The place of online learning in theological education

By Peter Robinson
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At the beginning of March, the Angus Reid Institute ran a poll surveying those who were anticipating a return to work. The poll revealed that after two years of working at home many employees aren’t sure that they want to return to the office. This is particularly true in cities like Toronto where during COVID many people moved further and further out of the city in a desire to find affordable housing. The idea of commuting one or two hours each way five days a week is impractical and unappealing and as result, many companies are exploring hybrid options where employees might come into the office 1–3 days a week while working at home the majority of the time. 

Not surprisingly, the survey revealed mixed responses: a significant percentage of those polled, 25 percent, said they wanted to return to work full time. An equal amount, 25 percent, said that they didn’t want to return to the office at all and suggested that if they were forced to return, they would quit their jobs. The remaining 50 percent preferred hybrid work situations where they would be able to split their time between working in the office and working at a home office. More than 58 percent suggested that if it was mandated that they return to work full time they would either quit immediately or start looking for another job. 

In adapting to the COVID restrictions many people have made surprising discoveries as to how much work can be done remotely. In some cases, they have discovered that a breadth of tasks is possible in a remote environment. It has certainly helped that the technology for online meetings has improved by leaps and bounds during this time even if there are still the inevitable frustrations of poor connections, computer failure, and human error, alongside the myriad distractions in the home. Two years into online meetings the most common phrase is still “you are muted.” Thankfully, most of the time we don’t forget to turn off the camera when momentarily stepping away from the computer. 

While the survey was attempting to gauge how people feel about a return to the office, the question beyond the survey is: will this hybrid form of employment enable work to get done? And by work, I don’t simply mean will we manage to figure out how to get various tasks accomplished, but will a shift to a hybrid form of work be a positive long-term and healthy change for people? There are so many issues to be considered and like most other complex questions there are no simple answers. A cultural change this significant will carry with it multiple potential implications with unintended consequences and complications. It will be some time before we begin to see what those consequences are. 

Facing the same question

Colleges and universities are facing the same question, not only with faculty and staff but in relation to students. While many advocates enthusiastically tout the future of online courses, the question remains, “What are the costs and benefits of online education?”  More importantly, “Is there a difference in the quality of learning between online and in-person?” There is no question that online learning makes education more accessible, especially for those students whose life situations make it difficult for them to attend in person. It is not possible or realistic for all students to take three years to study in a residential degree. The cost can be prohibitive not to mention the difficulty of uprooting from ones’ home and relocating, which can be particularly difficult for those with families. Accessibility is a key consideration in any discussion around online learning, but it also goes hand in hand with the question of efficacy. There have been many studies that have argued that online learning is just as effective as in-person learning and, in some cases, maybe more effective, but there are many facets of this issue to consider. Some of what we have learned is significantly improving both in-person and online learning. 

I am still astonished when I think back to March 2020, when over one weekend there was a wholesale shift from in-person to synchronous online. The shift, which demanded a tremendous amount of work, has forced faculty to revisit basic pedagogical assumptions in a manner that has, in some cases, helped them to improve teaching skills: skills that are applicable to both online and in-person learning. Some faculty, who were adamantly opposed to online learning, have been pleasantly surprised—not only by what they have learned but by how well their classes seem to be going. Certainly, at Wycliffe, the goodwill of faculty, staff, and students has meant that almost everyone has been gracious and supportive in trying to adapt to the change in learning. 

The place of online in higher education is not a new issue brought about by COVID. Enabled by technological developments, there has been a gradual shift to online learning for at least 20 years. The experience under COVID restrictions has significantly accelerated a shift that was already well underway even as it has also fast-tracked our adoption of tools, our understanding, and our skills in online learning. As a result, the question is no longer whether to incorporate elements of online learning but how to incorporate these resources. Yet, many faculty remain unconvinced by the surveys promoting online learning for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that there are considerations that need to be explored more fully in order to understand the variety of implications. 

Given the relative success of online learning, it is not surprising that some institutions are exploring a future where online learning is the primary, if not the only, form of course delivery. Others are more reticent to put all their confidence in online for a variety of reasons. To begin with, there is simply no substitute for the breadth and depth that can be offered through in-person learning. The multi-dimensional learning that happens in person is difficult to replicate online even with a lot of effort on the part of the teacher. While some students are able to make the most of the online opportunity, others find the lack of breadth in communication difficult. For teachers, it is much more difficult to take note of those students who are drifting off, those who are struggling to understand the topic of the day or those who are struggling with distraction. In the classroom, smartphones or the laptop computer often prove more of a distraction than an aid to learning. Online this is even more of an issue for students who are struggling—those who are easily distracted or find it harder to concentrate when their browser is open. Or those who find it difficult to set aside the time for their studies because they are still immersed in their regular life situations. Even more significant than practical issues of communication is the way in which in-person learning naturally facilitates conversations that spill over into the hallway, or over lunch, or a coffee. While opportunities can be provided to mirror this kind of “in-between” learning, and some students will naturally initiate their own conversations with others, it is significantly more work to facilitate and cannot readily substitute for the in-between opportunities that occur naturally in the context of in-person learning. 

Theological considerations

For theological colleges (and for local churches exploring a return to in-person worship) the questions regarding online learning are not just pragmatic they are also theological since theological convictions shape our approach to learning. In his introduction to The School of Faith, T.F. Torrance provides a rich and complex argument for the nature of Christian learning. While we cannot hope to do justice to his argument here, it is worth noting a couple of important principles. First, we are embodied creatures by design and not default. T.F. Torrance argues for a Christological frame to our learning when he says: “behind all Christian communication or instruction lies the supreme fact that when the Word became flesh, God accommodated or adapted His revelation to human form in Jesus Christ, so that the closer instruction keeps to the humanity of Jesus Christ, the more relevant it is to the humanity of the receiver.” While Torrance is affirming the centrality of the humanity of Christ, he is also affirming the way in which God has communicated himself to us in Jesus. In Jesus Christ, God has entered permanently, irrevocably, and intentionally into the matrix of human relatedness and embodiedness to communicate himself with us. The incarnation must frame our own understanding of communication and instruction in the Church and in the academy. 

God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ in turn points to a second observation, which is to argue that Christian theology must always remain rooted in and grounded in the life of the Church historically, globally, and in its own particular situations. T.F. Torrance argues that “Christian instruction requires as its medium a historical community of persons in fellowship with one another in Christ if it is fully to achieve its end.” That suggests, at the very least, that ordering our lives together towards God is not only a response to learning but the basis of learning, which in turn serves to remind us of the central place of regular worship in theological learning. While students must participate in worship in their own local churches, there is something very significant about worshipping together as a learning community. Praying with and for one another, reading the Word together, confession and absolution, preaching sermons and sharing in the life of Christ provide a foundation and context for our classroom learning. 

My intention in this all too brief reflection is not to offer a comprehensive or conclusive argument on these issues but to encourage further exploration. It would be foolish to ignore that there are ways in which distance learning can be grounded in an embodied, ecclesial frame, although it is much more difficult to facilitate than proponents often suggest. As we seek to renew our life together as learning communities, it is vital that alongside questions of accessibility and efficacy, we continue to ask basic questions about the nature of Christian education in the context of the person and work of Jesus Christ. In this light, it seems appropriate to end with a word from Calvin who, in his Little Book on the Christian Life, reminds us that we are not just forming minds but aligning our lives with God. 

            "For true doctrine (or teaching) is not a matter of the tongue, but of life; neither is Christian doctrine grasped only by the intellect and memory, as truth is grasped in other fields of study. Rather, doctrine is rightly received when it takes possession of the entire soul and finds a dwelling place and shelter in the most intimate affections of the heart … in order for doctrine to be fruitful to us, it must overflow into our hearts, spread into our daily routines, and truly transform us within."


Peter Robinson is the Academic Dean and Professor of Proclamation, Worship and Ministry at Wycliffe College. If you appreciated this post, you may also enjoy "Some rules on developing leaders in and for the church" and "Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Not a method but a mode."