In the fall of 2019, the Truett Seminary faculty made a significant and — for the Seminary — groundbreaking decision to begin offering a handful of for-credit courses online beginning the following academic year.
Until this point in time, Truett had never offered an online class as the faculty and administration were hesitant to compromise the substantial benefits of a residential education for the ministers they were preparing. However, a desire to provide convenient, high-level learning opportunities to a broader population eventually tipped the scales in favor of creating online classes.
“We had laypersons who would say to me, ‘I always wanted to take Greek or Hebrew. I’d love to learn those languages,’ or laypersons serving in ministry who would say, ‘I’d love to take a class on leadership sometime,’” said Dr. W. Dennis Tucker, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Christian Scriptures. “We began to sense that there was a hunger out there — not just for our students but for a broader population of lay leaders and ministers who don’t have seminary degrees.”
With the goal of serving this broader audience — in addition to traditional Truett students — in mind, the Seminary began preparations to offer four online classes in fall 2020.
Then, midway through the spring semester, COVID-19 struck.
In mid-March, when Baylor University announced that all courses would be moving from the classroom to online for the remainder of the semester, the Seminary’s timeline to launch a small number of online classes was suddenly moved up and greatly expanded.
“Once we all got over the shock that we were going to move online in two weeks, our faculty did remarkably well in making the shift,” Tucker said. “We almost all went with synchronous learning because that was a fairly easy move for us as it replicated the way we normally conduct classes.”
The Baylor Libraries and the Academy for Teaching and Learning offered immediate and ongoing resources and training for University faculty to become quickly and effectively acclimated to the online space. Most of the Truett faculty took advantage of these opportunities and received gracious and positive feedback from students for the spring semester.
“The feedback I received from students was [generally] their appreciation for all they saw the faculty doing to finish the semester well,” Tucker said. “I received no complaints from students about moving online. I think they could see how hard the faculty were working to create a genuine and meaningful learning experience for students.”
While the spring 2020 semester was, in many ways, a story of survival, Truett faculty were able to look toward the fall with a greater understanding of the online learning space and use the summer to continue taking advantage of training and support through Baylor.
“At the end of the spring, I heard many of our faculty say, ‘We want to improve in what we are doing,’” Tucker said. “We have a remarkable faculty who are committed to enhancing their own pedagogical skills so that they can maximize the online learning environment for the sake of our students.”
Dr. Joel Weaver, Senior Lecturer in Christian Scriptures, was one of the Truett faculty members who had originally volunteered to teach an online course in fall 2020. However, like his colleagues, the opportunity to teach online came about much more swiftly than anticipated.
The move to online teaching along with a slower summer have been a significant learning experience for Weaver. Just like many other Truett faculty, he continues to evaluate his successes and challenges in order to create a richer educational environment for his students. One discovery he noted is the impact that a class size can make in an online environment. While discussion within his smaller, advanced classes was smooth and engaging, the larger courses with 20 to 30 students felt more “awkward.”
“In a classroom, you can very quickly scan the room and look for the faces that have confusion, but when I’m sharing my screen using Zoom, I can only see a few students and they’re often changing. So it’s harder to sense how the class as a whole is doing with a larger group of students,” he said. “But my upper level Greek classes [with only eight students] were amazing online. Everyone was engaged, and it was just like having a conversation.”
Weaver also noted other challenges like consistency in Wi-Fi strength, students turning off their cameras—“although it’s the same as in class when they may be on their laptop shopping or watching Netflix” — and the ability to assess, particularly in his biblical language classes. His traditional methods of assessment, like vocabulary quizzes, are less effective in a non-controlled environment where a student may have easy access to study materials off screen. This has forced Weaver to think more creatively about his approach to assessment and to even question if his in-person methods are the most efficient.
Beginning this fall, Weaver will be one of the members of the newest cohort of Baylor Fellows with the Academy for Teaching and Learning. Through this interdisciplinary program, Weaver will be diving deeper into strategies and tactics for online learning alongside colleagues from across the University. He plans to focus his personal research on assessment.
“Sometimes you adopt testing or grading methods that you experienced in your own learning and then that’s just kind of the way you do it,” he said. “Now, as you’re thinking if these methods are going to work, you also start to think if they were even the best to begin with.”
This necessary reexamination of teaching strategies has been one unexpected positive of the move to online learning. Others noted by Weaver include the convenience, particularly for commuter students, fewer technology issues with student presentations, and — added with a laugh — the opportunity for students to eat food, particularly smelly food, during class without bothering their classmates.
Reflecting on the quick changes and continued progress in the wake of COVID-19, two juxtaposed yet complimentary truths have been revealed for Truett Seminary.
First, the Truett faculty can do online theological education well. Through the resources and support provided by Baylor as well as personal innovation and determination, Truett professors have been able to deliver a seminary education virtually for two semesters with generally positive feedback from students.
Secondly, the interpersonal community aspect of forming ministers is crucial. While Truett students have enjoyed the creativity and convenience of online learning, the desire for in-person connectedness is continually expressed.
“[This pandemic] has confirmed that it does matter when you walk down the hall and you see people or you sit in a classroom or Chapel with people. That can’t be taken for granted, and it does have a formative impact on us,” Tucker said. “Our challenge now is to find ways to replicate that same formative experience in an online environment.”
Looking to the future, these two realities will continue to inform Truett’s engagement with online education. Online classes will be offered, and fully online and hybrid degrees will be considered. But the lessons learned will not be forgotten. Truett Seminary persists in its mission — to equip God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit — and this charge will remain central to theological education at Truett Seminary, whether in the classroom or on the computer.