Innovating Creatively as a Community of Learners

Innovating Creatively as a Community of Learners

The Fresno Pacific Idea articulates a vision of Fresno Pacific University as a “Community of Learners.” Yet, in a time when that community is gathering from far-flung living rooms and home offices scattered across geographical distance, it is difficult to see how these learners can live up to the ideals in the Idea.

Despite the challenges of the fall 2020 semester, this season has reinvigorated this community of learners as we are challenged to learn new things. As a professor, I preach to my students about the benefits of taking risks, embracing failure and being willing to make mistakes in the process of learning. Yet, despite this message, what my students often see me practice is carefully honed lectures, meticulously organized lesson plans and consultation of detailed notes that will contribute to the illusion that I have everything figured out! In short, I have not often practiced what I have preached.

The beauty of this unusual semester is that I have had the chance to model curiosity in learning, composure in the face of uncertainty and persistence in the face of failure. I cannot count the number of times this semester when I have said to my students, “I’m not sure how this is going to go, but let’s give it a try!” Sometimes, the activity in question has exceeded my expectations for success. Sometimes, it has failed in epic proportions! Regardless of any one activity’s success, though, I have had the opportunity to join my students in real ways in FPU’s community of learners as I innovate creatively in my course design, content delivery and virtual classroom management.

In the process of this innovation, I have discovered some surprising benefits of our remote environment. For example, in an in-person setting, I could never fit 30 students around a single whiteboard to co-create a concept map connecting key course ideas. With shared virtual whiteboard spaces, however, this is done easily. When students work with small groups in a physical classroom, I cannot tell quickly which groups may be floundering and hesitant to ask for assistance. With a shared online document giving a snapshot of their progress, though, I can quickly tell which groups might benefit from a quick check-in from me to get going in the right direction.

My students, too, have an opportunity to innovate creatively. The remote environment allows them to engage in learning in ways that might be distracting in an in-person setting. For example, kinesthetic learners can turn off their cameras and move around to associate movements with key terms to aid their memory. Auditory learners can close their eyes and focus solely on the conversation. Visual learners can draw large diagrams on home whiteboards to help them track with class discussion. In short, behaviors that would prove distracting in person can be accommodated easily in a remote setting.

The new learning that my students and I are engaging in this strange season has been supported by FPU’s own strategic plan that advocates for innovating creatively. Through the Center for Online Learning, FPU devoted resources to training faculty for a semester of teaching students whom they may never meet in person. This allocation of resources meant that this semester’s remote community of learners could be actively engaged in collective and creative innovation.

The authors of the Fresno Pacific Idea could not have imagined a semester like fall 2020 when they wrote, “Believing that the Gospel transcends the limitations of all cultures and ideologies and that inclusiveness enriches community, Fresno Pacific University welcomes those of different cultural, national, ethnic and religious backgrounds to participate in its educational experience.” Nonetheless, this vision of an inclusive community of learners has come to life in a new way this semester. Faculty have an opportunity to learn new ways of teaching. Students have an opportunity to experiment with new ways of learning. In short, the unique experience of the fall 2020 semester has given the community of learners at FPU a chance to join in innovating creatively in the pursuit of excellence in Christian higher education.


Melanie A. Howard, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor & Program Director, Biblical & Theological Studies