The purpose of this dissertation study was to explore the professional preparation of students in online classes at a Christian theological seminary. Concerns of theological education involve the capacity or incapacity of community development and somatic or embodied learning in online education. Using a theoretical framework drawn from communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), professional clergical preparation (Foster, Dahill, Golemon, & Tolentino, 2005), and Gee’s (2000-2001) dimensions of identity development, the researcher focused the analyses on students’ written texts located in the discussion board fora of the online courses. These records were examined for indications of formation of the professional identity of the developing clergy, interpretation skills necessary for the clergy, performance development for activities entailed in the profession, and contextualization proficiencies for the situated enactment of the local church ministry essential in the practice of the professional clergy. The study concludes that students’ discussions evince dimensions of the development of professional identity and pastoral imagination as described in Foster, Dahill, Golemon, & Tolentino (2005). In addition, stories shared on the discussion fora, told both by the instructors and the classmates who had a range of experience in first careers or in pastoral ministry, built a shared repertoire of professional practice as inherent in a Community of Practice (Wenger,1998). The dissertation study confirms if and then identifies how graduate students in online ministerial preparation use discursive and interactive participation to identify with the professional Community of Practice of the clergy
The structures of the discussion board fora, the roles of the instructor, and implications for instructional designs that may support the development of pastoral professional identity are also included. Findings demonstrated that less structured discussion prompts as well as more frequent postings stimulated more student-student interaction that built relationships. Courses that focused more on student-content interactions had less relationship building. A non-evaluative facilitation tone of the discussion fora generated a more collaborative environment. In classes that utilized a learn-by-doing approach, collaborative student discursive activity in the discussion fora supported and enhanced learning. Creative discursive activities such as case studies and role plays provided simulated experiences and spurred narrative development of shared repertoire.
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