Q & A with Sr. Kristin Hokanson

Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Kristin Hokanson. (Provided photo)

On Dec. 11, 2001, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Kristin Hokanson was on sabbatical after serving nine years as principal of Pope John XXIII High School in Everett, Massachusetts. Hokanson had been in education for more than 28 years at that point, but as she was reading the thought for the day from the Sisters of Notre Dame St. Julie Billiart, she had an idea about a new way to do school.

The thought for the day included this quote from Sisters of Notre Dame foundress St. Julie Billiart: “In the schools, teach whatever is necessary to equip the students for life.” Hokanson credits the quote with her inspiration to create the Notre Dame Virtual School, an online network of Notre Dame schools that allows teachers and students around the world to share resources.

Earlier this week, Hokanson talked to Global Sisters Report about her virtual school and the future of education.

Tell me about the start of the virtual school. How did you get it up and running?

I received tremendous support from my congregation on the local level and the international level. I started with a pilot group of three schools from Massachusetts and an education center — so there were four from Massachusetts — and then three schools from England. We worked on online projects, did some video conferencing, did some e-pal exchanges, and it just continued to grow. I developed a team of sisters around me, and we developed a number of online projects and courses and began to offer them to the schools.

I'm also an identical twin, and my twin sister, Sr. Karen Hokanson, is also a Sister of Notre Dame. She's very involved in technology, and when we were on what we call our twin vacation week, we talked about the Notre Dame Virtual School. My sister and I felt that it would be a good idea to create a website called Notre Dame Online and put resources online for our schools.  When I got home from vacation week, I went online, secured the domain Notre Dame Online and, again, with the full support of our congregation, my sister and I got the website up and going. The Notre Dame Online website continues to be a valuable resource for our schools and is managed through our congregational office.

What is the school like now? What are your day-to-day responsibilities as principal of a virtual school?

Every single day there's networking with the schools. One of the highlights we have developed in the Notre Dame Virtual School are monthly themes based on themes from the United Nations and also themes that are associated with the Sisters of Notre Dame. The schools make contributions to those themes and, every week, I have a mailing that goes out to the schools with information on your monthly theme as well as prayer services, technology updates, information on web sites and information about webinars.

A very special project that I've worked with this year at the Notre Dame Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a new program called Global Perspective Studies Program. And what we're hoping to do this year is develop digital citizenship in all of our Notre Dame schools, so that students have a whole set of lessons and instructions on what it means to be a citizen online.

Sr. Lucie Kima, Sr. Kristin Hokanson and Sr. Claudine Dumbi at the United Nations on a panel related to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Photovoltaic Project. (Provided photo)

I imagine that, over 28 years ago, this is not anything you dreamed you’d be doing as an educator.

What I saw, as computers began to emerge in the 1980s, was that students needed to be exposed to a whole new skill set. And I also needed to be exposed to it. So I really taught myself a lot about the computers. I took a lot of online courses, I did a lot of research on it. When I started the virtual school, I thought the biggest benefit it could provide would be to provide a network of all for our schools on five continents. The vision of St. Julie Billiart, our foundress, was to bring these schools together, and we've been able to do that. For instance, right now, our school in Japan is working on a peace project with our school in England for the anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What have the challenges been in creating that global network?

I think probably the biggest challenge is keeping up with the technology changes —being able to educate ourselves with all of the changes and all of the updates.

And greatest successes?

I was asked to be on a panel at the United Nations on a panel related to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Photovoltaic Project and to speak about the global impact of technology. That was a very big highlight for me. Another big highlight of my work with the virtual school has been World Peace Day, which we celebrate every September. There's been a lot of activities that the schools have done on World Peace Day, and we've been able to share them. And now we share a lot of our resources on social media. I've set up a Notre Dame School Twitter account where, on a daily basis, I'm able to network all of our schools.

Where would you like to see the virtual school 10 years from now?

What I would like to see is a real sharing of courses from our Notre Dame schools. For instance, if enrollment in one class here in Massachusetts has six students, we would be able to do some combining of online courses with, say, a school in England. And I would like to see more sharing of resources, particularly with our schools in the Southern Hemisphere — to be able to bring the latest technology to our schools in Africa, South America and Central America. 

As you’ve stated, your major inspiration for this project was a quote from St. Julie Billiart. But I’m wondering if you can elaborate. How do you see the virtual school fitting into the charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame?

If St. Julie were here today, she would certainly have her iPad and iPhone to be able to communicate with schools globally. I think it's wonderful that when I get up in the morning, I’m in touch with Japan, which is 13 hours ahead of us; it's beginning my day and they've just finished theirs. Also, sisters see that education is a transformational force, and that we're transforming lives through education. I see that our technology can do that. 

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is staff reporter for Global Sisters Report based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @Dawn_Cherie.]