In the fall of 2019, I enrolled at Yale Divinity School, planning to audit four first-year courses for a book I was researching on the future of theological education. I completed three of my four courses, but early in spring semester 2020, COVID overwhelmed the world. Yale, like most other American colleges and universities, eventually had to close its doors to in-person classes. As a consequence, faculty members across the institution scrambled to reposition their curricular requirements and pedagogy so as to accommodate online teaching and learning.
Because of this period of uncertainty, I had to drop my fourth course, thus prematurely terminating research for my book. I was crestfallen. But then Carolyn Sharp, professor of homiletics, invited me to sit in on her fall 2020 online preaching course as a visiting student. I was euphoric. That meant that I could complete my course of study and eventually finish research for my book. I was also being given an unusual opportunity to witness firsthand how this pandemic might modify the way we will teach and learn in the future.
As a result of the pandemic and the need to switch to online learning in March 2020, college and university presidents are having to think much more strategically about the mix of online versus traditional education their institutions should and will be offering in the months and years ahead. But how many current or former presidents have actually taken an online course themselves? How many of us have experienced firsthand not only the advantages but the challenges faculty members and students regularly grapple with?
What follows is a description of what I experienced taking an online course at Yale Divinity School during COVID. This experience admittedly happened in the context of one master’s-level theological course taken at a major residential research university, but I think that what I write here is generally applicable to college leaders at a variety of institution types. With my online experience in mind and based on 20 years as college president, my hope is that what I now have to say might be helpful to current and future higher education leaders as they and their communities plan for the upcoming fall classes and re-evaluate teaching and learning in a post-COVID world.
I am a traditionalist when it comes to learning and teaching. I had never taken or taught an online course in my life. Through college and graduate school, being a student meant doing assigned readings, sitting in a classroom taking notes, asking the professor questions and then at the end of the course demonstrating through an exam or a paper that I had mastered the material. Now as a mature student at Yale, I was unsure whether I could adjust to this unfamiliar online technology.
Sharp also had never taken or taught an online course. Her own higher education experience as a student and later as a professor had taken place, like mine, entirely in a brick-and-mortar setting. She told me that it has always been important for her pedagogy to move around the classroom during lectures. Moreover, in her field of homiletics, professors often demonstrate the dynamics of embodiment — breathing practices, congruence of facial affect with the spoken word, the use of shadings of vocal tone and gestures — that influence how the preached message is received. She wasn’t sure how she could do that on a Zoom screen.
As the fall semester approached, neither of us was clear how online teaching and learning would work in a university that ever since its founding in 1701 has valued teaching in person. Moreover, even though the Divinity School faculty were aware that some smaller theological schools had used distance technology with impressive agility to engage learners who could not undertake two or three years of residential education, most of them were still skeptical. Sharp wondered how she and her Yale colleagues would fare in this brave new online world.
I had my own questions. I was curious, for example, as to whether it was possible for 25 students, from the comfort of their homes, to take an online preaching course that would normally require active participation. I was also wondering how rigorous the course would be. Apart from the technical challenges of joining and participating in a Zoom discussion, part of me thought the course would be a breeze. All I would have to do was passively and anonymously watch online lectures or participate in Zoom sessions from my home 70 miles from New Haven. If the course was boring, I could zone out and no one, including my professor, would be the wiser.
But, as it turned out, that was hardly the case. Principles and Practices of Preaching was one of the most engaging and demanding learning experiences I have ever had. And far from stumbling in this online environment, Sharp took on the challenge with grace and enthusiasm.
Here is how it worked.
Each week, students preparing to be pastors or public leaders were assigned readings along with a weekly 45-minute video of Sharp lecturing on a particular topic, for example, “Preaching on Difficult Texts.” This material was available on Canvas, Yale’s teaching and learning platform. On Tuesday mornings the entire class would then meet with Sharp on Zoom for 45 minutes to discuss issues raised by the readings and the lecture.
Students also met on Zoom each Thursday in small preaching sections, each comprising six or seven students. Sharp or one of her section leaders, each a seasoned pastor with years of preaching experience, taught the sections. They assigned students five projects: a creative retelling of a Bible story, a written exegetical exploration, a 10- to 15-minute sermon, a four-minute micro-homily and a two-minute prophetic oracle. Each student recorded a video of their project, which they then uploaded to Canvas for discussion in their section meeting.
At the end of the semester, the students prepared a capstone preaching project on a theme in which they were interested, such as preaching for a funeral or preaching in a hospital or military chaplaincy. They then did a five-minute Zoom presentation for their small group, describing the project and what they learned from it, after which the group offered theological and homiletical reflections.
The course was extremely demanding. Completing all the readings, watching Sharp’s video lectures, participating in the Zoom calls for the plenary and preaching sections, and preparing the various assignments totaled 10 hours or more each week. Students who might have complained about this workload would have been reminded by Sharp that it takes a seasoned preacher 15 to 20 hours each week to prepare a good sermon.
Over all, I was pleasantly surprised how well the course worked for me as a student. I had expected the online nature of the course would result in a very passive experience. But it turned out to be one of the more active courses I have ever experienced. Discussions during Zoom sessions were spirited. Intelligent side comments and good-natured jokes in the chat section of Zoom added another lively dimension to the experience. Moreover, the presentations via video were dynamic and compelling. Indeed, Principles and Practices of Preaching was one of the best courses I have ever taken.
For her part, Sharp faced challenges. First and foremost was course preparation. It took an enormous amount of her time to script and deliver 45 minutes of well-designed content every week while striving to project intellectual energy, joy and care for her students as she addressed the tiny camera on her laptop. She told me that because her plenaries were on Tuesday mornings, Friday and Saturday became heavy workdays and the pace was exhausting.
She also missed the energy generated by the in-person presence and reactions of her students as well as her ability to draw aside a visibly perplexed student to inquire how they were navigating the pressures of Yale or to walk alongside a downcast student and ask, “How are things going?” Once, when a student mentioned over email that it had been a hard week, Sharp immediately extended an invitation to meet one on one over Zoom. But generally, the subtleties of in-person pastoral connection were lost.
At the same time, Sharp experienced several advantages to online Zoom teaching. The close-up view of each face allowed her to read micro-expressions that might not be visible from 15 or 20 feet away in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Moreover, the name of each student visible to her on screen was an extraordinary boon. So too, the chat feature on Zoom gave introverted students, who might never have spoken aloud in a large group, the opportunity to support a presenter with affirming comments. Thus, for some students, Zoom helped them come more fully to a public voice than might have been the case in an in-person classroom.
Thoughts for the Future
In light of Sharp’s online course and if I were a college president today, what would I do to change the way my institution thinks about teaching and learning? What advice would I give other presidents?
First of all, I would disabuse anyone in my community who thinks that nothing will change and that we will continue doing things exactly the way we did them before COVID. Why would I do this? For one thing, change is expected. According to several recent surveys published by Inside Higher Ed, though students had mixed feelings about the quality of their online learning experience during COVID, a large majority want online options in the fall. Moreover, most chief academic officers see their institutions offering more online or hybrid courses than before the pandemic. Finally, well-known academics like physics professor Eric Mazur of Harvard University are saying that student learning outcomes improved significantly during the pandemic in large part because of online learning.
Taking into consideration that many students want online courses this fall in addition to evidence that there are some real benefits to learning in this way, I would call a community meeting with my college’s stakeholders led by a facilitator who has knowledge of the curriculum as well as higher education technology and have a frank conversation about what might be changed in light of our collective experiences during the pandemic. Again, I would discourage responses that suggest nothing can be altered.
Considering the experiences of other members of the community, I might then pose some questions that are in large part informed by my experience auditing Sharp’s course at Yale:
- Should we explore new hybrid courses that involve a combination of in-person classes, videoed lectures posted online and real-time discussions over Zoom, perhaps guided by prompts to which students can craft thoughtful responses in advance?
- Should we consider making the flipped classroom (videoing lectures and then using in-person classes to discuss these lectures) a standard part of our curriculum?
- Since the pandemic has diminished the importance of place (i.e., the university’s physical location), should we develop more in-person or online classes linked in real time to the outside world, for example, to similar classes located at a distance using Zoom or other distance technologies? This would be a special boon for our courses that are global in nature.
- Should we consider making online office hours and virtual libraries available for students who must commute to classes?
If the conversation goes well, I would then make some suggestions on how the administration can best support faculty and students in the challenges they will confront as they continue to move to online and hybrid classes. Every institution is different, of course, so these suggestions might vary according to the specific needs of a particular institution. But based again on my firsthand experience with online learning by becoming a student at Yale and on my conversations with Sharp, they might include:
- Hiring a tech staffer whose job it would be to assist faculty in online pedagogy, not only to solve problems as they arise but also to generate short training sessions that showcase creative new ideas and existing options about which a faculty member may not know. In light of the future challenges all faculty will face post-COVID, it is not adequate simply to refer them to a centralized IT department or to a website with dozens of links that might be only tangentially related to their teaching needs. They will need creative and targeted support.
- Incorporating into each faculty meeting a three-minute demo of an online tool or technique so that individual faculty can learn new things without having to set up a whole meeting with an overwhelmed tech staffer. I would have this done by someone who is experienced using online technology.
- Creating a special orientation program for new faculty (adjuncts as well as full-time) around online and hybrid techniques learned during COVID so that they can hit the ground running this fall.
- As for students, being extra sensitive to the fact that many underserved students lack the technology and technological background that more privileged students take for granted. I would therefore provide the resources these students need to be successful in an online or hybrid course, such as computers and technical support.
These things will, or course, cost money. But in my mind, the investment is well worth it.
I am, of course, no longer a college president, having retired several years ago. But having personally experienced online teaching at Yale, I can still hope that many different and creative approaches to teaching and learning will emerge out of COVID, approaches that perhaps did not exist or existed only in part previous to the pandemic and that can now be made a formal part of the curriculum. I would also encourage every college president reading this article to try to find time to audit an online course themselves. It may very well open their eyes, as it did mine, to new ways of providing learning opportunities most suited to many of today’s and tomorrow’s students.