As people continue to move forward after the pandemic, many are raising new questions about the values and distinctions of in-person community and online community. Churches are wondering if a hybrid experience is best with an interplay between virtual and geo-physical community building. And schools, as we already know, are exploring virtual options now that more and more big names in education are celebrating the assets of online learning.
Here at OC Online we take online community seriously. We have both a Spiritual Life and Student Life ministry with and to students where they have opportunities to socialize and explore faith together. We are careful, however both in what we offer students and in how much we provide. Here are a few principles we find important in helping us decide what kind of events to offer:
- We believe in bodies. As a Christian community we take seriously that God incarnated to be in relationship with us. Instead of satelliting in from the sky, Jesus put on flesh and bones to meet with us, eat with us, cry with us, walk with us, and die with us, and then resurrect…as a body. We are careful to provide students opportunities to have embodied experiences with one another (such as virtual events where we stretch or paint together) but we also look for ways to point them to use their bodies locally (such as virtual 5ks and community service). It’s not just about ‘doing more with us’ but about us empowering them to do more with their bodies with or without us.
- We believe in creation. There is a growing concern that students are not getting enough time outside. We agree with this concern. The last thing we want is for online students to spend all day in front of a computer inside. Like our approach with embodied experiences, we also try to create opportunities for students to celebrate creation together (such as events where we share our pets) and yet we also try to offer room for students to go out and do that locally outside of this virtual space. For example in Bible 3, students take Jesus literally when he says to look at the birds in order to embrace trust in God and release worry. They have an assignment where they observe birds and identify 10 things they do and what that teaches us about faith. One student said, “All of these observations led me to believe that [birds] are confident in God’s plan. These birds do not work in civil society, yet provide for themselves each and every day through the grace and guidance of God. We can learn that by removing complications from our life and living through simplicity, we too can be confident in God’s plan.” This excerpt was submitted from a junior in high school who is taking this class online because he is captain of his football team at his geo-physical campus and wants to have more flexibility for his training schedule.
- We believe in unstructured time. One of the best decisions we make for students is to not offer too many extracurricular programs. We are very proud of the variety of gatherings we provide for students, but we also recognize that kids need time with their families and their local communities—not just us. Granted this data is pre-pandemic, but it is estimated that kids are spending 4.8 percent of their time with their parents and only 2 percent of their time with adults who are not their parents. Once again, we want OC Online to be a place where we point students in the direction of spending more time with family, church, and neighborhood. For example, this student met with his mom and had a conversation about faith based on the prompts we provided. At the end he said, “Even though we each had different things we struggled with, I feel like we both understood each other and listened to each other when we spoke.” Notice that this interaction was not task-oriented. According to a more recent body of research, “students are handed specific scripts from family, friends, teachers, mentors, and pastors about their expected gift to the world” (207) In other words most of the conversations teens are having with adults (if they are having them at all) are about expectations. Doing chores, doing homework, going to youth group, getting the grades, going to practice, making the world a better place, finding God’s plan—talking about all of these good things is certainly important, but if students are so busy that this is the only conversation space they have time to share with adults, that can be problematic. At OC Online we want to give students virtual spaces to grow with each other and with the adults that are here for them, but we also want to play a role in fostering those relationships that are lifelong and that exist outside of school—even online school.
Ultimately, like most things in online education, intentionality is key. Bringing kids’ lives (or even just their minds) onto the internet is not something we want to do. What we do want to do is use this resource carefully to see if there are imaginative ways we can serve student populations well.