Building Community in Distance Education

PC(USA) Vice Moderator Landon Whitsett put out a call on twitter yesterday for information from Presbyterian students in distance education programs. He was looking for anecdotes and commentary on how we experience community within our programs that he could share with the folks on COTE (Committee on Theological Education). I had seen discussions on a couple of sites recently that really questioned whether true community is built in these programs, so I could understand why Landon needed to gather some real world examples for his colleagues. I put out word to my online classmates and then pulled together this response:

January 2010 was the start of my 6th (of 10) semesters in the Distance MDiv program. I had flown up to Nashville to be with my best friend in the whole wide world because her daughter was having brain surgery. My classmates and others in the MDiv program had been praying for my friend, her daughter and this surgery for months, despite only knowing her story through me. Just as I sending a post-surgery text to a couple of friends so that they could post the good news about prognosis on our online community prayer page, my husband called. He was taking our son to the hospital. He was experiencing the first of what would be several bouts of severe depression, this one so bad that he wanted to end his own life.

In the midst of all this chaos, the first people I wanted to talk to were my classmates.

For going on three years, we had been sharing the celebrations, concerns, fears, pain and chaos that life brings at any time- as well as the unique weirdness that is seminary education. They knew why I was thinking about how to contact my doctrine prof as well as my pastor. I knew they understood the stress of being away from family at a time of crisis, because I had helped them through crises of their own at different times and places. My seminary community was with me. Some were even ready to fly down to Florida, but they didn’t have to; they were present across time and space in ways that people in town didn’t think to offer. They called and emailed profs and program directors to give them information about how to contact me. They prayed fervently. They sent me jokes to make sure I didn’t forget to laugh. They texted, called, Facebooked, tweeted and remained in my life so much that I couldn’t isolate. They asked questions and made me talk and cry about those things I couldn’t share with anyone else.

A year later, I can look back over almost 4 years as part of this program. I have seen similar support for people walking through deaths, separations, job loss, and other unexpected difficulties. I have also seen the community rejoice together over new babies, new jobs, marriages, passing ordination exams and finishing 5K runs. We love, laugh, cry, roll our eyes, get on one another’s’ nerves and hold each other dear. We are a community.

How did we get here? We spend time together in class and on campus and in hotels twice a year (4 weeks total). In classes online, we have the luxury of having conversations that last days instead of hours, with multiple opportunities to really unpack what we mean when we answer a question. And in that back and forth, we hear stories that aren’t told in person- especially from those who are introverted or process questions more slowly, thus tend not to have as much voice in a traditional classroom. Those conversations that would usually happen in hallways and study groups between two or three often find themselves in a classroom forum, deepening our insights into the passions and theological underpinnings of a classmate’s story and heart.

It happens so holistically that we cannot even fully appreciate how close we are until we get back on campus. Faculty members and residential students have commented about how when they first spend time with us, they can’t imagine how we “strangers” will interact during our A-terms and J-terms together. Then they see us together, hear the in-jokes, verbal shorthand and nicknames and notice those non-verbal cues that friends share… and they know that we are a community. We are bound together by faith, by love and by a common call. It is deep. It is real. And it is something I treasure deeply.

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