The transition to online learning was unexpected and rapid – but so far, Perkins faculty and students have coped with some flexibility, some innovation, some patience, and a willingness to roll with the punches.
When students left for spring break in March, most had no expectation of how quickly things would change. Spring break was extended an extra week, and when they returned, all Dallas classes had migrated to online.
Rebekah Miles is teaching two classes this semester — United Methodist Doctrine and Spiritual Formation – now both online. The transition proved more complex than expected.
For one thing, her students are in very different places during this quarantine. Some are quarantining alone; others are at home with spouses and kids, juggling schoolwork and jobs with helping their children with schoolwork – all of which involve Zoom meetings.
“It’s complicated at times,” she said. “But it’s kind of sweet to see kids come in and sit on their laps, or dogs and cats coming through the room.” (Another unexpected participant: SMU President R. Gerald Turner (pictured) popped into a Zoom meeting of the United Methodist Doctrine class. Turner visited at least one online class for each SMU schools in April.)
One of the students in Miles’s Doctrine class, Melissa Nelms (M.Div., ’22) is now homeschooling her 4 and 6-year-old children. She’s grateful for the flexibility that Perkins staff and faculty have shown, given her responsibilities at home.
“My husband and I are balancing our work/class schedules with our kid’s needs,” she said. “I much prefer the interaction of a live Zoom class, and I’d like to think our kids would make it through a Zoom class with me, but my experience over the past four weeks has shown me that’s an unrealistic expectation. Under the circumstances, it is easier for me to watch pre-recorded lectures and post discussion responses as I’m able. That allows me to be more available to my kids during the day.”
Miles was already adept with online learning platforms like Canvas and Zoom, but a few days into online teaching, she realized she needed to change the way she was presenting the material. She has incorporated more PowerPoints, online whiteboards and other visuals to make sure students have something to see while she’s talking.
The biggest challenge for Miles has been “reading the room” when all of her students are in different rooms in different locations. Not all students have the bandwidth to run their webcams throughout the entire classroom period.
“Ordinarily I would be standing in front of a group of students, and they could see me, and I could see their body language and see what’s going on in the classroom. Even if you can see everyone’s faces, you don’t have access to the same body language.”
On the other hand, some of the online discussion boards that supplement her Doctrine class has led to some of the best discussions she’s seen. Miles ordinarily asks students to post a brief paragraph before class related to the week’s material.
“I look at that a few hours before class, and I can see what issues are coming up for people,” she said. “Now, in place of one of our in-class discussions, they use the discussion boards to engage the material and each other, and their insights are excellent.”
Another of Miles’s students, Beate Hall (M.Div., ’20), says she’s struggling to focus in the new normal.
“Many days it takes longer to get focused and ready to learn,” she said. “It probably doesn’t help that my desk is my creative space. It’s where I paint, sew, doodle, write, and otherwise make a mess!”
Hall, a pastoral intern at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Dallas, has appreciated the time that Miles devoted in class to check in with students spiritually and emotionally, the regular emails from Dean Hill “with timely and uplifting advice and a message of hope about the uncertain future,” and the efforts of Tracy Anne Allred and Laura Figura in the Office of Student Life to keep the community connected.
“They always go above and beyond, but it is great to see their creativity during this time, like hosting a virtual study hour so people do not have to study alone,” she said.
One unexpected blessing: Hall has fairly severe seasonal allergies and, in past years, springtime has been challenging. “Online classes and worship and community have meant that I can still fully participate without any extra accommodations or struggles,” she said. “It’s nice to know that my sneezing won’t interrupt the lecture for anyone but me.”
Robert Hunt’s World Religions and Evangelism classes moved online fairly seamlessly, which he credits to his previous experience in virtual learning with the Global Theological Education program. Hunt did need to revisit class assignments to make sure they were still doable given that students were sheltering in place. Assignments that required in-person library research, for example, were modified.
Hunt has found some creative ways to keep his class engaged and connected. He keeps “virtual office hours” – posted periods of time when students know he’s online and available via Zoom meeting should they have questions or concerns.
“They know they can find me during these times and pop in and talk if needed,” he said. “To keep students motivated, they need to see each other and their professor face-to-face.” To keep students on track, Hunt added fun, enjoyable weekly assignments that give students instant feedback – such as watching a short lecture then taking a quiz. In addition, he schedules regular half-hour Zoom meetings with class participants during each week, a way of answering any questions they might have and checking on students’ progress and their spirits.
“We always ask about how our families are doing and pray for each other,” he said.
Wes Allen has also added an element of pastoral care to his Introduction to Preaching class during this time, something he normally wouldn’t do routinely.
“It’s not just a matter of being online, it’s being online in the midst of this stressful time,” he said. “Now there’s pastoral care for everyone in the class, and they give it back to me, too.” Each class begins with a check-in, asking how everyone is doing.
Allen caught a lucky break – he’s teaching two sections of Introduction to Preaching. By spring break, he had just finished the lecture portion of the class.
“I didn’t have to produce content, I just had re-arrange how we did the preaching exercises,” he said.
For the practicum part of Allen’s class, each student presents two sermons; for the first round, Allen met individually with each student via Zoom, which allowed him to give intensive, one-on-one feedback. For the second round, students each preached through a webcam, with the rest of the class providing feedback as a group.
“Which is the norm at the moment for all preachers – we’re learning along with everyone else,” he said. The Zoom format moves a little more slowly than in a brick-and-mortar classroom. In person, it’s just easier to see whose hand is raised, and of course, no one needs a reminder to mute their mike. Not surprisingly, many of the students’ sermons relate to the pandemic.
Preaching via webcam is different than preaching in front of pews full of people. Although some pastors are preaching at the pulpit for online worship, most speak directly into a camera. “Viewers see much less hand movement,” Allen said. “It’s so much more about the face.”
Allen noted that, for students, an online format requires different time management skills.
“Some students do well with independent learning; others thrive better in face to face learning,” he said. “Sometimes, introverts come out in online learning. Some are much more forthcoming on discussion boards. This is not the route we want to go for all education, but there are pros and cons. We’re in a limbo stage right now.”
Students in Robert Hunt’s courses reflected on that “limbo” — how life has changed at their jobs, at their home churches and at the churches where they serve. One student, a teacher, said that she’s getting to know the parents of her students, much more than she would otherwise. A few noted that they’re having to find creative ways to connect with older parishioners who don’t own the devices or aren’t comfortable enough to access Zoom or FaceTime.
Some students noted, however, that the move to online church has some silver linings. Said one student: “We’re reaching new people, making better contact with members, and bringing back people who slipped away. We’re never going back to just the old way.”