As Canadian provinces pass through their respective stages of reopening, social institutions of all kinds are grappling with how to effectively and safely offer their services, and universities are no exception. By early July, many universities and colleges had already released their multifaceted plans for operating come September within the restraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, including several Christian universities.
The King’s University in Edmonton will be offering courses online with the opportunity for students to have in-person classes or labs at least once per week, if they so choose; all in-person classrooms will be capped at 30 students with proper physical distancing measures in place. Redeemer University in Hamilton, Ontario, will be providing all students, faculty and staff with three kinds of personal protective equipment (PPE): a two-ply cloth mask, face shield and personal portable barrier. The vast majority of its classes will be offered in person although, as at King’s, students can decide individually whether to take their classes in person or online.
South of the border, in Grand Rapids, Calvin University acquired 5,000 testing kits in a deal with Helix Diagnostics, a Michigan clinical laboratory, with most of those tests slated to be used for initial screening of those arriving to campus at the beginning of the year. Meanwhile in Sioux Center, Iowa, Dordt University will be conducting regular temperature checks of its students and providing hand sanitizing stations throughout campus, along with physically-distanced classrooms.
In contrast to these in-person plans, however, many secular universities have opted to move most of their departments and programs online, including Guelph University, the University of British Columbia and Dalhousie University in Halifax. In fact, at almost every larger Canadian university and college, fall classes will be held online.
Education in a pandemic is complicated, and while online learning solves safety concerns, it comes with its own set of challenges. Professors have spent the summer converting their coursework into online lectures and other digital materials, while potentially still being expected to produce pre-pandemic levels of research. Many of them are learning new skill sets on the fly – how do you teach and evaluate your students through a computer screen? Students share those concerns about effective pedagogy; aside from the issue of certain programs (such as nursing) being unable to offer their full services, many of my university friends worry that it will be more difficult to access their instructors through email, not to mention stay engaged in online lectures in isolation.
Still Worth It?
Underneath these concerns are a common, fervent desire and appreciation for the social interaction inherent in (pre-pandemic) university education. For students, this includes discussing course concepts with friends, classmates and faculty outside of the classroom, and then absorbing and responding to those concepts through repetition and reiteration. It also includes enjoying sporting events, clubs and other extracurriculars. For instructors, in-person classes enable them to orchestrate the “light bulb” moments in a room, to watch one student react in real time to the ideas of a classmate and then encourage that student to participate when ready. Similarly, the emotional support all good professors provide – those conversations in offices to help calm anxieties and provide encouragement about assignments as just one example – is not obviously or easily replicable online.
The reality that such benefits and joys will be at best reduced and at worst unavailable inevitably raises the question: is attending university in this manner worthwhile? More pointedly, what is the value of a post-secondary education? My answer to the former question is yes, and it depends on my answer to the latter.
In his book Escape from Skepticism: Liberal Education as if Truth Mattered, Christopher Derrick argues that that a person with a university education will be, among other things, “well-read, informed, sensitive” and “have inner resources.” Post-secondary education gives its students access to the world, inviting them to read and think and write and wrestle with things they might never have encountered otherwise. They will be fluent in their world’s issues and be well situated to contribute something constructive. The fact that a university degree is no guarantee of quick employment may lead some to label it as an irresponsible investment, while others may retort that a university education is now a minimum requirement to become employed and therefore simply must be acquired in today’s marketplace. Both viewpoints, I think, make primary what should be secondary or tertiary. Student and faculty fears of missing human contact in the online fall semester reveal what should be the primary aim of the university: to create interesting, well-rounded, sensitive, humble, empathetic people, not merely to disseminate information.
Even more importantly, as Christians, the expansion of one’s worldly fluency is not done as an end in itself, but to enable us to reveal Christ’s Kingdom. The Kingdom is fully established but not yet fully revealed, and every Christian who desires to go to university – even in a pandemic! – can cling to Christ and trust that he will use their passions and interests and studies to reveal it. Viewed from this angle, university education is inherently valuable and worth doing, even as we grieve its temporarily altered operation.
Will there be losses felt this year (and presumably every year until a vaccine or treatment is discovered)? Yes. Will the university enterprise still be effective in crafting Derrick’s interesting individual? Yes. Can an online university education still be used to reveal the Kingdom? Absolutely. All that is required, university students and instructors, is that you trust your studies have immense Kingdom potential, and pursue them accordingly.