Theology Unplugged: Transforming Students in the Technological Age

By Krista Stevens

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This semester in my introductory theology class I’m asking my students to create an eight minute documentary focusing on one or more of our class’s “big questions”:  Who or what is God?  Does God exist?  How (if at all) does God relate to humans?  How do we address social justice issues through a faith-based lens?  I have never assigned this type of project before.  I have no idea what to expect.  This could end beautifully, or it could be an epic failure.  Nonetheless, I’m committed (feel obliged?) to bringing technology into the classroom beyond my occasional attempts at putting together creative PowerPoint presentations.

Those of us in the classroom are teaching students who are one of the first generations to grow up totally “plugged in.”  They don’t know a time without widespread internet usage.  They watched movies with their friends by logging on to Netflix instead of begging mom and dad for a ride to the nearest Blockbuster.  Their first cell phones were probably smart phones.  They never had to carry around ten pound laptops!  This reliance on technology will only continue.  (As a side note my six-year-old niece has “BYOD” – Bring Your Own Device – days at school where students come with or are provided with handheld devices to do lessons).

At the same time, we’re left with a pressing question.  Even as we attempt to bring technology into our classrooms through creative projects, or by “going green” and putting our course readings online, or by using social media platforms and blogs to connect with our students, what role do we have as educators in pushing back against the pitfalls of the technological age?

In April 2010, Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, spoke at a conference in Mexico City formed around the theme “Networking Jesuit Higher Education: Shaping the Future for a Humane, Just, Sustainable Globe.”  In his talk, titled, “Depth, Universality, and Learned Ministry”, Nicolás recognizes the value of technology in promoting a more interdependent world.  Nonetheless, he warns against “the globalization of superficiality” in which the “laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited” (2).  Nicolás continues:

One can ‘cut-and-paste’ without the need to think critically or write accurately or come to one’s own careful conclusions.  When beautiful images from the merchants of consumer dreams flood one’s computer screens, or when the ugly or unpleasant sounds of the world can be shut out by one’s MP3 music player, then one’s vision, one’s perception of reality, one’s desiring can also remain shallow.  When one can become ‘friends’ so quickly and so painlessly with mere acquaintances or total strangers on one’s social networks – and if one can so easily ‘unfriend’ another without the hard work of encounter or, if need be, confrontation and then reconciliation – then relationships can also become superficial (2-3).

Underlying Nicolás’ presentation is a critique of moral relativism and consumerism that the negative aspects of the internet age promote.  The infinite amount of choices and the instant gratification that the internet offers, coupled with the ability to shut out the world around us with earbuds and Netflix binges, creates a situation in which people no longer have to engage with each other in any profound or meaningful ways.

These technologies create problems for our students that are “limiting to the fullness of their flourishing as human persons and limiting [to] their responses to a world in need of healing intellectually, morally, and spiritually” (3).  In other words, the “globalization of superficiality” creates

Shallow, self-absorbed perceptions of reality [that] make it almost impossible to feel compassion for the suffering of others; and a contentment with the satisfaction of immediate desires or the laziness to engage competing claims on one’s deepest loyalty [that] results in the inability to commit one’s life to what is truly worthwhile (3).

Of course, these concerns aren’t new.  (See Stephen Okey’s thoughtful Daily Theology Post Who is My Digital Neighbor? World Communications Day 2014 for a good discussion of Pope Francis’ Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter and the challenges of the internet and solidarity).  But these issues should garner special consideration from teachers committed to their students’ overall well-being.  Almost all of the colleges and universities at which many of us find ourselves embrace mission statements that encourage a well-rounded education that develops critical thinking and moral reflection in the promotion of social justice.  These are all crucial goals in combatting the “globalization of superficiality.”

But how often do we entrust these goals only to Campus Ministry offices?  With the utmost respect to the incredibly valuable work that campus ministries do in fostering student development and social commitments in real and profound ways, the reality is that more students will pass through the doors of our classrooms than campus ministry offices.  Teachers, then, have an urgent responsibility to address these technological concerns in ways that go beyond just forbidding students from using Wikipedia as an academic source.

Adolfo Nicolás is clear – we’re not called to shun technology.  One of the hallmarks of Jesuit education (and I’d posit all good education) is “meeting students where they’re at.”  In regard to our students we must ask, “From where do they come?  What is their cultural background?  What kind of awareness of reality do they bring to us?  How do they understand human relationships?” (5).  In addition to the manifold answers we may come up with in regard to any one group of students, we should not overlook the ways in which technology has shaped their understanding of and engagement with the world.

Most of our students are technologically savvy, gadget oriented, and grew up with a world of information at their fingertips.  With a little creativity, we can help our students use these tools to enhance and broaden their learning experiences.  But for education to be truly transformative, we must be even more creative and have what Nicolás calls “depth of thought and imagination” (3) to challenge our students (and ourselves) to consider the ways in which technology diminishes human flourishing and precludes authentic commitment to others.  Can we “meet our students where they’re at” while helping them realize that “where they’re at” isn’t necessarily where they need to stay?  The cost of not doing so is high, as Nicolás points out:

How many of those who leave our institutions do so with both professional competence and the experience of having, in some way during their time with us, a depth of engagement with reality that transforms them at their deepest core?  What more do we need to do to ensure that we are not simply populating the world with bright and skilled superficialities? (6).

These provocative questions are targeted to us as educators of young women and men.  Our job is not just to ensure that our students have the skills they need to succeed at whatever profession they choose, but to ensure that our students are successful at forming authentic relationships and creating a world that is more just.  Our classrooms, then, must be places in which students can be transformed and come to see the world around them in new and unique ways.  Even as we incorporate technology into our classrooms, we must push back against its pitfalls and helps our students do the same.

Krista Stevens is a Ph.D. Candidate and Senior Teaching Fellow in Fordham University’s Department of Theology.  Her current research works at the intersection of Catholic social thought and U.S. Catholic studies.    

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