A Steady Reflection of Our Commitments to One Another in Christ

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By Alex Newman

On Friday, March 13, 2020 when Wycliffe announced the closure of the College, professors found themselves pivoting quickly to adapt to university life in the time of COVID-19.

While shifting courses midway through the term created a huge amount of work for faculty, “rather than complain, faculty did everything possible to make sure that our students are able to complete their terms,” says academic dean Peter Robinson, who is also professor of Proclamation, Worship and Ministry.

"A difficult time"

He attributes that to “a clear recognition that this is a very difficult time for our students for all kinds of reasons. Those who have children out of school, those who are sick or caring for others who are sick, those who have lost jobs and are wondering how to make ends meet.”

With only three weeks left in the term and keeping in mind that students could be “moving, experiencing disrupted patterns of home life, lost income, and general but pervasive anxieties,” Ephraim Radner tried to make the final three weeks as simple as possible. “My course normally relies on personal lectures accompanied by relatively elaborate slides, and in-class question-and-answer, as well as discussion. Shifting all this online is not complicated: I have uploaded the written lectures and slides, and—at the request of students—also uploaded videotaped versions of the lectures themselves, to be listened to/watched as desired by students.”

Professors have the same challenges, Robinson admits: “Competing demands (especially for those with children), distractions, less than stellar Internet quality. That includes not just our own Internet connections but those of the class as well.”

A shift in pedagogy

Though Wycliffe has offered online courses for some time, this “wholesale switch” has caused a shift in pedagogy, he adds. “We are learning new things about teaching that will change the way we teach even when we are able to return to the classroom. At the same time it has reminded us of the privilege of being physically present to one another in the learning process. When we are able to return, I think there will be a new appreciation for this privilege.”

One of the most difficult changes, Robinson says, is trying to engage with a class of 30 or 40 students as effectively as when physically together. PowerPoint presentations are especially challenging, he says, “because you can’t see all students at once and it’s hard to get a sense of whether they’re engaging with and understanding the conversation.”

Radner agrees. “Real discussion was not possible largely because such a discussion would have required extended time and engagement by the students, something I wanted deliberately to reduce.” Although he has used online discussion features in the past—and found it quite engaging—it required well-scheduled and energy-demanding participation—something not available at this particular moment.

A pleasant surprise

But even faculty with no previous experience teaching via Zoom were “pleasantly surprised by how well Zoom classes have gone,” Robinson says. 

One of those profs was Glen Taylor, Professor of Scripture and Global Christianity. Initially, he emailed assignments to students to give him time to get set up. When he switched to Zoom, Taylor says it was “surprisingly effective,” and easy to use—the class could see the lecture notes he had on his laptop, and they were able to have discussion groups. They prayed together at beginning and end. Much of the success he credits to Terry Spratt’s technical assistance.

In fact, online worked well, since Taylor’s course was designed to help students look up words and grammatical forms in Greek and Hebrew on their own in the future: “The point was exposure to learning tools and instilling confidence.”

If there were disruptions, students didn’t seem to mind—one of Taylor’s students even emailed to thank him profusely for the course.

Which goes to show it’s not always the tools that are important in the classroom experience but the quality of the relationships between teacher and students. That relationship component could present a stumbling block to online instruction, says Pastoral Psychology prof Wanda Malcolm. “I do some experiential work with students in Boundaries and Bridges, and my TA and I had to replace this with role plays that could be done online. Sadly, they don't work as well as they would in-person, but the students engaged as best they could and we did good work nonetheless.” 

Her Boundaries and Bridges class starts with prayer and a devotional time, followed by small group check-in, when students practice listening to each other and talking about themselves with authenticity and good personal boundaries. 

A whole class check-in

Because small group work wasn’t possible online, Malcolm switched to whole class check-in where the conversation was “understandably and rightly dominated by our concerns and worries regarding the COVID-19 crisis. I encouraged such conversation and we prayed after sharing, then moved on to the devotional. This seemed of crucial importance in a course about responsible self-leadership and self-care. The students were splendid and the class ended on a strong note.”

She’s found her outlook to teaching has shifted as well. She figures that at the end of this “forced experiment” in virtual teaching she will either be “more open to the possibilities of learning at a distance, or greatly relieved to return to a format that I know works. A major question for me is whether the winter term courses successfully managed the transition to distance learning because the students had already forged strong bonds of trust and affection with one another and with me, or if such bonds can be established in a virtual class from the beginning. I'll know more about that when the summer term ends.”

Radner says online learning has its use, but is not ideal. “Most learning in general takes place through personal encounter, which involves a mutually inhabited context, physical proximity and apprehension, and the many, if often subtle, uncontrollable elements of such encounter. Holistic theories of learning, for example, cognitive activation, have tried to explore the reasons for all this, and I tend to find them compelling.”

Sought - and received - IT support

Because she wanted to make sure discussion was possible for both her courses, Old Testament professor Marion Taylor sought the help of Wycliffe’s resident IT experts, Terry Spratt and Steve Hewko. “The technology allowed the class to be divided into different groups, and students had an opportunity to discuss the readings in small groups with their peers, then give feedback to the larger group.”

For an upcoming class April 20—Bad Boys and Bad Girls of the Bible—Taylor has fully embraced the technology. “I’ve been able to invite guests from all over the place to share their favourite bad boy or girl story with the class. This will bring a variety of voices and perspectives to the class and introduce students to six scholars they would not otherwise ever get to meet.”

Although life as we know it has been challenged by COVID-19, there have been some surprising human rewards. Robinson has witnessed “grace and compassion offered by faculty, staff, and students. People are being more gracious with one another, demonstrating care and as much flexibility as they possibly can. It has been wonderful to witness this thoughtfulness.”

Or as Radner puts it, “this part of our common life is, I hope, a steady reflection of our commitments to one another in Christ.”