As people continue to move forward after the pandemic, many are raising new questions about the values and distinctions of in-person community versus online community. Churches are wondering if a hybrid experience is best with an interplay between virtual and geo-physical community building. As we know, schools are exploring virtual options now that more and more big names in education are celebrating the assets of online learning.
Any online program needs to take the community aspects of being online seriously. Here at OC Online, for example, we have both a Spiritual Life and Student Life ministry with and for students where they have opportunities to socialize and explore faith together. At the same time, we are very careful both in what we offer students and in how much we provide.
“Christian online programs need to take the body seriously, despite the temptation to reduce relationships to screens.”
Established online programs can bring flourishing to these areas instead of hindrances. Here are some important boundaries and opportunities OC Online has discovered that may be helpful to consider.
- The importance of the body. As Christians, we take seriously that God incarnated in order to provide a physical way to continue in relationship with him. Clarifying any falsely distant and esoteric notions of God we may have had, Jesus puts on flesh and bones to meet with us, eat with us, cry with us, walk with us, die with us, and then resurrect . . . as a body. In honor of God-become-flesh, Christian online programs need to take the body seriously, despite the temptation to reduce relationships to screens.
At OC Online we provide online embodied experiences with one another (such as virtual events where they stretch or paint together), but also prompts for students to use their bodies locally (such as virtual 5ks and community service). Online programs should not replace a student’s experience of place and rootedness. The best online programs do not just encourage “doing more online with them” but become a platform that empowers students to do more with their bodies both in and outside of the program.
- Creation Matters. There is a growing concern that students are not getting enough time outside. Any good online program needs to acknowledge this concern. The last thing any of us want is for online students to spend all day in front of a computer inside. As with the emphasis on embodiment, online programs need to find space to celebrate creation together (such as events where we share our pets or do a phone call prayer hike). At the same time, sometimes the best option is to use the online program to send students out in nature.
“The last thing any of us want is for online students to spend all day in front of a computer inside.”
For example, in one of the Bible classes at OC Online, students take Jesus literally when he says to look at the birds in order to embrace trust in God and release worry. Students are assigned to observe birds and identify 10 things they do and what that teaches them about faith. One student responded with these words:
All of these observations led me to believe that [birds] are confident in God’s plan. These birds do not work in civil society yet provide for themselves each and every day through the grace and guidance of God. We can learn that by removing complications from our life and living through simplicity, we too can be confident in God’s plan.
This excerpt was submitted from a junior in high school who is taking this class online because he is captain of his football team at his geo-physical campus and wants to have more flexibility for his training schedule. Through this virtual space, he has been inspired to look to physical creation places as way of leaning into the Creator.
- Remember the value of unstructured time. It’s time we educators start doing students a favor and not offer too many extracurricular programs. Online programs can be proud of the variety of gatherings they provide for students, while also recognizing that kids need time with their families and their local communities—not just school time.
Though this data is pre-pandemic, it shares that kids are spending 4.8% of their time with their parents and only 2% of their time with adults who are not their parents. The folks at OC Online and similar online learning providers want to be a place that points students in the direction of spending more time with family, church, and neighborhood, instead of being one more thing keeping them from it.
“…kids need time with their families and their local communities—not just school time.”
For example, a student from OC Online was instructed to meet with an adult and have a conversation based on certain prompts. This student chose to dialogue with his mom. At the end, the student said, “Even though we each had different things we struggled with, I feel like we both understood each other and listened to each other when we spoke.”
Notice that this interaction was not task-oriented. According to a more recent body of research, “students are handed specific scripts from family, friends, teachers, mentors, and pastors about their expected gift to the world” (p. 207). In other words, most of the conversations teens are having with adults (if they are having them at all) are about expectations. Doing chores, doing homework, going to youth group, getting the grades, going to practice, making the world a better place, finding God’s plan. . . . Talking about all of these good things is certainly important, but if students are so busy that this is the only conversation time they have time to share with adults, that dearth can be problematic.
Established online programs should be giving students virtual spaces to grow with each other and with the adults that are here for them. They can play a role in fostering those relationships that are lifelong and that exist outside of school—even online school.
Ultimately, like most things in education, intentionality is key. Bringing kids’ lives (or even just their minds) totally onto the internet is not something we want to do. What we do want to do is use this resource carefully to see if there are imaginative ways we can participate in shalom with students more abundantly.
For more conversations about community, embodiment, theology, and busyness in an online setting, feel free to reach out to OC Online.
The first three posts of this online learning series explored important questions to ask when considering online learning, and how what many people experienced during the pandemic is not what online education is.
I appreciated this article. I worked at an online Christian school for 11 years and the examples above show ways in which online education can build community too. Treating students as the image bearers that God created them to be is so important F2F and online.