By Stephen Andrews
Sep 12, 2022
Many positive things can be said about the benefits of online education. While in-person classes were largely suspended over the last two years because of the pandemic, students did not have to suspend their lives or learning. Wycliffe students were still able to proceed in their programs. In fact, among the 53 who walked across the graduation stage last May, there were some who obtained their degrees without ever having met another classmate or professor in person. While I doubt that any of them would say that online learning is actually better than classroom instruction, at least they now have their degrees and many have taken up positions of leadership in their churches.
Other advantages to online learning can be readily identified: students who can’t afford the expense of relocating themselves or their families to Toronto can take courses part-time, accumulating credits while learning remotely; studying online can be good for the self-motivated student, enabling them to learn at their own pace and practice good time-management skills; video-conferencing has not only helped people govern their time more efficiently (a colleague has said he will miss the “four-minute commute to work”), it has deepened engagement with people living in other parts of the world. For instance, last year we were able to offer a course to 22 pastors in Singapore. Finally, most of us have had to acquire new technical skills, and many of these skills are becoming essential tools in the ministry of the future.
Nevertheless, the online classroom has some significant shortcomings. A few months after Canadian universities went into lockdown in 2020, graduate and undergraduate students of a York University sociology professor held a discussion to explore what had been lost with the suspension of in-person classes. They came up with seven things: Community and friendship, resulting from connections formerly made in and outside classes; Presence of social cues that help to prevent miscommunication and develop trust; Sense of motivation, which had been aided by meeting with profs after class and by studying together; Staying focused because of the lack of distractions in the classroom setting; Privacy – where the lack of privacy at home can make students reluctant to share freely in online discussion; Sense of routine, where the demarcation of time enables students more effectively to distinguish between work and leisure; and Just being on campus, where the demarcation of space enables students more effectively to distinguish between home and school. The online mode, they conclude, seems to hinder educational outcomes, social experience, and personal growth.
These are all very practical reasons why many students yearn for a return to in-person learning. But they all relate to a theme that is important to Christians and to the College as we look to a new academic year: community.
Here at the College, we have been giving a great deal of thought to the meaning of the word “community” after two years of energetic and creative effort in trying to enhance our learning and fellowship remotely and virtually. At the end of the last academic year, and in anticipation of the likelihood that the pandemic restrictions would largely be relaxed this fall, I met with both students and faculty to see what worked and what didn’t in our efforts to prop up community during the pandemic, and I asked them what they hoped the features of a re-established fellowship might look like. Here is some of what I heard.
There was a general call for a more effective onboarding of new students, for both those who are residential and remote. This year, we spread our orientation sessions for staff, faculty and students over a longer period of time. This meant that people were not overloaded with information and that they had the chance to get to know each other in more relaxed social settings. Each event was well attended, and it was thrilling to have a full chapel at our first community Holy Communion service and at the barbecue on the Principal’s lawn afterwards.
Accessibility of education
The faculty recognise the necessity of offering our programs at a distance, and they are committed to doing this well. While we are wary of the dangers of capitulating to a consumerist market where theological education is simply a matter of convenience (“we are not a correspondence school,” said one member of faculty), we are sensitive to the fact that there can be a justice issue in excluding people who, for legitimate reasons, can’t come to Toronto.
Nevertheless, one student said that he wanted to attend in person because he feels the need to be shaped by the culture of Wycliffe College. Many said that, if the chief reason students felt that they couldn’t come to Toronto was financial, the College might consider making scholarships a priority for fundraising.
Sharing of meals
Food. Everyone rated a return to community dining as the top-most priority. The Refectory is an important venue where students can socialise with faculty, staff, and with one another. We have missed eating together the last couple of years, and I am pleased that we now have a new contract with the University of Toronto to provide catering for us this year. Of course, we know the value of sharing meals from the number of Gospel stories where Jesus encounters people at picnics and banquets. Like worship, gathering regularly over food is part of the healthy routine of the Christian life.
A desire was expressed to beautify the hallways and teaching areas of the College. I have great affection for this venerable building, but as long as 40 years ago, when I was a student here, I thought that the place looked a little neglected and institutional. An investment in the physical renewal of the College would enhance our feeling of being at home and increase our level of pride. A generous supporter of the College has recently furnished the Great Hall with some comfortable chairs, and we look forward to making more improvements as resources become available.
The topic of our chapel services generated a lot of conversation. Not everyone in the student group had attended worship, though some of them said that they had dropped in on the livestream (and one called that a “lifeline”). I believe that we must remain committed to the Daily Office, which is quintessentially Anglican (indeed, it may be the Anglican Church’s most notable contribution to the Church catholic), as it brings the ordered reading of Scripture into a dialogue with the core Christian convictions of the Church and with an individual’s life of prayer. Nevertheless, over half of our students come from churches that don’t share the Anglican liturgical tradition. This year, we will diversify our experience of worship by incorporating more contemporary music and by joining with the campus group, Power to Change, on Thursday afternoons.
Students were very appreciative of College efforts to establish and promote virtual social events during the lockdown. But the experience of isolation has made us more desirous of in-person contact. I am pleased that we will continue to have regular meetings of Wycliffe spouses, and that every member of the faculty has agreed to host a weekly fellowship group with students. Other College events will resume meeting in-person, but many will include an option of being involved remotely.
This is just a sampling of all that we hope will take place in the days and weeks to come to enhance our community life. But our efforts aim beyond simply improving “student experience.” It should be clear to anyone who has an understanding of the Church as a people gathered round and in whom lives the incarnate Christ that “community” is essential to our identity and purpose, which means that love and sacrifice must be characteristic of our life together. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The miracle of the Christian concept of community is that love for God involves submission, but that God’s love, in ruling, serves.”
I would invite all who support the vision and work of Wycliffe College to join us in praying that we might live up to our calling to be a community of Christ in a lonely and divided world.
Stephen Andrews is Principal and Helliwell Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Wycliffe College. Wycliffe’s programs and courses will challenge your intellect, enrich your faith, and motivate you to serve. For more information on how you might study at Wycliffe College, check out our program and course listings. If you enjoyed this post, you may also appreciate Principal Andrews’ reflection on 3 ways seminary will change you for the better.