Sea of Voices: Evangelism in a Post-Modern Cyberscape

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As I’ve been clearing out my computer, I discovered a paper I wrote on emerging communication technologies and evangelism. Part to find a home for it and part to share it publicly, I’m posting it here.

Direct and Indirect Communication: The Growth of Immersive Media

            Fred Craddock in “Overhearing the Gospel,” speaks on the two types of communication; direct and indirect. In direct communication, the sender is addressing the message specifically to the audience. The audience is meant to realize they are the object spoken to and the message is for them to apply. This approach, however, not only lacks subtlety but can incite a defensive response from the listener as he or she might feel under assault. Indirect communication offers something different. It allows for the audience to overhear the message. Overhearing is when the sender gives a relevant but indirect message that the audience will internalize. Craddock writes, “The two factors in the listener’s experience- distance (history) and participation (contemporaneity- are the two basic ingredients in the experience of overhearing (Overhearing the Gospel pg. 101).”

            How audiences can participate with messages has changed with the advent of interactive media. Online multimedia and virtual reality have become platforms for audiences to overhear the message through an immersive experience. In the essay, “Immersive Media Experiences,” the authors discuss the importance of immersive media, “New paradigms for media production, distribution and consumption have been emerging, introducing different sensory modalities and audio-visual surround effects, for an increased sense of presence, and also enabling participation and social interaction in the media chain, thus increasing the sense of belonging and contributing to the success of the services being provided (Immersive).”

            One application that immersive media is being used for is in therapy. OCD, autism, and PTSD are just some of the disorders virtual reality therapy is helping treat. In “Computer-Assisted and Web-based Innovation in Psychology, Special Education, and Health,” written by James Luiselli and Aaron Fischer, discusses the use of virtual reality therapy, “VRT exposes patients to virtual situations of increasing intensity and duration, seeking to provoke anxiety and then tear away that anxiety through repetition, as in a typical exposure therapy (Computer-Assisted).”

            The use of indirect immersive media is being found to be an effective tool in marketing, journalism, and advocacy, as well. The ability to transport audiences to virtual representation or share in a virtual experience is a valuable communication resource. When the deadly Nepal earthquakes occurred in the Spring of 2015, there was great urgent need to respond to the damage. Traditional direct media showed the weeping masses and the fallen buildings. The images were tragic, certainly, but perhaps not powerful enough for some. RYOT, a pioneering virtual reality group of advocacy journalists, went to the devastation with 360 cameras. Coupled with narration by actress Susan Sarandon, RYOT made “The Nepal Earthquake Project.” The video gives the viewer control of where to look as they are bombarded with the sights and sounds of the disaster’s aftermath (RYOT). This kind of media gives a stronger narrative and appeal as audiences discover the scope of the story and internalize the message. The experience crafts a deeper participation.

            Where direct and indirect communication will retain their uses, indirect messages overheard through immersive media is giving the informers, the persuaders, and the entertainers new platforms. While still in its infancy, virtual reality and other immersive media are becoming more accessible and adopted at exponential rates. It is foreseeable, in the near future, that this will become the norm for media consumption as communicators embrace the media.   

Evangelizing Post-Moderns

For all outcries of technology’s pervasiveness being unnatural, there is nothing quite so human and natural as man’s creations. Where Scripture says mankind is made in the image of the Creator God, humanity reflects this in its prowess with innovation. However, this becomes a flaw where technology is used not to enhance but replace the natural.

As the world has advanced technologically, culture has also shifted from pre-modern faith to modern idolatry of man’s knowledge to post-modern skepticism towards truth. Post-modernism would reject an idea of absolute truth. While everyone is bound by the same facts, “truth” is an interpretation. This also becomes a flaw when everyone’s truth becomes acceptable and correct.

A world of technology surrogating fulfillment and skepticism of messages called truth can seemingly be a challenge to the evangelist. It creates a culture where revelation is diminished or non-existent. Even for the Christian, post-modern technology allows us to experience a cherry picked Bible with a tailor made concept of God and His Church. This grand struggle is not new, though. God’s call to return from sin and accept Him as Savior and Lord has persisted through time, regardless of the zeitgeist. Similarly, Christians have had the same model of communication throughout history. Evangelism must be rooted in relationships.

The Great Commission commands Christ followers to go and make disciples. It is not a passive suggestion but a clear call to the front-lines. While the Gospel is potent on its own, Christians are described in organic terms of bearing fruit and being a body. Called to Christ-likeness, the message pierces through the self-absorption of technology and skepticism of subjectivity by coming alive through the obedient Christian. In “Communicating for Life” by Quentin Schultze, he writes of the authority of the message when genuine, “Person and message should be united so that what we say is a product of who we are and what we believe, not just a reflection of our eloquence (Communicating).”

Relationships are the basis of all the evangelism in the Gospel. While technology did not allow for broad seed sowing at the time of Christ, mass media has never been as effective in persuasion as the tangible. Frederick Buechner writes in “Telling the Truth,” how empathy is necessary in evangelism, “But to preach the Gospel is not just to tell the truth but to tell the truth in love, and to tell the truth in love means to tell it with concern not only for the truth being told but with concern also for the people it is being told to (Telling).” Love from sender to receiver must be understood for a message to take root. This is not to reject technology or different-minded individuals as conditional to Gospel-sharing but to state the essential need for love. Is this not the reason technology fills personal voids and post-modernism used as a crutch, to deny man’s tragic status as fallen short of God’s glory?

As the world rejects the need of a Savior and Lord, Christians must not only communicate but display the message of a life lived victoriously in Jesus. James Smith addresses a post-modern Church in his book, “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism.” Smith relates to the command for followers of Christ to be like a city on a hill, “Nothing is more countercultural than a community serving the Suffering Servant in a world devoted to consumption and violence (Who’s Afraid).” Whatever platform the message is delivered from and whichever ideology it is delivered to, the Gospel must be shared in Christ-like selflessness and unconditional love. 

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Time Saving with Online Learning

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Today, I turned in my grades for my first online course. I’ve been a distance learner but this J-term was my first time teaching a web-based class. When I proposed developing the curriculum for online learning, I still had my doubts if I could effectively meet my course objectives. I prepared the course with the best examples of online learning I researched. To my delight, my students achieved the learning outcomes and reviewed the course positively. Additionally, I gained deeper insight into online learning. In an increasingly digital world, digital courses must be at the forefront of higher education. Online education allows faculty and student alike to be freed of the restrictions of time and space; giving back time to better approach their work.

The Department of Education reported that around 4.5 million students of Title IV schools were enrolled in some or entirely in online courses. This accounts for a quarter of enrolled students in the institutions. Additionally, many turn to web-based courses through services like Udemy, Coursera, and dozens of other massive open online courses (MOOCs). Online learning is clearly gaining traction as a staple of higher education.

As I developed my online class, Hyperlocal Storytelling, I initially thought of only the convenience it offered me and my students. Within the first week, I learned there was another advantage. Time. I had time to work on other courses’ lesson plans. Similarly, my students were able to attend more courses. The confines of traditional courses can actually limit what can be accomplished. Online courses can be worked on at any time from anywhere. This flexibility gives students more freedom in their academic load and in pursuing internships or careers.

Online education isn’t perfect for every situation. Education Database Online notes two reasons students would seek traditional learning; students can utilize a university’s equipment and access tutoring and assistance. Furthermore, many students desire the tangible experience of a classroom.

Part of the challenge for online classes might be in their structure. Are the faculty creating the right learning environment? In my own preparation, my research advocated for students to have significant access to their instructors and be engaged multiple ways. My approach was to teach through the collective of emails, video lectures, reading, and diverse online and offline assignments. Additionally, students could get my assistance via video chat, phone, emails, and even office hours. Anticipating their needs, I tried to overcome some of online education’s shortcomings. The outcome was overwhelmingly positive.

I don’t believe the choice in higher education is either-or. I foresee a hybrid environment becoming the new status quo. There are now countless web-based tools for communication, collaboration, and content creation. Could writing and research based courses make a digital shift? What if more lecture heavy classes were adapted for web-based learning? Could it stand to reason that half Gen. Ed. requirements be taken online? Gaining back time doesn’t equate to a sacrifice of quality. It could mean, however, that students will have the opportunity to explore their field of study more fully.

It will take major changes to transition higher education to hybrid learning. The educational environment will need to be rebuilt from the ground up and long-held traditions will need to be revised. However, as students gain more flexibility, they will discover new ways to invest in their learning. Faculty will be free to strengthen their pedagogy. As a whole, higher education will become more relevant to those in pursuit of knowledge. An efficient online learning environment that is in tandem with traditional courses will create an education that is time well spent.

 

Why the Digital Revolution Changes Nothing

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It was the French journalist, Alphonse Karr, who said “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The advent of mobile technology and social media has both drastically altered the news business and also hardly changed it at all. A contradiction? No, it just depends on what you are examining. The relevance of these changes depend on whether you are speaking of the news organization or the journalist.

News organizations have had to adapt quickly to the era of the smartphone. People are engaging far differently with news content than ever before. According the American Press Institute, well over 70% of mobile device users utilize their devices for news consumption (API, 2014). News audiences are demanding immediacy from their news sources. The news organization must meet this growing demand with a vigilant online presence across multiple venues.

The news organization that creates content for traditional and digital audience benefits from increased viewership. While statistics demonstrate a large boost in digital audiences, the Pew Research Center shows healthy growth for broadcast news, as well (PRC, 2015). Local TV news has seen a 2-3% growth with national TV news growing by 2-5%. This data shows audiences are not choosing one media or the other but engaging news across a variety of platforms. News organizations that fully embrace their digital venues are seeing not only a larger audience but a more engaged audience.

Unlike ever before, audiences are more than just consumers but producers of the news. Whether they serve as news aggregators or even citizen journalists, audiences are now involved in the discussion alongside the reporters. Their added voices to the conversation is a double-edged sword. As stated previously, an engaged audience is certainly a boost for news organizations but that same audience creates an uncontrollable factor. The risk of a single bad tweet, a single inappropriate photo, a single piece of misinformation is ever present. Audiences are not bound to expectations of journalistic integrity. Additionally, the audience’s demand for immediacy dictates what journalists will cover and how it will be covered. News organizations now face the risks and challenges of engaging an audience who can talk back.

Yes, the things have changed. It seems as if the whole news world, for better or worse, has been turned on its head. My companion piece, Wagging the Dog, shows as much. However, the solution to all the challenges faced in this brave new digital world has always been known. Good journalism requires good journalists. In their book, “Advancing the Story: Journalism in a Multimedia World,” Debora Wenger and Deborah Potter write, “ As the technology used to manage the content becomes easier to navigate, multimedia journalism is likely to become less about knowing how to post a story or use a smartphone to capture video and more about the skills its takes to gather and present information that is relevant and compelling to an audience – regardless of whether that audience is watching, reading or interacting with the story.”

The role of a journalist has not and will not change. We are still expected to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent (SPJ, 2014). The advances in technology and audience engagement complicate our roles and will require more effort. However, the responsibilities of a journalist will remain the same across time, technology, and culture.

References:

American Press Institute, 2014. “The Personal News Cycle: How Americans choose to get their news.” American Press Institute. 17 Mar, 2014. Web. 19, May, 2015.

Mitchell, A., 2015. “State of the News Media 2015.” The Pew Research Center. 29 Apr, 2015. Web. 19 May, 2015.

Wenger, Debora Halpern, and Deborah Potter. “The Multimedia Mind-set.” Advancing the Story: Journalism in a Multimedia World. Third ed. CQ, 2015. 11. Print.

SPJ, 2014. “SPJ Code of Ethics.” Society of Professional Journalists. 6 Sept, 2014. Web. 19 May, 2015

#BeMoreDigital

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Last week, I had the pleasure to attend OBEA’s Student Day held at OETA. I was greatly impressed by the presentation on the growth of digital content by OETA’s own digital/social media producers. Their works apire to change PBS’s image of being old-fashioned and attract millenials with technology/pop culture content via online videos. Their digital content strategy was presented under the hashtag “BeMoreDigital.”

I read articles about how different local TV stations utilize digital content. The biggest take away is that there are no hard rules. We are all pilgrims in a new land. Some stations utilize social media and digital content for promoting the brand or main content platform (broadcast, newspaper, etc). Others are creating innovating original content that suppliments other works. Neither is right or wrong but both need to happen to be effective.

In the early 2000’s, it was said that we were in a culture of two screens. We watched TV and surfed the net simultaneously. For a rather recent term, we are already beyond that. We are now in the era of three screens. The smartphone has joined the family.

Its the State of the Union. I watch the president speak live from my television. I read live commentaries from political analysts on news sites. I tweet followers and read tweets by the public. I am monitoring and dialoguing on multiple platforms to get a deeper understanding.

Depth. That is what is being desired with digital content. Audiences may see traditional journalism platforms as too 2-dimensional. According to the Pew Research Center, 82% of Americans were getting news from computers with 54% saying they received it from mobile devices in 2013. Digital content allows more immediate and deeper coverage of stories. Check cnn.com. Articles often feature a video below the header, story highlights on the side, and additional hyperlinked content throughout the piece. This gives a consumer to gain a deeper understanding than a newscast would allow. Even twitter’s limited 140 characters allows video, photos, and links to be incorporated. Audiences want depth and digital content does that.

News organizations and Digital Media companies already recognize this. The Pew Research Center indicates a significant hiring boom with many Digital News organizations like Vice, Mashable, and the Huffington Post. Even traditional news outlets are training and hiring journalists who can produce and post digital content. These media companies understand that surviving means being more digital.

Creating exclusive content is one of the strongest ways of being more digital. Utilizing social media for promotions and engaging the audience is good but what is most attractive is adding depth. OETA started several digital programs like the “Idea Channel,” and “The Okie Nerd Geekcast.” I’ve seen some local stations post content during the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” that swept the nation. News organizations post exclusive reporter packages, full-length interviews, behind-the-scenes segments, and other content on digital platforms.

As the faculty advisor for a student-run TV station, I reflect on digital strategy I could employ. News 30 is the weekly cable access news program, run by students at Oklahoma Baptist University, for the city of Shawnee. With only one newscast per week, I see great applications of the challenge to be more digital. I envision daily 3-5 minute newscasts, exclusive reporter packages, spotlights on local residents and organizations. I believe that embracing digital content allows for hyper-local journalism that a community will gather around. I look forward to its implementation at OBU.

I do not ring the death bell for traditional journalism venues. Research, actually, shows their growth. I do recognize that new platforms are available and these platforms have an audience. For journalists to continue to engage the public with news, we need to get online. We need to #bemoredigital.