How to Be Present Online

In theological education, serious criticisms have sometimes been voiced about online classes and degree programs.1

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

By definition, don’t they run counter to the “incarnational principle”? Aren’t they the opposite of what formative community for theological education should be?

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

Thinking Differently about Presence

These questions bear serious and careful reflection, not least in a world freshly scarred by a global pandemic.

Online and face-to-face education obviously differ. But their differences aren’t the absolute binaries of presence or absence.

Instead, each has at play different kinds of presence. And recognizing this fact paves the way for fostering rich community—even when that community gathers online.

Insights from Aquinas

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, we say physical bodies are in a particular place because they occupy that place’s space. But we say incorporeal entities (e.g., God, the soul) are 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.

So, robust, formative community isn’t limited to face-to-face interactions. You can also foster and find it when you engage others online.

How communities interact online will obviously differ from how they will interact if everyone sat 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

For additional resources to help you consider what this may mean for you, 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 in analyzing presence as I’ve summarized above.5 The other discusses how you can foster formative community in online education.6

In the end, if “online” is a means of “moving away,” then it clearly supports checking out and a lack of connection. But where it means “moving toward,” it too can be a powerful way of being present with and for others in meaningful communities of learning.


  1. Header image provided by Compare Fibre

  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.