Reconstructing faith-based learning

The Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning is exploring ways to blend the university's Christian mission with online learning environments. Ava Sanborn | Photographer

By Vivian Roach | Staff Writer

Baylor’s Christian mission is expected to be upheld by faculty on campus and in class through their courses. However, when classes went online, the Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning asked a new question: how might faith animate teaching and learning online?

The Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning (IFL) and the Academy for Teaching and Learning have worked through the transition to online classes to answer this question.

University Chaplain Dr. Burt Burleson said incorporating Baylor’s Christian mission happens in many ways.

“Sometimes faith perspectives and conversations are central to course content. Sometimes the way a class is taught is shaped by Christian practices, ethics and theology; sometimes it’s about the presence of the faculty member and what takes place as students encounter Christ through the professor,” Burleson said.

The IFL web page lists several thoughts and questions for teachers to reflect on as education on different platforms is reimagined in the pandemic. It suggests to reflect on the purpose and point of a course, ask better questions for students to cultivate a better understanding and to actively apply Christian virtues within course assignments and activities.

In the online series, “Being Baylor Online,” faculty and staff ask and answer questions about how the school’s academic excellence and Christian mission are translated into an online education.

Dr. Laine Scales, professor at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, explained several standards that best create a caring Christian community online. She said to express care through preparedness and a hospitable environment, willingness to change teaching techniques and intentionally animating faith in online classes.

The “Being Baylor Online” series also included appearances from students with questions and concerns about online learning.

In the video, Ben, a student from Georgetown, said that classmates are worried about feeling like they are learning in isolation.

He said he feels less isolated in his courses when professors embed videos of themselves teaching a lesson so that there is some personal connection there.

Scales shared how she has applied her Christian value of hospitality while designing a learning environment, and then translating that to online.

“I start with an introductory video where I introduce myself and then invite students to introduce themselves, and they each make a video,” Scales said. “But I talk about my love for my subject and other things, but also mention my faith and how my faith really animates my journey toward social work and toward education.”

Additionally, Dr. Helen Harris, professor at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, likes to use experiential learning for students to apply their critical thinking, developed from their faith experience and own world view. She shares her practice journals with unidentified case examples.

“I read from my journals to students, and then we talk about what the ethical issues might be, what the faith and practice concerns, what the boundary concerns might be with those cases,” she said. “I think that kind of combination of experiential work and applied work and critical thinking and content is the combination that works for dealing with something as complex and important as faith and practice.”

Baylor alumna and founder of Inquiry Partners Dr. Cary Miller has been teaching online for five years at Harvard University. She spoke in the video on the importance of teachers being willing to learn how to teach again with the transition to online. She encourages exploring new ways of teaching though.

“It’s great for our brains. It’s great for our brains to begin again,” Miller said. “I mean, you know, in my tradition we say ‘God is always making all things new,’ and that, that doesn’t end at our own expertise and subject matter and our own patterns of thinking. God is always seeking to make things new.”