Transitions, Tech and the Value of Learning in Relationship
Interview with the Provost
Resound sat down with provost and vice president, academic Dr. David Zietsma to discuss plans for the academic year and the future of Redeemer.
13 min. read
November 6, 2020

Provost and vice president, academic Dr. David Zietsma began in his new position on April 1, 2020. Since then, he has helped lead Redeemer through an evolving global pandemic as chair of the university’s COVID Management Committee. Despite the current challenges, he is passionate about Redeemer preparing Kingdom-centred, innovative graduates who will make a profound impact in a rapidly changing, complex and digital world.

What a challenging time to start in a new role! What are some of the steps you are taking to ensure smooth transitions in the academic area at Redeemer during the global pandemic?

It’s very difficult to transition to a new role during a pandemic. In the transition, I had to deal with two things: first, as a new provost, casting my vision for the academic experience of students, whether in student life or in the classroom, and how it aligns with and helps serve the strategic plan of the university; and second, in the short term, continuing to deliver on the mission of the school while dealing with the uncertainty of the virus and all the implications of the lockdown. Although I had previously served as dean and associate provost, I needed to refresh myself on what each area and department was doing and responsible for, connecting with people in various leadership roles to understand what the systems were, and how the processes flowed. I worked closely with the academic leadership team to understand how we were continuing academic operations as we switched to remote learning in March. I stayed connected to the Ontario Council of Academic Vice Presidents. Being able to hear what others were doing was very helpful and I brought that back to Redeemer to help inform our decision making.

What is the most critical task for you as you move forward as Redeemer’s new provost?

I think the most critical task right now is to continue to deliver a high quality academic experience for students, and to support faculty and staff during the pandemic to effectively serve students in all areas. For example, we’re looking at how we are serving education students, preparing them to be educators in a significantly altered environment that may never fully go back to the way it was, including how they experience practicums and classroom learning.

Faculty and staff have worked hard to develop a viable option for students this fall through a unique dual-delivery method.

Another significant priority is continuing to disciple undergraduate students. Students who choose Redeemer want their faith integrated into their learning. They want to grow in who they are as followers of Jesus Christ, while getting the skills and knowledge they need to find a calling where they can serve him. As Christians, when we see each other as created beings who bear the image of God, it reflects that we’re relational beings, and that learning is fundamentally a relational thing. So how can we preserve relational learning in Christian community in the context of a pandemic? The president appointed me chair of the COVID Management Committee, which is overseeing Redeemer’s COVID-19 response, and is engaged with exactly that – delivering on the academic mission of the university, even in the middle of a pandemic, and doing it as safely as we can and without compromising relational learning. It’s been the overriding priority so far.

Faculty and staff have worked hard to develop a viable option for students this fall through a unique dual-delivery method. I am not aware of another school in Canada that has taken this approach for almost all classes. We’ve invested significantly in this innovative approach, preserving the relational learning community, and doing it as safely as we can with physically distanced classes. A significant number of students will participate in classes remotely, having a presence in the class on a screen and the instructor should be able to see them and call on them by name. It’s an approach focused on engagement in a context where it could be easier to revert to autonomous and independent online learning models. I think those models sacrifice something that Redeemer’s Reformed Christian view of education sees as essential: that fundamentally we’re created beings, and that learning and growing is something we do in relationship and not as autonomous individuals. Not that that can never happen, but in a spiritually vibrant learning context, true flourishing is something that occurs in relationship. Hard conversations, critical thinking and problem solving happen when we engage each other authentically.

We also need to push forward on the strategic plan. The plan is about preparing students for challenges like the pandemic. How do we prepare students to flourish, to serve God, to reflect his love in a complex digital world, a world where relationships happen in person and via screens? The strategic plan seeks to deepen those skills to continue to build a foundation for student and graduate success. It ensures we have the kinds of facilities that make it possible to prepare students and to serve them well in their academic program and their campus life experience. It seeks to create the kind of culture that invites everybody – all employees, staff and faculty – into Redeemer’s mission. And this mission is not just about securing a great career for students and graduates, but preparing them to make the kind of difference in those careers that actually changes people’s lives and gives them a sense of hope, purpose, joy and meaning.

What are some of the changes you see coming in the next few years as the university’s enrolment continues to grow?

There will be a lot of changes. The campus will look different with the addition of a new residence building, which is really a live-and-learn facility. It will hopefully house the centre for innovation and entrepreneurship, including potentially a makerspace for students to use as they seek to carry out their academic work and research. As we build new living and learning spaces and renovate existing spaces, we want to make sure that the look and feel of the campus reflects what we are, which is an academic learning community that values relationships in the learning process.

We’re also hoping to see legislative changes to the university’s charter that will allow us to grant new degrees and create new degree pathways here at Redeemer. We want to build on the strengths of the liberal arts and science undergraduate education, enhancing those programs and being innovative in the kinds of programs we’re delivering. We want to ensure that young Christian students who want an undergraduate degree can, in many cases, find their program of interest at Redeemer. That doesn’t mean we can offer every program. It means we’re going to have to be strategic and focused about what programs we’re going to offer, so that we’re able to deliver high quality programs.

I believe Redeemer’s graduates will have a positive impact on their communities, on their places of work and on people’s individual lives so that they too can come to have the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

I’m hoping people see a busier campus, an exciting, vibrant campus alive with student activity, chapels that are overflowing, prayer groups meeting on campus, people thinking about where God is calling them to serve and how he can use their education to prepare them for that. I hope we become known for being an innovative place that delivers a university education where people take note of how highly skilled and what deep thinkers and people of character Redeemer’s students are. In the end, I believe Redeemer’s graduates will have a positive impact on their communities, on their places of work and on people’s individual lives so that they too can come to have the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

What do you feel must remain the same at Redeemer as we move forward?

One thing that must remain the same is the institution’s Reformed Christian mission and how we work that out in the classroom. That’s really critical. We need to build on it and strengthen it, but I wouldn’t want the commitment to that to change.

I believe the school’s commitment to relationships should remain the same. I want faculty to continue to know their students, especially those in their programs. It’s a critical part of the learning experience. I wouldn’t want to see the campus life model change either, where students live together in groups and form close relationships that are often spiritually energizing. Even as they are getting an amazing experience in their undergraduate program and learning the critical-thinking, problem-solving and teamwork skills, we want them to also be developing leadership, character and life skills too. Redeemer has been doing those things well and I would want them to continue.

We must continue to do research from a Christian perspective. It’s not a valued thing in our culture, but Redeemer faculty do outstanding research. It’s the kind of research that makes a difference in people’s lives. We must remain committed to that. We need to find ways to do it sustainably and be prepared to meet challenges concerning resources for it. When we perform research from an integrated Christian perspective, it drives us to ask hard questions and to make a meaningful difference through how we seek answers to those questions.

Finally, I want to see us maintain and strengthen the core program. The core attempts to be holistic and helps engage students in deeper conversations about faith and learning and about how a Reformed Christian worldview impacts their learning and living. It’s critical that we maintain a broad liberal arts and sciences education that helps provide students with adaptable thinking.

“We are in the process of learning about how to better integrate technology into the classroom and to do that without sacrificing what’s most important to us.”

What has Redeemer learned from journeying through the COVID-19 crisis that will serve its students in the future?

It’s interesting to consider how the digital revolution that we’ve been living through will impact learning in higher education. We are in the process of learning about how to better integrate technology into the classroom and to do that without sacrificing what’s most important to us: the fact that we are created beings and the importance of being in relationship with each other.

Part of the new core program launched a few years ago was a course on Being and Knowing in the Digital Age. I’m keen to ensure that the objectives we set out in setting up the course are being met. How are we engaging students in understanding the impact of a digital world on their sense of personhood, especially when this technology is now pervasive? Further to what the course does, I think we need to be asking as an organization how we ensure that post-secondary education remains vibrant in an age that values technology as a solution rather than as a tool. I hope we learn that technology can be a useful tool, but that it doesn’t have to be the solution and that we can maintain the faculty-student relationships that are invaluable to the learning experience. We’re in the process of learning how to do that. The entire post-secondary sector is trying to learn that lesson right now.

In Redeemer’s case, the university’s Christian mission provides us with a unique and different perspective. We don’t educate people for education’s sake. We do it because we think we can make a difference in the world. We do it because it serves God’s Kingdom, brings him glory and helps students develop a foundational worldview for their whole lives, including where they’re called to serve.

Technology is not the answer to the problem of how to educate, but I think we need to be prepared to understand that it is going to be a significant element in how education is delivered. Different things have been adding to the learning experience for many years. Technology is another tool.

If I’ve learned anything personally, it’s that the need to understand where technology fits is not going away. It will take resources and strategic thinking to figure out where it fits best.

What makes Redeemer academics such a unique offering for students?

At the undergraduate level, we’re trying to make Jesus the centre of the learning experience. The verse that hangs in the Commons is: He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17) That’s not something you can find at just any university in Ontario. Undergraduate students come here because they have a desire to grow in their relationship with Christ. We want that desire to come alive and be vibrant and grow in the classroom. Most Redeemer students will tell you that that’s their experience. That’s what makes us unique and we want to build on that.

We generally have small classes where students and instructors get to know each other and learn in relationship with each other. That brings a personal and spiritual vibrancy to the learning process that we hope engages students deeply. I hope that flows through their whole campus life experience, through chapel, dorm devos, student service opportunities, student clubs, student leadership and student senate, so that altogether Redeemer is a truly unique and holistic Christian academic community.

Despite challenging circumstances, what excites you about the future of Redeemer?

Leading the external relations area for five years gave me a real window into just how much a place like Redeemer is desired and needed. Some things that excite me are seeing growth in the student body in part due to the opportunity to make Redeemer affordable for more families by a restructuring of tuition. I’m excited about the ability to move forward on a strategic plan that’s going to help the campus be more relevant and meaningful. I’m also excited to add new programs, and possibly new degrees, that students want to engage in from a Christian perspective.

As the student body grows, I’m excited about finding staff and faculty who are enthusiastic about what we’re doing and want to be part of this amazing mission. In my time in leadership at Redeemer, it’s been an amazing experience bringing new people on board, seeing their enthusiasm and seeing how their attributes and skills can help strengthen teams.

Seeing students graduate, hearing the stories of the difference they’ve made, being able to share those stories and knowing that we can do that for more students and graduates are all things that give me energy and keep me going in the face of daunting challenges. I’m excited about the vision that we have to graduate Kingdom-centred innovators who will be able to reflect the hope and love of Jesus. I’m excited that when we look around at what could be a very challenging context, where there’s brokenness, hurt, pain, dysfunction, fear, isolation and fragmentation in the world, our hope comes from the cross and knowing that one day Jesus will return and all things will be made new. If you can participate in graduating cohort after cohort of people who are going to share that message, what’s more exciting than that?

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