PC(USA) seminaries adapt to remote learning

June 8, 2021 by Gregg Brekke

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of four stories that include interviews with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminaries, taking a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic challenged and changed seminary learning environments.

The global COVID-19 pandemic forced many institutions to rethink how they communicate and collaborate given various lockdowns and requirements for social distancing to mitigate its spread. Education was especially affected as models of in-person instruction shifted in a matter of weeks to an exclusively virtual and online pedagogy.

Two Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminaries were differently positioned to respond to these new requirements. Yet both have found, through innovation and adaptation, that theological education can continue and thrive even as the longing for face-to-face interaction remains.

Ready for virtual learning

Dr. Annette Bourland Huizenga, Seminary Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary

For decades, students at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary have participated in a number of education models including a residential program. The MDiv students who took courses primarily online gathered each August for a two-week residency program. Local students had the option to take a full-day of in-person classes each week. A dozen residential students, mostly working in young adult ministries, also had in-person classes in addition to field placement and teaching undergraduates.

But all that changed in the spring of 2020 as the seminary shifted to a completely online format. According to Dr. Annette Bourland Huizenga, Seminary Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament, the faculty’s previous experience with virtual learning provided an easier transition for the school.

“[Our] faculty loves teaching online,” Huizenga said. “They’re constantly coming up with odd, eccentric pieces of software and other ways of addressing the needs of students online. Because we teach asynchronously, meaning the students can read, watch, and do their work at any time, it’s convenient for them.”

Although the asynchronous model of recorded lectures to accompany student learning worked well for coursework, Huizenga and her staff recognized this structure would not fit the requirements of the August residency. Given the requirements of home life during the pandemic, including in-home instruction of children and childcare, the unique and dedicated experience of the August gathering needed to adapt as well.

They decided to base the residency time in a broad-based worship experience, between which real-time instruction could happen. “We made each day start with an opening prayer time and a chapel service. An opening chapel in the morning and then a midday reflection time and an evening prayer time … [the worship] was really useful for holding the virtual residency program together.”

An initial concern about how first-year students would build community, given the primary means of interaction was online and not the August seminars, was quickly allayed.

“This group of students is more closely connected than any other cohort or group of students I’ve seen come through in the last decade,” said Huizenga. “That’s amazing because they haven’t even met each other in person yet they’re in touch with each other’s lives, praying for each other. They’re sharing very deeply in an online capacity.”

Creating a distance learning program from scratch

Rev. Dr. Theodore (Ted) Wardlaw, President, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary had a very different experience with distance learning when the pandemic began. At the time, it had none.

Rev. Dr. Theodore (Ted) Wardlaw, President of Austin Seminary, said the school had a “high degree of history and respect for the role of residential learning,” but added, “Austin has benefited greatly from the possibilities we have for virtual learning.”

Watch an excerpt of the interview with Wardlaw here.

Students left for spring break in 2020 expecting to return to finish the academic year as planned. As the week progressed, Wardlaw said the faculty decided it was best not to put people in harm’s way. Plans were initiated for faculty to teach remotely from home and for students, whether they returned to campus or not, to attend virtual classes.

Owing to a campus-wide technology upgrade and the quick action of several faculty, a virtual classroom platform was available as soon as spring break was over.

“We have discovered on many fronts all the ways virtual learning strategies can be helpful and useful,” Wardlaw said. “We’ve got a young student body and this was not a huge transition in terms of their knowledge of technology. It was a much harder transition for those of us who are not millennials, are not digital natives, but digital immigrants.”

A beloved event – MidWinter Lectures – annually draws 300 people to Austin’s campus to hear leading theologians and thinkers over two-and-a-half days. The move to online participation was a “wonderful experience,” Wardlaw said. More than 600 people registered to attend online.

“That was one of the biggest successes we had with respect to the notion of teaching virtually and even relating to our alumni and other enthusiasts,” he said.

Recognizing that many students came to Austin Seminary for the residential learning experience, Wardlaw has heard some younger students, those digital natives, find all-virtual instruction tiring even as it’s a necessity.

As for what’s next, Wardlaw believes Austin will return to face-to-face instruction and will employ lessons learned from the pandemic experience.

“Teaching strategies will be different even as we will continue to be embodied as a residentially based institution,” he said. “I can imagine for example, that a lot of the meetings that I would get in my car or get on a plane and fly to or drive to can be virtual. I can imagine that our teaching strategies will include virtual components.”

As for the need for theological education and trained theological leaders, Wardlaw is optimistic about the future of the church and what its leaders will accomplish in the coming years.

“The church is not dying,” he said. “The church is in a culture that is anxious, but the church is not dying. Our best evidence is Jesus Christ still loves the church. Jesus Christ talked to probably his most neurotic disciple one time and said, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.’ I don’t believe that Jesus Christ has taken that promise away. So I think there are a lot of things that the church is facing that are huge challenges, but the church has always faced huge, huge challenges. It’s a thrill to be involved at this moment in the life of the church and to be living testimonies to the fact that the church is not dead.

“The church is very much alive.”

Gregg Brekke is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, photographer and videographer. He is the former editor of the Presbyterian News Service. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.