Jon Martin, Woodbrooke’s Communications Manager, looks back at Woodbrooke Learning in 2020.
In a year fraught with difficulties one of the positive aspects of 2020 was how Quakers around the world were able to connect with each other online. With all learning activity at the Woodbrooke Centre in Birmingham suspended from March onwards we increased our online worship offering and expanded our online programme to continue offering learning and support for Quakers. The response to this was heartening for all of us and now we are a couple of months into 2021, we wanted to take the time to look back at some of the most positive aspects of 2020.
Woodbrooke is international
By going online many Quakers found that they were able to connect more easily with other Friends around the world. Woodbrooke has always been an internationally-minded institution but by offering more online we were able to welcome more Friends from around the world to experience Woodbrooke courses than ever before. Participants came from over 28 different countries in 2020, with the majority being from Britain but significant numbers from the United States and Europe – particularly Germany and Ireland.
Prior to the Covid pandemic we had plans to launch Woodbrooke Where You Are (WWYA), a reimagining of our popular Woodbrooke on-the Road programme, designed for Quaker communities to bring Woodbrooke learning to them as a group – using in person and digital resources and workshop opportunities. In a world without physical meetings WWYA was trialled online. It was a real joy to explore the possibilities of this. Stuart Masters taught a series specifically for friends in New Zealand and a second for all Friends across the Asia and West Pacific FWCC Section. We’re excited about the possibilities of WWYA moving forward and hope to be able to bring our offering to more Friends, including in-person workshops when that becomes possible again.
The Importance of Online Worship
Worship has always been important to what Woodbrooke is and offers, our daily meeting for worship and epilogue being a heartbeat of the community. We started our online worship experiments in 2016 and towards the end of 2019 we agreed to partner with EMES (Friends World Committee for Consultation – Europe and the Middle East Section) to offer additional online worships via Zoom. This proved fortunate timing! As it became clearer that Quaker meetings around the world would find it harder to meet, we realized that demand for Woodbrooke Online worship would increase.
We worked with EMES, our existing facilitators and Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) to offer additional worship opportunities, also developing a plan in partnership with the Simpler Meetings Project and Local Development Workers to help Friends to hold their own online worship. Hundreds of Friends attended these sessions, going on to set up their own online meetings for worship. We increased our worship slots from four to twelve – picking a range of times that worked for Friends in different time zones and varying lifestyles. This also included becoming a home for the Young Adult Epilogue – a reflective space for young adult Friends that was started by BYM’s Engaging Young Adult Quakers Project. In 2020 the total attendance of our online worship was over 18,000. Many of these were people who experienced Quaker worship for the first time through our online worship. It also gave Friends the chance to share connections with people they had not seen in years and build new links in times of fellowship after worship.
We surveyed our online worshipers towards the end of 2020 and respondents shared how much they valued and appreciated online worship, particularly the international reach of our online worship. We know that offering a variety of opportunities enables people to attend worship who might otherwise be unable to go in person and we plan to continue to offer this. You can read the full report here including deeper reflections and challenges.
Reaching more people than ever
2020 was a year that more people than ever accessed Woodbrooke learning. We experienced a 37% increase in course bookings in 2020 compared to 2019 with 2,869 bookings, not including 3,000 people on our free Future Learn Course. Prior to 2020 Woodbrooke had experienced several years of declining attendance of our residential courses. We were already responding to this by offering more online and regional learning, 2020 prompted us to massively accelerate this process. While this was not always easy it has been hugely satisfying to see the response from participants.
We’re always looking to improve our offerings. In 2020 we experimented with formats: continuing the previous pattern of online courses spread over several weeks, offering new one off-sessions online, plus weekend ‘intensives’ and online retreats. Some of our courses involved live Zoom sessions, some used online forums and resources and others combined the two. We have discovered how different approaches suit different topics and the different preferences of individual participants.
We rebuilt our website during the second half of 2020 to make it clearer what different online courses involve and make it easier to find these courses and our other offerings. We’re keen to hear your thoughts and later this year we’ll be repeating the survey of our learning which we undertook in 2018.
Being hopeful online
It’s easy to focus on worship and courses as they became such an important part of our activity in 2020 but the pandemic affected all aspects of our life and learning. We have supported distance researchers for a long time through our post-graduate programmes but lockdown affected our students and research staff resulting in conferences being postponed and all supervision moving online. We have continued with our regular student days and other opportunities for sharing online. We had six new PhD students enrolled in 2020, including our first Kenyan student plus three successful completions.
Another innovation was the Swarthmore Lecture which Tom Shakespeare gave to a live audience from his home. We had live streamed the lecture to those unable to be at Yearly Meeting since 2016 but a purely online lecture was another first. Over 1500 people watched live one evening in August and the subsequent video has been viewed over 5,300 times.
The lecture ‘Openings to the Infinite Ocean: A Friendly Offering of Hope’ was a timely lecture as Tom spoke of hope in troubled times. The lessons from the lecture were also put to good use in helping the Quaker Socialist Society to run the 2020 Salter Seminar – Creating Heaven on Earth: The Radical Vision of Early Quakers given by our own Stuart Masters.
2020 also saw us join up with Quakers in Britain to produce new episodes of A Quaker Take podcast. A Quaker Take on the Bible has had 2,700 listens at the time of writing. Online learning isn’t just about courses; our Friendly Advent Series, in partnership with the World Office of Friends World Committee for Consultation, involved sharing advent themed reflections from Quakers around the world on social media with an optional forum. We also ran our first Twitter based course in 2020 (#QuakerGodTalk) and started our Reading and Reflection Facebook Group, a group of 800 people, where we post weekly prompts for reflection and discussion.
The Coronavirus pandemic has been with a time of tragedy and hardship for many, including many Friends. By focusing on the positives for Woodbrooke I do not want to lessen the challenges of the year which still affect us all – and which are often reinforcing the inequalities and privilege that exist in society. Our participants have shared with us that for many of them Woodbrooke has made a real positive difference to their 2020. We have been taking this positive engagement into our planning for what we will offer this year, as well as looking to the wider challenges of inequality, privilege and the climate crisis.
This is your Woodbrooke, to everyone who has joined our worship, been on our courses, contributed to our research, donated their money, their time – even just sharing a single social media post or email – thank you!
The reality of 2020 is that without the donations we have received during this crisis and your response to our online programme, the situation for Woodbrooke would have been far worse than it is. While we have reasons for optimism, we will continue to rely on the support of the global Quaker community to continue to offer worship, learning and connection in the coming years.