Established connections are key as Religious Studies senior seminar course moves online

Associate Professor Amy Allocco's preparations for a shift to online learning are just one example of the efforts by faculty across the campus in response to the coronavirus outbreak, which has meant a temporary suspension of in-person classes.

Elon faculty are poised to transition their classes from a traditional face-to-face model to online learning on March 23 as the university community continues its efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). The shift online is just one way the lives of Elon faculty, students and staff have rapidly changed amid efforts to confront the outbreak.

Among those now approaching her course using new technologies is Amy Allocco, associate professor of religious studies, who is incorporating extensive communication with the students in “Religion at the Table,” her Religious Studies Senior Seminar. The capstone to the religious studies major, the course focuses on the relationships between food and religion.

Noting that interpersonal connections are even more critical now that people are more separated from one another, Allocco has been facilitating online conversations with the seven students in her class. She is using their input to inform her planning and is supporting group conversations via GroupMe and with platforms for feedback like Google Forms.

“This way they’re being empowered and not told what to do. For example, I learned that they’re interested in seeing faces and being together, so the class will be synchronous,” Allocco said.

To help Allocco and others with the transition online, Elon’s Teaching and Learning Technologies and other campus resources have been hosting multiple training sessions leading up to the transition. Faculty members including Randy Piland, senior lecturer in communication design, are sharing useful software and technology tips with their colleagues. Different professors are approaching this change from many angles, and tapping into different technological tools.

Allocco and her students are meeting online to communicate about the course and tapping into tools such as GroupMe, which offers a platform for the group to connect with each another on a more personal level. Allocco invented something she calls “roll call” to facilitate conversations. During a recent roll call, she began by recounting her day, which included an eight-mile bike ride and submitting an article for peer review. She says “roll call” gives the students a perspective of her beyond the role of their professor and opens the door for them to share about their lives.

Messaging with her classmates during Spring Break, Megan Hernandez-Greene took a selfie with her dog Sunny.

In a recent GroupMe chat, students sent photos of what they’re doing while away from Elon. They shared images of themselves in front of snow-covered mountains in Montana, sharing a sofa with a fluffy cat named Cashew and posing cheek-to-jowl with Sunny the dog.

Before the changes on campus, Allocco incorporated a lot of cooking and family-style meals into the class, which had been meeting at lunchtime. Now online, Allocco is changing her approach. They’ll be using WebEx for class meetings, and she has invited alumna Sarah Turner Wells ’14, a religious studies major who went on to culinary school after Elon, to contribute content from her home in California.

“We talked about a video, and I think Sarah is gathering recipes connected to religious offerings and festivals. She may make a dish connected to upcoming holidays like Easter and Ramadan,” Allocco said.

Before Spring Break, the students were preparing recipes important to their families and faith experiences. When the class was reading “Miriam’s Kitchen,” a memoir connecting tradition to Judaism and food, Zach Angel brought his grandmother’s matzo ball soup for the class.

Sonya Walker, left, shared this photo during a family visit to Montana during the break.

His classmate Sonya Walker said that sharing a real-life recipe that is so important to another student was a powerful learning experience for her. She pointed out that personal contributions like Zach’s will keep the class connected through the semester.

“It’s going to be hard, but we’re going to do just fine,” Walker said. “We’re all human, going through this time together, and that has made our bond stronger as a class. We’ve built a good foundation to make this work. Dr. Allocco is trailblazing for us and with us. She is our glue.”