The Online Capstone: Collaborative Learning and Research in a Virtual Environment

The senior capstone course typically functions to assist students in integrating studies within a major, but it also casts an eye toward their progression to the next stage – advanced education and/or a career. At Appalachian State University, a regional public comprehensive institution, previous conceptions of this course in our religious studies program pulled together students for an interactive seminar experience that required demonstration of the knowledge they acquired over time in the department. More recently, the course kept the seminar format, but became a specialized study of a select topic usually correlating to faculty research interests. As an exclusively online professor living and working at a two-hour distance from the campus, the religious studies department faculty did not support my many proposals to offer this course until Spring of 2017. The resistance centered around contentions that the online format did not correspond appropriately to the goals of this course and would not be a fitting finale for students in our program. My colleagues, however, finally agreed to let me take a turn at the privilege of working with our majors in an area related to my own research, but with the goal of creating a genuine capstone as traditionally defined. The course I delivered deliberately tested the potential for an asynchronous virtual learning experience with, -- in this case -- all on campus students, to achieve several distinct goals: (1) to conduct collaborative undergraduate research requiring student skills in project conceptualization and design, archival investigation, data gathering and analysis, and communicating results clearly and concisely; (2) to develop in students individually and as a group the facility for, and the content knowledge necessary to, generate multimodal digital artifacts for a range of different audiences; (3) to increase student confidence in professionally interacting with persons both internal to and outside of the university; (4) to clarify individual career goals as they relate to the major and acquire the ability to produce items appropriate to a showcase portfolio at graduation. This presentation will begin with a brief overview of how the course was set up and operated while sharing some of the notable products created. I will then reflect on how this process utilizes the uniquely interactive possibilities of an online educational platform for meaningful mentoring and community building. Most specifically, I will focus on establishing faculty presence as both a colleague and a guide, promoting student responsibility for learning, generating individual student capacity for conducting varied tasks while simultaneously tapping into best practices in collaborative research, and wedding conceptual academic research with practical transferable competencies. Finally, I will give a considered assessment of the successes and the weaknesses of this first- time effort based on more than a decade of online teaching experience as well as research in the field of online education. I will also have a strategic guide for adapting this work to a variety of settings in biblical studies/religious studies classrooms.