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PRESENCE IN DISTANCE: THE LIVED EXPERIENCE OF ADULT FAITH FORMATION
IN AN ONLINE LEARNING COMMUNITY
Marianne Evans Mount
Dissertation submitted to the faculty of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
in Human Development
Professor Marcie Boucouvalas, Chair Professor Francine H. Hultgren, Co‐Chair
Dr. Clare Klunk Dr. Paul Renard
Professor Michael Grahame Moore
March 19, 2008 Falls Church, Virginia
Keywords: presence, computer‐mediated education, online learning community,
distance education, adult spirituality, faith formation.
Copyright 2008, Marianne Evans Mount
PRESENCE IN DISTANCE: THE LIVED EXPERIENCE OF ADULT FAITH FORMATION
IN AN ONLINE LEARNING COMMUNITY Marianne Evans Mount
(ABSTRACT) The purpose of this hermeneutic phenomenological study was to better understand the ways that adult learners studying Catholic theology become present to one another, strengthen bonds of community, and contemplate the face of Christ in computer‐ mediated, text‐based distance education. Ten geographically dispersed learners seeking undergraduate or graduate degrees in Catholic theology participated in the study. There was no face‐to‐face interaction. Through a password protected site specifically designed for the research, participants engaged in eight weeks of text‐based, online conversation. They reflected on emergent themes about technology and the ways that it alters time, place, presentation of self, and relationships. Text as sacred, relational, presentational, communal, and transformational was explored, as was the nature and meaning of community, especially the spiritual quest to contemplate the face of Christ in an online community. The study offers a deep understanding of the meaning of presence and the development of community in the context of faith. Serving as the philosophical methodological foundation were the writings of Martin Heidegger (1927/1993), Hans‐Georg Gadamer (1960/1999), Gabriel Marcel (1937/1967), John Paul II as Cardinal Carol Wojtyla (1976), and Robert Sokolowski (1993). The phenomenological method of Max van Manen (2003) guided data collection and analysis through the dynamic interplay of six research activities: (a) turning to the phenomenon which seriously interests us and commits us to the world; (b) investigating experience as we live it rather than as we conceptualize it; (c) reflecting on the essential themes which characterize the phenomenon; (d) describing the phenomenon through the art of writing and rewriting; (e) maintaining a strong and oriented pedagogical relation to the phenomenon; (f) balancing the research context by considering parts and whole. Recommendations for practitioners of computer‐mediated education are explored; suggestions for future research include longitudinal studies of theology students in fully online programs, ways of introducing transcendent presence in online learning communities, how language bears on learning and presence, and the role of non‐text based media and virtual environments on presence and the spiritual quest.
We are writing this so our joy may be complete. (New Testament and the Psalms, 2006, 1 John: 4)
Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.
(St. Josemaria Escriva, 1967/2002, Passionately Loving the World)
Domine, ut videam. (Handbook of Prayers, 2001, p. 548)
It is God who said, ‘let light shine out of darkness,’ that has shone into our hearts to enlighten them with the knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the face of Christ.
(The New Jerusalem Bible, 1985, 2CO: 4:6)
This work is dedicated to:
John Paul II (1920 – 2005)
Pope, Priest, Phenomenologist
whose text taught me a way of seeing that reveals the mystery of God
in the lived experience of the human face
“Ultimately, the mystery of language brings us back to the inscrutable mystery of God himself.”
(John Paul II, Gift and Mystery, 1996, p. 7)
Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, D.D., J.C.D.
Bishop, Founder, Teacher, and Father
Who makes the face of Christ present,
And shepherds me with love.
I wish to thank my mother and father, Helen and Jack Jones, who were the first to welcome me into a community and instilled a love of learning and a passion for education. I thank my mother for handing on her most precious gift of faith in God and for her fervent prayers offered hourly for my work. I thank my Dad for his encouragement and admiration. I thank my children, Muffy and Nat, my son‐in‐law, Daniel, my grandchildren, Maris and Charlie, my stepchildren and grandchildren in Ohio, who have all supported me by sacrificing the irreplaceable and irrepressible joys of family life together. I thank my colleagues at The Catholic Distance University, for assuming heavier burdens to free me to complete this work. I have been richly fed in the bonds of this spiritual and intellectual community that supports me by their prayers, faith, wisdom, caring, and affection. I thank Bishop Paul S. Loverde, Chairman of the Board and President of The Catholic Distance University, who is my Superior and my Bishop, for generously granting me the time to complete this work. My deepest gratitude goes to the following scholars and mentors, the members of my Dissertation Committee, whom God so generously placed in the path of my life, and whose self‐giving has cleared a path for me:
‐‐Professor Michael Grahame Moore, a mentor and friend who planted in me the seed of doctoral studies and whose theory of transactional distance welcomed me into the home of being a distance educator, inspiring me to see in the truth of his theory the truth of transformation in all education as the lived experience of the relationship between presence and distance. ‐‐Professor Marcie Boucouvalas, my Advisor and Chair, who taught me by example that scholarship and service reveal the authentic community of teacher and learner. I thank her for her wisdom in knowing me in ways that I did not know myself by leading me to phenomenology and welcoming me into my own way of being in the world. ‐‐Professor Francine Hultgren, my research professor and Co‐Chair, a phenomenologist who teaches by nurturing and selflessly dwells in the pedagogical relationship of mother and child, dwelling in the presence of our
text with amazement, and offering her self in the richness of her text. I thank her for opening me to a world of scholars and philosophers whose vision helped me see the world in a new way, and to a method of research that invited me home. ‐‐Dr. Clare Klunk, a teacher and friend who taught me take the journey by following my own areas of interest in theology and spirituality. Her generosity in time and availability, her skills in scholarship hidden in the joy of her humanity, have filled me with hope and delight. ‐‐Dr. Paul Renard, a dear friend and colleague, whose intellectual skills, energy, and hard work, are matched only by his generosity in always putting others first. He has been a mentor and example, a listener and cheerleader, since I providentially chose a seat next to him in our first class together in 2003. He has been a community to me. ‐‐Professor Kenneth Schmitz, renowned scholar, philosopher, phenomenologist, and teacher, who welcomed me as an external student, offering his scholarship to explore my interests in computer‐mediated education and catechetics. He took on my burden and entered into the conversation of my journey, always encouraging me with great gentility and generosity. Despite the vast disparity between teacher and student, he made me feel at home in our faith, in a phenomenological understanding of