it. I thought I knew who I was and who my God was. I was wrong. At the end of the course, in just these three weeks, I have gained more knowledge on biblical interpretation and have developed my spiritual formation more than I ever have in my life. I now have confidence to serve the Lord, obey his command, and submit to his authority because I know my identity in Christ. This brings me the greatest joy. I am looking forward to a continuing transformation toward being more Christ-like in my faith through the forms of spiritual discipline. I have learned.

This kind of learning can best be accomplished in a community that values knowing and being known. Learning together influences deeper levels of engagement.

In an online learning community, this includes relationships with both professors and peers. Cognitive anthropologists Lave and Wenger (1991) observe that, “Learning involves the whole person; it implies not only a relation to specific activities, but a relation to social communities—it implies becoming a full participant, a member, a kind of person.” Having others present changes behavior and adds emotional engagement to the process. Creating an effective communal environment for learning is critical and can be challenging. There are schedules to consider as well as the willingness and ability to engage in conversation and dialogue, and this refers to the professor as well as students. Cultivating a presence in an online course community is critical. The professor who cultivates interaction with and between students breeds a “classroom away from the classroom” that is healthy enough to minimize the disadvantages of geographical distance, while maximizing the advantages of engaged learning and having profound experiences of authentic Christian community.

In Part Two of this three-part series, these four elements will be applied to collaborative learning tools found in learning management systems.

[1] Jesus speaks of a separation of soul and body in Matt 10:28, but he is describing what happens at death when the soul or person is separated from the body, resulting in a disembodied soul. In Revelation 6:9, the Apostle John identifies the disembodied souls of those persons who were martyred. These disembodied souls would be incomplete souls because though the soul remains the real person with or without being embodied, it is designed for embodiment. For Christians, this will happen at Christ’s second coming when believers receive new, resurrected bodies.

[2] Michael Wesch, is associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University. His work also includes media ecology and the emerging field of digital ethnography, where he studies the effect of new media on human interaction.