How to Be Present Online amid COVID-19

In recent days, there’s been no shortage of announcements about plan changes and cancellations in the States due to increasing efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19.1 Education and biblical studies have been no exception.

The Society of Biblical Literature and Association of Theological Schools have both announced changes in plans or other advisories for upcoming meetings.

And a growing number of institutions have altered plans for spring classes. Many of these are at least temporarily moving online and away from the classroom.

Problems with Online Education?

Not least in theological education though, serious criticisms have sometimes been voiced about how appropriate online classes and programs are.

Do they adequately promote community? Do they adequately contribute to spiritual formation within that community?

Don’t they by definition run counter to what a formative community for theological education should really be?

Doesn’t the “online-ness” of online education necessarily involve the kind of absence that impoverishes theological education?

These questions bear serious and careful reflection, even and especially amid the need for appropriate and timely efforts to avoid fostering further spread of COVID-19.

Online and face-to-face education are obviously different. But the difference between the two isn’t a binary matter of presence or absence.

Instead, it’s a matter of different kinds of presence. And recognizing this fact paves the way for maintaining rich community—even when that community gathers online.

Thinking Differently about Presence

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas observes that “a thing is wherever it operates.”2

So, “incorporeal things are in place not by contact of dimensive quantity, as bodies are, but by contact of power.”3

That is, physical bodies occupy space and are said to be in a particular place because they occupy that place’s space.

But incorporeal entities (e.g., God, the soul) are said to be in a particular place not because they “take up space” but because they exert power within that space.4

As it happens, cognitive, emotional, and social presence are incorporeal realities as well.

They may, therefore, be genuinely present through “contact of power”—through using one’s ability to act. And that ability may play out physically or in some other way.

All of this means that robust, formative community doesn’t have to go out the window if and when you find yourself engaging with others more online in coming days.

How a community interacts online will obviously be different from how they will interaction if everyone is sitting around a table together.

But there are any number of intensely practical ways to foster community as something that genuinely is there online.

Resources for Thinking about Presence in Online Education

If you’d like additional resources to help you consider what this may mean in your context, drop your name and email in the form below. I’ll then send you a couple articles that you might find helpful.

One goes deeper analyzing presence as I’ve summarized above.5 The other discusses how you can foster formative community in online education.6

The coming weeks are sure to see further adjustments as institutions continue grappling with how they want to help restrict COVID-19.

If those shifts take you increasingly online, I hope you’ll find these thoughts helpful as you work to maintain meaningful and formative community amid those changes.


  1. Header image provided by Nathan Dumlao

  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 22 vols. (London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1913), I.8.1. 

  3. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.8.2; see also Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.8.3. 

  4. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, A Summa of the Summa, ed. Peter Kreeft, trans. The Fathers of the English Dominican Province (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 103n62. 

  5. J. David Stark, “Being Present at a Distance,” Didaktikos 1.2 (2018): 12–13. 

  6. J. David Stark, “Gaming the System: Online Spiritual Formation in Christian Higher Education,” TEd 52.2 (2019): 43–53. 

Presence in Online Education

Didaktikos has kindly published a short essay of mine about presence in online higher education.

I’m grateful to the folks at Faithlife for their permission to distribute the essay here, the essence of which is that presence is completely possible online—it’s just different than it is on campus.

If you’d like to read this short essay, just drop your name and email in the form below, and I’ll be happy to send it along. With this essay, I’ll also include a longer article of mine that discusses presence in online education a bit more fully than I was able to do in my Didaktikos essay.

For additional information about Didaktikos, see the journal’s website and this prior post.

Babyak, “Teaching strategy for a Christian virtual environment”

I’ve recently had the opportunity of working through Andrew Babyak’s article, “A Teaching Strategy for a Christian Virtual Environment” (Journal of Research in Christian Education 24, no. 1 [2015]: 63–77). A number of Babyak’s reflections are quite insightful and helpful. According to the abstract,

The current landscape in education is changing rapidly as online learning programs are experiencing great growth. As online learning grows, many professors and students are entering into new learning environments for the first time. While online learning has proven to be successful in many cases, it is not a journey upon which Christian professors or students should begin without some preparation. This article articulates a basic Christian teaching strategy by providing recommendations for those who are entering the online environment for the first time or desire to improve their online teaching effectiveness. These principles and recommendations are presented so that Christian professors can create Christian virtual environments in which they can have a significant impact on their students’ spiritual development in an online environment. It is critical that professors design their courses with the needs of online students in mind, ensuring that students of all learning styles are able to excel. Furthermore, professors should understand that online teaching often takes more time than traditional methods of teaching, increasing the importance of clear instructions and communication with students.

Spiritual formation in online, Christian higher education

Spiritual formation continues to be an important element in Christian education. As Christian education continues to explore online modes of executing its mission, it is necessary for Christian education to give careful thought to the unique challenges that online modes involve for the spiritually formative aspect of its mission.

As one more preliminary way of puzzling out how “online” and “spiritual formation” might fit together in this context, I’ve uploaded to Academia.edu a draft of a current project that tries to address this question. Comments, thoughts, suggestions, and questions on the project are most welcome either here or on the review session page at Academia.edu.

Position search open

Faulkner University Logo
Since September 2013, I’ve had the privilege of serving the Faulkner University community as the director of Faulkner University Online. Over that time, the effort has blossomed, and the university now enrolls about a quarter of its total student body in online degree programs, ranging from associates- to doctorate-level.

I deeply appreciate the opportunity to have been involved with Faulkner Online as we have sought, step by step, not only to serve more students but also to create for them a caring, Christian environment where every one of them matters every day. In Faulkner’s next fiscal year, plans are continuing to take shape around my transitioning into a more teaching- and research-focused role with Faulkner’s F. Furman Kearley Graduate School of Theology.

To that end, a search is now open for a qualified and conscientious individual to fill my current role, starting 1 June 2017, as director of Faulkner University Online. When identified, the new director will lead a team dedicated to making students’ experiences with Faulkner Online truly worthy of being called “Christian education”—what is worthy of Χριστός (Christ) having always within it the vocation of being χρηστός (excellent; cf. Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 4).

PhDs in non-faculty careers

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Maren Wood suggests that institutions should be more intentional about preparing PhD students for the possibility of non-faculty or non-teaching careers. Maren’s first suggestion is especially salient and recommends, in part,

While there are graduate students who decide that an academic career is not for them, most say their first objective is a faculty career. There is no way to know who will or won’t be successful on the academic job market, so all students should be encouraged or required to take professional courses.

How quickly a newly minted PhD might find a post and what kind it will be is also a definite question mark. But, new graduates who are able to identify and come to terms with the market opened to them by their field-specific and other transferable skills and passions will certainly find themselves in a better position to find a place for themselves within that market.

For the rest of Maren’s reflections, see the Chronicle’s website.