For over 10 years now, the Timothy Partnership, now known as Timothy Partnership Certificate, has provided online theological education through a joint venture involving Presbyterian Youth and Christ College.
For almost all that time, experienced theological educator Stephen Renn has been one of the lecturers teaching courses to students keen to expand their knowledge of the Bible.
Stephen began his career as a high school teacher, before training for ministry at Westminister Seminary in Philadelphia. Upon returning to Australia he pastored Dapto Baptist Church for five years, did some itinerant Bible teaching and then spent 15 years lecturing in Hebrew and Old Testament at SMBC and serving as Dean of Students.
After working with SMBC, Stephen ventured back to secondary education… but it wasn’t long until he was back in theological education, teaching for the Timothy Partnership.
Like most teachers would agree, Stephen still thinks education works best in an in-person setting. “In an ideal world, face to face would always be preferred, I have to be honest and say that, because you can’t beat the spontaneous questions and the chance to interact,” he says. “However, given the fact that you can’t always do that, it’s great that online learning has come a long way. It’s developed to a great degree of professional competence.”
For the past decade, Stephen has really enjoyed his online teaching experience. “I would present lectures and notes online, and then students would study those and post their answers online. And if a student had an issue with an essay, I’d say, look, Joe, or Mary, give me a call, I’d love to talk with you. And I did that on a couple occasions. I would always offer them the personal chat.”
Now he’s particularly interested in seeing how online teaching and learning continues to develop, especially in light of the changes brought about by COVID.
In 2019, Stephen was invited to deliver the lectures for MTS apprentices studying with Timothy Partnership Certificate (including the METRO Presbyterian apprentices) at the MTS G8 National Conference. These apprentices were able to cover one of their subjects for their studies at the conference. Stephen delivered the lectures in person and then worked with small groups as they worked through the content.
This year, he was invited back, to teach the Old Testament subject, but of course everything was different due to COVID – the conference was held entirely online.
“I pre-recorded three 20-minute talks, which were played to the students online. Then we met in Zoom breakout rooms to discuss the content, address questions and then the students would work in small groups to produce a 500-word response to a set question, and that would form 40% of their assessment mark,” Stephen explains.
Having most often taught online in an asynchronous format, where students and lecturers contact each other but rarely are logged on at the same time, Stephen really enjoyed the personal “live” interaction afforded by Zoom. “I found the questions that the students asked were very good. And the G8 team did an excellent job managing it.”
While the change in how the G8 teaching was delivered was necessitated by COVID, for Stephen it was actually a great opportunity to test a new way of teaching.
Looking to the future, he is keen to see how online theological education continues to develop, making more use of interactive technology to ensure that the learning experience is as good as it can be – especially for those in rural areas who simply don’t have the option of face-to-face theological training.
“If you’re 600 kilometres away from a city, it’s very difficult, especially for people who are married with children, to uproot and go and live in a city while you study. Nowadays you can simply do it online. And that’s been a marvellous boon,” Stephen says.
Like Stephen, PY is excited about the evolving training opportunities afforded by modern technology, allowing more Christians to be equipped to deeply understand and teach the Bible, no matter where they live and what other commitments they have. Keep an eye out for more new prospects for getting trained in the future!