COVID-19 Offers New Opportunities for Graduate Students

Tuesday, October 27, 2020


Graduate students in the Masters of Theological Studies (MTS) program at Conrad Grebel University College usually learn together in small classes to learn the intricacies of the Bible, Christian theology, church history and practicing ministry. The pandemic this year has turned the program’s teaching model on its head, as professors have adapted and in some cases entirely reconstructed their courses for the ease of learning and connecting virtually. Because of the online platform, the courses are reaching more students in many locations. From Niagara-on-the-Lake to Manitoba, students are excited to learn and engage with each other in online discussions.

Director of Theological Studies, Jeremy Bergen, explained. “I think the pandemic had an effect on some people’s decisions to explore our program, resulting in a record high enrolment. It may have been something they were thinking about for a while, the effects of the shutdown such as changes in employment, or the possibility of studying online that made our program seem like a viable option.”

Andrew Brown is one student who enrolled due to the pandemic. Andrew is in the Master of Arts in Theological Studies at Canadian Mennonite University in Manitoba. Over the summer of 2020, Andrew started looking at other universities since most of them had moved their courses online. Andrew “saw this as an opportunity to study anywhere as a visiting student.” He continued, “Grebel’s course, The Reformation, taught by Visiting Professor David Neufeld piqued my interest. I had heard a lot of good things about him, and was excited to study under a new, young scholar in this field.”

Rebecca Booker likes the freedom her Biblical Law class gives her. Because it’s asynchronous, there aren’t set class times, allowing her to “chip away at course work over the week. I enjoy being able to rewind lectures, and I often review material while I'm cleaning up the house.”

The flexibility of online courses also enabled Chris Hutton, the youth and young adult pastor at Niagara United Mennonite Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, to take a Grebel course this term. “Knowing that I wouldn’t have to drive as much to access the course materials and content opened an even greater opportunity to continue my education and professionalization,” he stated. “I’ve been most surprised this term by the amount of work put in by Conrad Grebel faculty and staff. They have put a lot of thought into how to communicate during this season and they have done excellent work at foreseeing how to handle the needs of students studying online.”

Carol Penner, assistant professor of Theological Studies added “Teaching online is a lot more gratifying than I expected it to be. We are having really good discussions, and the students are engaging with each other in this new format.” 

Rebecca was surprised “by the depth of my engagement in the course material. I think we're reading more thoroughly, and putting far more thought into our comments and responses. In many ways, this format has increased my ability to focus on the material.”

Though the overall experience has been positive, meeting online has been a challenge for both students and professors. With technical difficulties, the lack of informal conversation during lunch or break to get to know peers, and the feeling of separation, the online format is not the perfect replacement for such a heavily interactive and discussion based program.

MTS is a 2 year program offered at Grebel through the University of Waterloo. This interdisciplinary program welcomes students from any academic background who are interested in theology, ministry, chaplaincy, or personal enrichment. Students have many options to tailor their degree to their liking through different degree paths, wide range of courses, and internships. The small class sizes offer student many opportunities to discuss their ideas and experience support from peer and faculty.

Online classes have changed the way Theological Studies program operates. With the rise in enrollment and interest in the program, there may be lasting online opportunities. Jeremy added, “we will explore how online offerings might be integrated into the mix in the future. But whatever form our classes take, learning together with a relatively small cohort of students, in which community is fostered, will be central to what we do.”

Written by Abby Rudy-Froese

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