Seminaries expand remote learning as pandemic continues

Seminary classes and events, like this Zoom gathering of Wycliffe College faculty and students, have moved online this year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: Contributed
Published October 27, 2020

Theological colleges across Canada have adapted their teaching models to the COVID-19 pandemic, as online and remote learning become the new norm.

In seminaries that previously offered online programs, faculty and students were able to quickly make the shift to internet-based learning. An April survey by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) —which, according to its website, has 270 member institutions in the U.S. and Canada—found that among 237 schools that responded, those offering online degrees beforehand were better able to make the shift to remote learning.

Among schools that did not offer online degrees, 68% said they had to develop training for under-prepared faculty to teach online. By comparison, only 44% of schools that already offered online degrees had to develop such training.

To examine the impact of COVID-19 on seminary education, the Anglican Journal spoke to representatives of three theological schools: Wycliffe College, the Atlantic School of Theology (AST) and the Vancouver School of Theology (VST).

COVID-19 has proved especially lethal for elderly people. Daniel Driver, interim dean of the Atlantic School of Theology, says seminarians in some at-risk demographics might not feel safe studying in person this year. Photo: Borevina/Shutterstock

Each of these institutions had previously offered online programs and reported being able to make the transition to remote learning quickly and successfully for summer courses. All courses this fall at each of the schools will also be online.

Interim dean Daniel Driver said AST has been offering online classes for 20 years. It also had a summer distance program as part of its M.Div curriculum, in which students learned remotely throughout the year and then came to campus for six weeks during the summer.

In the wake of COVID-19, the summer distance program had to be done entirely remotely.

“In a lot of ways, we’ve been fortunate, in that there’s capacity among the faculty already to teach online,” Driver said. “I have heard from colleagues in Toronto and elsewhere who kind of wouldn’t teach online—‘I won’t teach online; over my dead body’ sort of thing. We don’t have that with our faculty here.”

Nova Scotia has been less affected than other parts of Canada by the pandemic. As of August 18, there were only four active cases in the province, following a three-week stretch of zero new cases.

However, the decision to hold all fall courses at AST online was made before that lull in new infections.

“I still think it makes sense for us because of the age of our student body,” Driver said, citing the school’s diploma program with the local Roman Catholic diocese as an example.

“There can be some younger people in that program, but often it’s retirees or active lay people who have other jobs or careers. I think a number of people would not feel comfortable participating, necessarily, if they’re [in] a higher-risk demographic if it was an on-ground class.

“I do think that the experience isn’t exactly the same,” he added. “So we’ll see. This’ll be a year that we look back on, I think, for a long time.”

Wycliffe College switched to remote classes in the third week of March, a process that academic dean the Rev. Peter Robinson said went “incredibly smoothly.”

While Wycliffe had offered online and remote learning for years, Robinson largely credited faculty, staff and students for the speed of the shift.

“I personally think that students have really been very gracious and very positive in the midst of a difficult situation,” Robinson said. “They’ve not been complaining or bemoaning the switch, but they’ve actually been very positive and very supportive in the recognition that everybody is really going the extra mile to make this work as best as possible.”

At VST, which has long offered “hybrid” classrooms combining in-person and online education, the switch to entirely remote learning was also largely successful. In some areas, attendance has actually increased from before the pandemic.

VST principal the Rev. Richard Topping. Photo: Contributed

Ordinary enrollment in VST’s summer school, for example, is about 140 course registrations. This summer, by comparison, saw 200 registrations, which principal the Rev. Richard Topping called a “significant increase,” bolstered in part by improved ease and availability for international students.

“We had Indonesian students at our summer school because of the possibilities of online education; from across Canada and the United States and Hawaii too,” Topping said.

However, the shift to entirely remote learning has also forced the school to curtail some programs. The Teaching House That Moves, a joint program between VST and Henry Budd College for Ministry which brings theological education directly into Indigenous communities, has been postponed due to many of these communities being under lockdown.

Even those programs that have gone ahead face the challenge of how to compensate for the loss of in-person experiences. Since 1984, VST has hosted an Indigenous summer school, which this summer was held entirely online.

“The feedback from students was, they liked that they could still pick a course even though they couldn’t travel here,” interim academic dean and Indigenous studies director the Rev. Ray Aldred said. “But people missed the fact that the highlights were always the social gatherings. We had a salmon barbecue. We’d get together for … Folklorama, when we’d share music and speeches and talents, and we couldn’t do that.”

The heavy use of technology such as Zoom for remote learning comes with its own problems.

The Rev. Ray Aldred, interim academic dean and Indigenous studies director at the Vancouver School of Theology (VST). Photo: Contributed

“People have a hard time staying connected staring at a screen for that long of a period of time,” Aldred said. “One of the ways that I adapted was I give people a break every 45, 50 minutes, because you just can’t focus for that long.”

For many seminary teachers, the experience of leading classes during a pandemic has prompted re-evaluations of their teaching methods, with many trying out new strategies and approaches.

Driver, for example, was spurred to try something new with his summer intensive Hebrew course. With the closure of elementary schools in March, he started planning how his family would handle homeschooling for their three children. At this time, Driver was looking to demo a new textbook he thought might work for an online environment now that AST had switched to remote learning.

He started working through the textbook with his two older daughters, which became a 30-minute routine each day. After three months, Driver’s 12-year-old daughter Liviya had learned enough Hebrew that she could serve as a teaching assistant and provide extra support for his online class. The pair recorded a series of videos together on the contents of the textbook for the summer class.

Daniel Driver, a professor and interim dean of the Atlantic School of Theology, recorded videos with his 12-year-old daughter Liviya for his summer Hebrew class. “I think a lot of the students connected,” Driver said. “It highlighted the unusual circumstances that we were under.” Photo: Contributed

“That was fun,” Driver recalled. “For me that was an unexpected turn that had some hidden benefits. I think a lot of the students connected.… It highlighted the unusual circumstances that we were under, right?

“Everybody was home. Anybody living with family had their family in their classroom with them. That was true for me as well, and so I tried to make a virtue out of that. I think students appreciated that.… A mother in the class had her own two boys at home, and they saw their mom go to class every day and had to give her space to do that.

“In the end, I think my teaching will be different as a result of this experience, and I think that’s true across the academy,” he added. “People who are conscientious teachers will look at this as an opportunity to learn things about how they teach, and students will hopefully be served by that.”

Asked whether COVID-19 had merely accelerated a trend already underway in seminary education towards more online and remote learning, representatives of all three schools suggested that it had. But they also maintained that internet-based learning could not replace the in-person student experience.

“Most people who go get a PhD don’t do it because they had a really great experience in online education,” Driver said. “It’s because they had an experience in a classroom somewhere, in a traditional format. That’s true with most people that I know.”

Aldred noted a recent ATS study suggesting that among African-American and Latino students, “online learning is not a favourite”—a response he surmised might be shared among many Indigenous students as well.

“It’s better than not having any education,” Aldred said. “But we’re social beings.… Hybrid [learning] really is the way to go. I think that in the future, that will continue to accelerate. But I don’t think it’s a replacement.”

Topping expressed similar concerns.

“The two things that are sort of warnings to me about strictly online education are how [students who use remote learning] technologies keep saying that, ‘Well, it’s like being in person,’ which says there’s a kind of standard at work,” Topping said. “Being in person would be better. The other thing during COVID-19 [is] the mental health issues that arise out of a lack of human contact. That says something about how we’re constituted.”

He added, “Every school has some people who weather storms less easily, who are less resilient … and our attention was drawn to how we help them. In community you have a certain kind of resilience when you’re in each other’s company.… When they’re a little bit more isolated and only virtual, it’s harder to get a read and to be helpful.”

The trend towards online education, Robinson said, “is something that everyone has noted and seminaries have been really trying to adapt to.” An example is the proliferation of fully online M.Div programs, which he said “until recently, no one was at all in favour of.”

Yet Robinson suggested that in-person learning remains vital to the seminary experience, particularly for the M.Div program.

“We’re not talking about just the transfer of information,” he said. “We’re actually talking about people’s formation as Christian leaders. The idea that that could happen in an environment where you actually never came in contact with people is something [about which] people were saying, ‘Wait a minute, this can’t happen.’”

For that reason, Wycliffe has continued to maintain the basic principle that any M.Div student, even if they do many of their courses online, must also have one year of in-person education.

A potential solution that Wycliffe has been developing is the creation of “distance learning hubs,” in which the college works with local churches across Canada to engage in Christian formation through on-the-ground relationships.

“One of the results of COVID, I think, is many people are more aware than they previously were of how vital being able to get together with other people is,” Robinson said. “When you don’t have a choice about actually meeting in person, then online or remote learning suddenly doesn’t become as … exciting an option.

“Part of that is the conversations that happen in hallways, the time when people sit down and have lunch together, the informal coffee breaks that we have in the middle of a class. That’s all part of learning, and sometimes you have pretty amazing conversations that happen in those contexts that all are part of the formation of someone in their understanding of theology and understanding of ministry. That is more difficult to have happen in remote learning.”

In light of the need to approximate that in-person experience, those at Wycliffe were hoping, as this story was being written, that faculty, students and staff would work together in the fall on what kind of options might be available. While the school might be able to begin some in-person learning again in January, all fall courses will be online only.

At the same time, Wycliffe was planning morning in-person chapel services each day from Monday to Friday starting in autumn, open to anyone living in residence and also accessible online.

In addition, rather than evening prayer services, the seminary was planning afternoon group sessions on Zoom in which students can meet together and engage in that format.

“I don’t think there’s a kind of easy answer to that question [of approximating the in-person experience],” Robinson said.

“I think that it’s a learning curve for us. We’re trying to figure it out. But we absolutely take seriously the importance of that.”


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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