Digital Sciences for Society - foto Maurice van den Bosch

Virtual Virtuosity: Building Character through Practical Wisdom in a Digital World

How can we make the values and virtues of religious orders fruitful for social engagement and personal growth through an online learning platform?

The project in short:

The gradual withdrawal of religious orders and congregations from society is most evident in the Netherlands, where centuries-old communities are now being dissolved. Their religious heritage is monumental, both materially and spiritually. Whereas their monasteries and gardens are being repurposed, their values and virtues are at a risk of disappearing forever. This project intends to develop an online learning platform prototype to make these values and virtues fruitful through digital means in educational settings.

The project will focus on one spiritual tradition in one area: that of Franciscan communities in North Brabant. The online learning platform will present materials, modules, and methods to make their core inspirations and ideas available to students and others who want to improve their ethical competences in order to do what is right, and to make practice-oriented wisdom applicable in various societal contexts, e.g., personal leadership, care, and sustainability.

St. Elisabeth

Project objectives

The project aims to create an interactive website prototype around the spiritual legacy of Franciscan communities of North Brabant, which include contemplative, active, rural, and urban orientations. Their wisdom invites a digital, not uncritical, translation into the minds and hearts of modern-day individuals, in the sense that it offers real answers to real questions, in accessible ways.

Potential impact

In our (wicked-)problem-plagued society, the well-tested practical wisdom of religious “virtuosity,” i.e., of dedicating one’s life to the well-being of others, a caring engagement with humanity and the environment, inclusion and respect for diversity, and personal growth and character building through moral virtues like courage, compassion, humility, and integrity, are more important than ever.

An online learning platform for Tilburg University students and others to build character through practical wisdom will make these real-life values and virtues available through modules and materials using media like texts, images, and films, and applicable through training and testing methods using knowledge from sources, participants, and group exchange. The platform is aimed to support personal and social practice, i.e., making choices and taking action to the benefit of smaller and bigger communities both within and outside the university.


The Virtual Virtuosity Project will run for two years starting in July 2023.

Multidisciplinary project team

  • Lead applicant Dr. Krijn Pansters, Assistant Professor at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology, contributes from theological, ethical, and spiritual perspectives. Theological knowledge is necessary to map practices, traditions, and ideas. Pansters’ expertise on religious ways of life will make it possible to analyze ethical patterns and structures.
  • Prof. Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld, Full Professor at the Department of Sociology and also affiliated with the Tilburg Center of the Learning Sciences, is a historian who throughout his academic career has extensively studied religious institutions and culture. He co-founded Signum, the contact group for the history of medieval spiritual and ecclesiastical institutions in the Low Countries.
  • Dr. Tessa Leesen, Associate Professor at the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences and affiliated with University College Tilburg and the Tilburg Center of the Learning Sciences,  contributes from an educational perspective. Her research on character education and on the “intellectual, personal, and civic learning gains” of students is vital for the project. The method she and her colleagues use to map student growth and development, namely the narrative interview, fits well within this project.
  • Several members of the religious congregations will be invited to participate. Their stories of struggle and success will be crucial for a realistic presentation of their virtuosity. Their places of worship and practices of wisdom will provide inspiration and ideas. As an academic institute, the Franciscan Study Center studies issues such as sustainability from a Franciscan perspective. Stichting Verhalis, of which Bijsterveld is a board member, collects memories and stories.
  • Student-run company Kweek will co-create the platform.

This project is funded by Tilburg University’s Digital Sciences for Society program:

Get ready for the digital future

The Digital Sciences for Society program invests in impactful research, education and collaboration aimed at seizing the opportunities and dealing with the challenges of digitalization for science and society.

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