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How to Learn Well in Online Courses: An Invitation to Conversation

Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary offer short-term online courses for lifelong learners. Besides engaging content to address key ministry challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the courses invite students and instructors into a culture of curiosity where they can learn from each other.

“I suggest approaching a short online course with one or two critical questions that you would like to engage with—not necessarily answer—by the end of the course.”

—Danjuma Gibson

Maybe you’ve experienced these feelings since COVID-19 began: Feeling at odds over white supremacy, racism, and violence. Frustrated by technology. Longing for like-minded discussion partners. Grateful for yet fatigued by virtual worship. Wondering how other churches nurture unity while physically distancing.

Thanks to a new series of short-term online courses offered by Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary, Christian leaders are learning and sharing ways to face ministry challenges during the pandemic.

In summer 2020, Christian Witness in a COVID-Shaped World attracted 570 people to 32 online courses. Students spanned many cultures, denominations, generations, ministry roles, and at least five continents and a dozen countries. Their professors have distilled advice for how to learn well online in short courses. Christian Witness in a COVID-Shaped World (CWCW) courses will continue in fall 2020, perhaps in spring 2021, and for sure in summer 2021.

“Some of the best learning prepares students to ask the right critical questions based on their own context, background, and sense of calling,” says Danjuma Gibson, who taught Mental Health, Trauma, and Pastoral Care. “So I suggest approaching a short online course with one or two critical questions that you would like to engage with—not necessarily answer—by the end of the course. Also, note additional resources you can use beyond the course.” Gibson teaches pastoral care at Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS), does private practice psychotherapy, and was a senior pastor for sixteen years in church on Chicago’s South Side.

Professors’ top tips for learning well in the online CWCW classes are to adopt a lifelong learner mindset, to prepare yourself to learn, to learn from each other, and to lead change in your context.

Adopt a lifelong learner mindset

Short online courses are ideal for helping you become a lifelong learner, according to María Cornou, a Calvin Institute of Christian Worship associate director and program manager. She co-taught summer Spanish-language courses on biblical, theological, and ministerial aspects of COVID-19 and an October 2020 English-language course on global worship.

“Short courses are beneficial because they don’t require a long commitment in times when people easily burn out. You can choose which lectures, content, and recommended readings are relevant for your needs,” Cornou says.

Aaron Einfeld, CTS director of admissions and enrollment management, agrees. “If you haven’t taken an online course, don’t underestimate its value,” he says. “It can be a lot more than reading a screen online in your basement. Taking a short online course is like going to a conference where you make some meaningful connections over lunch. You can take the relationship further, but you don’t have to.” Einfeld co-teaches Embodied Discipleship in a World That Has Gone Virtual with Cory Willson. Einfeld’s dissertation was about online learning, and Willson teaches theology and missiology at CTS.

Calvin University education professors Marj Terpstra and David I. Smith co-taught The Challenge of Technology and Christian Education based on Digital Life Together: The Challenge of Technology for Christian Schools, a book they wrote with two colleagues.

I suggest educators assess how much time they have to devote to a course and then block that time for the course in their schedule,” Terpstra advises. CWCW courses generally require three to five hours a week for auditors, or ten to eleven hours a week for those seeking credit. Most students audit.

“Taking a course for credit (for a degree or certification) offers deeper engagement with course content, participants, and instructors,” Terpstra adds. “Auditing allows you to engage in the course without the pressure of grades, and it also keeps the door open for deep engagement."

Prepare to learn

Lifelong learners must master technology essential for distance learning. “Don’t be intimidated by the technology.” Einfeld says. “We made our course for first-timers. Also, because of the way COVID-19 has affected the world, many people had already done a Zoom call before enrolling.”. CTS uses the Canvas platform for asynchronous learning and Zoom for synchronous weekly meetings. Calvin University uses Microsoft Teams for both types of learning.

“Asynchronous” means that teachers post lectures, videos, and discussion questions, usually two or three times a week. Students read, watch, listen, and respond on their own schedules. Synchronous elements are opportunities to meet online, usually for an hour a week. Terpstra and Smith recorded and archived the synchronous video discussions to continue asynchronous learning.

Though some CWCW students fumble a bit to understand learning platforms, they have email access to tech consultants and professors. Cornou notes that students who use smartphones rather than larger screens sometimes have trouble seeing charts and other graphics.

Christina Edmondson, a Calvin Institute of Christian Worship collaborating partner, teaches Faithful Anti-Racism in a Time of Pandemic. She says that learning, like innovation, has conditions for success. She suggests three pre-learning steps to prepare for CWCW classes:

“First, prepare the mind. A simple one- to two-minute time of mindfulness meditation or Scripture reflection with deep breathing can help strengthen the brain’s ability to attend and build stamina for discomfort.

“Second, bring your full self. No matter the content, new learning must hang on old learning, memories, and experiences. When students bring their full self, they have more to attach new content to. This increases the likelihood of deeper learning evidenced by fuller understanding and evidence of change. 

“Finally, prepare in advance. Engaging in reading before and after class is important to till the brain’s soil. Besides reading course content, pastors and other learners should openly consider how the content applies outside class to life, politics, news, art, and more. Remember, the goal is to make deeper connections,” Edmondson advises.

Learn from each other

John D. Witvliet, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship director, teaches at Calvin University and CTS. “Don’t think of these classes as just content delivery,” he says. “It’s more like an invitation to conversation, an immersion in a culture of curiosity. A lot of learning is paying attention to how classmates learn and respond.”

Witvliet’s three summer 2020 sessions of Praying the Psalms in Ministry, repeated in fall 2020, drew pastors, teachers, nonprofit leaders, and lay Christians. They came from suburban, urban, and rural contexts spread across many cultures and countries, including Egypt, Korea, and Indonesia.

The variety among CWCW students delighted professors. “Most of my work is on developmental issues among traditional college age students, (so) it’s really rewarding to work with different ages and life situations,” says Irene Kraegel, director of the Calvin University Center of Counseling and Wellness. She taught Practicing Mindfulness in a Time of Pandemic, based on her book The Mindful Christian: Cultivating a Life of Intentionality, Openness, and Faith.

“I asked students to introduce themselves in the discussion forum and, if they felt comfortable, to post photos or videos of themselves. Most did,” Kraegel adds.

Cornou says the CWCW courses spark “so much energy and wisdom, and not just from professors to students. It’s more like a mutual learning community. One student from Switzerland signed on to a Zoom call when it was 2 a.m. there.

“Lockdowns in South America are very strict. You need a permit to go out of your house and can’t visit church members. People shared stories about how those who still have jobs now buy groceries for those who’ve lost jobs. They're learning to pay attention in phone and Zoom calls to signs of domestic violence and mental health problems to tell women it’s safe to share their situation.

“South Americans often live with extended family, so they share bread and wine or juice around the computer. It makes you feel part of a community if you’re at home and know everyone else is doing communion at home. They were surprised to hear that many denominations that set strict guidelines about sacraments in the US offer more freedom and less hierarchy outside the US,” Cornou says.

Synchronous sessions revealed how the coronavirus affects teachers and schools. “Although I cognitively knew that COVID-19 was a worldwide pandemic,” Marj Terpstra says, “it became more real as brothers and sisters in Christ talked across fourteen time zones. Each participant was in their home, describing pandemic impacts on their teaching, administration, life, and faith. We found commonality and support in our coparticipants' experiences and insights.

“One of our last lessons was on equity in technology,” she adds “Some educators had been able to apply technology when COVID-19 shut down schools. Others just had to send kids home. A Ugandan participant said, ‘Sometimes we feel so far behind in using technology in education. It’s powerful to realize that the digital divide isn’t just about hardware, and that the US has a digital divide too.’”

David I. Smith notes, “It was wonderful to see students connect faith practices, teaching, and learning with technology. They were preparing for an academic year with many unknowns, and school policies seemed to change each week.” He describes an assignment about when not to use technology for which students had to go sit under a tree. Several said they found it frustrating and annoying—but just what they needed.

Lead change in your context

Terpstra says that students reported sharing course insights in professional development sessions, in devotions to open a new academic year, and in a manual for university instructors moving courses online in central Africa. “If pastors or church leaders had signed up,” she says, “we would have hoped our emphasis on community and equity would help them consider carefully how to gather for worship and support their neighborhoods.”

Gibson says he received emails from a student and pastors saying that “the terminology around grief and trauma helped them make sense of what was happening in their ministries and personal contexts.”

And Edmondson reports, “Students have used course content and peer encouragement to lead change in local churches, seminaries, and even medical institutions. They are asking ‘anti-racist questions,’ building educational and discussion teams, and employing systems to measure change and growth. In local churches, they’re learning how churches in America and in their specific traditions have upheld unjust systems. They’re learning how liturgical change can reduce bias.”

Those who complete Edmondson’s Faithful Anti-Racism in a Time of Pandemic class may apply to join a peer-learning faithful anti-racism cohort.

“I loved how students expanded their networks so they could connect in the future,” Cornou says. “People are getting creative. They are using WhatsApp audio and video, and even rural radio stations, to hold prayer meetings and Bible studies.”

Witvliet’s Praying the Psalms students told him they took class insights into their devotional lives, families, neighborhoods, sermons, and worship music choices. “CWCW faculty members connect you with resources,” Witvliet says; “How can you share the learning? I hope people develop an informal ministry, such as posting something profound once a month on social media. It doesn’t matter if hardly anyone follows you on Facebook. Everybody has to practice saying something that’s actually constructive and helps build new understanding.”


Read course descriptions and sign up for a short-term online course in the Christian Witness in a COVID-Shaped World series.

After you complete the foundational course Faithful Anti-Racism in a Time of Pandemic, consider applying to join a Faithful Anti-Racism Leadership Development Cohort. Louisville Seminary Anti-racism Digital Library has resources such as the 90-minute study Growing a Personal Anti-Racist Voice and Identity.

Watch the video conversation Music at Morehouse: Cultural Healing and Prophetic Witness to hear John D. Witvliet with David Morrow, Morehouse College Glee Club director; Uzee Brown, Morehouse Division of Creative and Performing Arts chair; and Danjuma Gibson, Calvin Theological Seminary associate professor of pastoral care and Morehouse College alumnus.

Gather a group in your educational institution or church education program to read and discuss Digital Life Together: The Challenge of Technology for Christian Schools by David I. Smith, Kara Sevensma, Marjorie Terpstra, and Steven McMullen.

Read the CRC Network blog post “Dear Pastor, If You've Got Everyone Else, Who’s Got You?" and watch the accompanying 32-minute video on grief work.

Follow the exercises in the book The Mindful Christian: Cultivating a Life of Intentionality, Openness, and Faith, by Irene Kraegel.


Feel free to print and distribute this story at your staff, board, pastoral care, adult education, or worship committee meeting. These questions will help people start a conversation about the value of short-term online courses:

  • If you’ve taken a short-term online course, what were the pros and cons?
  • What's the best way you’ve found to share the learning from a conference or online course you enjoyed?
  • How might your congregation, school, or organization benefit from meeting other leaders who are dealing with ministry challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic?