A colleague once pointed out that only machines can multitask. If people could multitask, you'd be able to read a book and write a book at the same time.

What people can do, on the other hand, is split their attention, which is a lovely thing to be able to do, but which comes with risks. The more loose ends you generate over the course of a day, the more items float in your short-term memory, popping up as reminders at times when you're unable to do anything about them. Unheeded, these warnings leave cortisone footprints of stress as they walk through your mind, and you are left without the inner attention required for reflection.

So how can we reflect thoughtfully in an ADD world? How can trustees cultivate the practice of shared reflection despite the barriers of time and distance? One set of answers comes from the world of distance learning.

Vincentian Father Tom Esselman, director of distance learning at Aquinas Institute of Theology, coined the phrase "online wisdom communities" for a chapter titled "What Technology Can Teach Us About Religious Pedagogy" in the new book Educating Leaders for Ministry (Liturgical Press, 2005).

While Father Esselman emphasizes the theological appropriateness and pedagogical effectiveness of Web-based curricula, the component of broadest application is the "asynchronous threaded discussion area," or message board, on which students respond to questions and post comments. These appear on the Web page as elements of an outline, all of which are available for review and response by all participants at any time. Classes that can meet in person only a handful of times during the semester use the online forum to foster the deep, shared theological reflection necessary for turning experience into formation.

Esselman's experience is that deep thinking is necessarily shared thinking. As students compare experiences and analyze them within a theological framework, a sense of rapport and shared mission grows. Far from being alienating, the mindful nature of written communication, in conjunction with the face-to-face experiences, allows discussion board participants to share more of themselves and create stronger bonds of community than is common under more usual classroom circumstances.

The idea that deep learning is necessarily shared learning is at the heart of the wisdom community model out of which Aquinas's approach to Web-based teaching grows. The online environment provides unique tools for people to gather in the presence of the Holy Spirit for collaborative and transformative learning.

At the heart of reflection is returning, and returning is the essence of an online discussion group. Imagine the implications for the board of a theological seminary. A few minutes of time become available, and your computer is in front of you. Opening your browser to the page where the conversation awaits, you find that it has grown. You respond immediately to some comments, but others require some thought, so you wait to reply to them on your next visit, after you've had time to carry them with you. Returning to previous portions of the conversation, you move back in time to review terms and familiarize yourself with the chain of argument so that you can respond more appropriately. When a verbal exchange grows dynamically in physical space, ideas gain a temporal fluidity unachievable anywhere else. The sudden insight that pops up long after a regular conversation has passed now has its place in the discussion. The introvert and the extrovert stand on equal footing. The bonds of community grow in an environment set outside the constraints of time and schedule.

The technology involved is not fancy. Aquinas Institute of Theology uses an off-the-shelf software package for all its online curriculum. Neither is shared reflection fancy; all that's required is humble listening and open sharing of experience and perspective. All that's left is small pieces of time and comfortable bits of attention.

The Author Recommends:

"My first step in preparing for this issue's column was searching the topic "technology" in the In Trust Archives, where I ran across (now) editor emeritus Bill MacKaye's Focal Point column from the Summer 2003 issue of the magazine, published in conjunction with the launch of our (then) new Web site. We've learned a lot since then, but it was inspiring to see how the broader goals remain the same."

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