By Josh Herring
Pastors, elders and denominational leaders have had to make difficult decisions over the last month. Churches have navigated the shift from physical to virtual meetings; seminaries are attempting to complete the semester with online instruction; the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting is cancelled for the first time in 70 years. I suspect when this is over, we will realize two things: first, how sweet it is to gather as the Body of Christ and share in each other’s presence (pointing forward to that Day when the whole Church is together in eternity). Secondly, the church is stronger than we knew. The inability to be physically together will not harm or destroy the ekklesia – it simply drives us to find different, admittedly more abstract, ways to assemble. Pastors are discovering they can preach to a camera; small group leaders are becoming certified Zoom professionals.
A similar transformation is happening nationwide in the education space. As a humanities instructor for a classical school, I’ve had to make adjustments. We were fortunate in that our spring break was timed to begin just after North Carolina closed schools; we began our break one week early, and we teachers and administrators used Spring Break to think about how to navigate the move to virtual learning. We had several pieces working in our favor: my school already had a 1:1 iPad initiative that meant every student had a device, and last year we had already shifted to Canvas as our Learning Management System. These two pieces have given us the foundation to begin shifting from physical to virtual learning.
My team is in the early days of teaching virtually. Over the break, we held countless meetings, sent each other encouraging screenshots and messages, and tried to set up as many live instruction times as seem feasible with unknown student home schedules. The weeks ahead will contain many new discoveries, I’m sure. Preparing to make the shift from a physical to a virtual environment has helped me realize three truths.
1. The task remains the same.
When I am in my normal classroom and I prepare my literature, philosophy or debate lessons, my goal is to help students learn. Sometimes that looks traditionally didactic: I lecture, students take notes, they ask questions. Other times, my class is set up for group work, project presentations or extension exercises to help students practice difficult concepts. Just because I explained an idea does not mean they have learned it. Educators carefully think through various strategies to help students encounter knowledge, practice it and own it to the greatest extent possible. This task does not change. Now I’m considering what must be recorded, how I can have students interact with the material and what internet tools bring about the best results. The what has not changed even though how and where have shifted.
2. Virtual learning forces stronger course design.
I do not have an education degree; my time in college and at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary was focused on content-based courses rather than pedagogy. I came to concepts like “instructional design,” “Bloom’s Taxonomy” and “differentiated learning” as necessary vocabulary encountered through on-the-job training. Seven years into teaching, I have taught several courses for multiple years in a row. These classes I teach almost intuitively — I know the material, exercises and assessments so thoroughly that I can teach them without much prior thought, except for minor tweaking throughout the year.
Virtual instruction upends that system. Suddenly, I must think through the different components again — what do I want students to know? What do I want them to be able to do? What must happen for students to achieve success? My familiarity is thrown out the window, and I’m back at the drawing board designing the classroom experience, and I have to think both about what I want to happen, and then about which technological tools will make that happen (while still trying to be one step ahead of students on behavioral concerns).
3. Clear communication has never been more important.
For a virtual learning season to accomplish the goal of education (students encountering, understanding, and owning necessary life changing material that will probably not be taught again in the curriculum), the teacher has to express the above thought processes in the clearest way possible, while being ready to adapt based on changing circumstances and student feedback. How I write my weekly and daily agenda pages, how I word my instructions and how I write my assessment questions have never required more thought. Clear communication becomes the measure of success. And the younger the student, the more that communication must also involve parents (who may or may not understand the nuances of the subjects being taught but need to know enough to require the child to do the work).
These three truths do not end when “stay-at-home” is lifted and schools meet once again in person. They are nothing new, but are instead a new application of the art of teaching. Teachers who move onto a virtual platform in this season will return with a new set of sharpened technological skills that will only benefit their classrooms moving forward. Similarly, I suspect that for many churches, they will discover an increased online proficiency after life returns to normal. The life of the church and the life of schools parallel each in this way: both are adapting, and both will emerge from this season stronger in their ability to help people discover life changing truth.