A New Thing

For decades, if not centuries, educators have been searching for new ways to bring learning to a mass audience. First radio, then television was seen as an ideal means to educate people who did not otherwise have access to advanced education. Books on tape, public television and “long distance learning” were touted as heralding a new age in public education. The arrival of the Internet was seen as another major step in connecting would-be students to the great professors of the world.

Unfortunately, television did not turn out to be the educational agora its proponents hoped it would be. The Learning Channel is now anything but that; and while cable television has introduced viewers to intelligent and complex storytelling, TV is too often a means of distraction rather than of education. The Internet too has proved to be a disappointing teacher, a purveyor of the mundane and the profane. Yet there are signs that the medium may finally be emerging from its adolescence.


A headline in The New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” or massive open online course. Dozens of universities, including Harvard, Duke and beginning in the fall of 2013, Georgetown, are offering free classes online, complete with reading lists, video tutorials and moderated discussions. Students do not receive credit, but they can gain a certificate if they complete the course requirements.

Debates about MOOCs are raging in the world of higher education. Professors worry about how online learning will affect the traditional student experience. There are reasons to be concerned. Very few people complete these courses, which do not easily allow for interaction between students and teachers. If adopted as for-credit courses, MOOCs could create a tier system in which nationally known star professors displace professors at smaller institutions. A class system could emerge among students as well, with only those able to pay gaining access to the live classroom. Yet online classes could also create healthy competition among schools and perhaps drive down tuition costs, which are out of reach for many middle-class families.

MOOCs also present a unique opportunity for religious educators, one which Catholic universities and parishes might actively explore. Catholic educators have repeatedly lamented the poor level of knowledge of the faith among young people. Many college freshmen are simply not prepared for college-level classes in theology or Scripture. Directors of religious education worry about the limited teaching time afforded by weekly classes. MOOCs offer Catholic schools and parishes a chance to offer a more robust education in critical areas of catechesis.

Online teaching technology, facilitated by faster Internet connections and advances in video presentation, arrives at a propitious time. Catholic schools continue to close at a troubling rate, and parish life is suffering from the departure of many young adults from the church. Religious educators, most of them volunteers, have been heroically trying to educate students under very difficult circumstances. Imagine if they had access to online religious education courses from some of the country’s top scholars and teachers. Their valuable time in the classroom could be spent facilitating discussion and answering questions.

Online teaching could also be a boon to Catholic colleges. Before they begin their first year, students could be required to take an online class in the essential elements of the Catholic faith. These classes would not replace college courses, but they could allow teachers to focus on their curriculum rather than spending valuable course time trying to gauge the level of student knowledge. Whether sponsored by campus ministry programs or theology departments, these programs would serve a critical evangelical need.

Online education is no cure-all. It will be difficult to ensure that students are completing their required course load. And religious education in parishes remains a voluntary enterprise, one that many families may sadly opt out of, even if they have access to the best teaching available. Online education could also be the stage for yet another intramural church squabble. Nonetheless, Catholic schools and parishes should seek to provide as many avenues for learning as possible. At a time when some Catholic universities are faulted for being disconnected from diocesan life, making high-level classes in Scripture and theology widely available would be a great gift to the church, helping to educate our young people and rejuvenate parish life.

Catholic schools and parishes pride themselves on their attention to the person, a subtle process of education and formation that can never be purely virtual. Yet Catholic educators should use every tool at their disposal to open up the riches of the Catholic tradition. The new evangelization should be marked by an embrace of the “new.”

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Heather Felton
6 years 2 months ago
I earned my master's degree in religious education online from Felician College in Lodi, NJ, while living in Florida. There is no way I would have been able to continue my education - necessary for my job as a parish director of faith formation - without online schooling. After my online education experience, I now offer online preparation for confirmation for the teens in my and neighboring parishes. The internet can be a wonderful resource for education if you know how to use it.
Maureen McKew
6 years 2 months ago
I also earned my master's on line at Felician College. Could not have done it without this program. Highly recommend it to all religious educators. I must add that I particularly appreciated the fact that the learning "cohorts" were kept to a size that enabled the professor to work with each student.
J Cosgrove
6 years 1 month ago
My suggestion for the first course in Catholic education is two fold, the Mass and a history of the Mass. The basis for the course is already available on line. A couple years ago I bought two audio courses by Fr. John F. Baldovin SJ on both the history of the Mass and the structure of the Mass. The Mass is divided into several parts and each has an history. I am now much more aware of just when the Mass is transitioning from one part to another and the historical significance of each. Fr. Baldovin has a video up on the America site at this moment about liturgy. I was never taught that in my 16 years of Catholic education. There is no reason a fifth grader or even younger could not be aware of this and hopefully then the Mass would have more meaning. These courses were published by Now You Know Media, a distributor of Catholic audio and video programs. Here is the link to Fr. Baldovin's courses at Now You Know: https://www.nowyouknowmedia.com/professors/fr-john-f-baldovin-s-j-ph-d.html From there one can see what else is available. As far as the future of education, the tip of the iceberg is only currently available. On another site there was a comment about a well rounded education and I made the point that such an education was not available in even the best colleges today and was only available through ongoing learning. Few of us have the opportunity, time or the money to pursue this via traditional means. But online or streaming videos/audios are a way to approach such an objective that is within the reach of everyone if they are so inclined. Such organizations such as the Great Courses program or the Khan Academy are revolutionizing knowledge availability. For those who need some sort of paper to document their knowledge, there are as the article above says, an ever increasing availability of MOOC (massive open online course) but also degree programs. I am aware of one friend who is getting his Ph. D. in physics from the University of Tennessee and has been there only twice. He takes lectures in his home/office and has the ability to interact with the instructor and other students. I know of a young mother who is getting a second master's degree while working as a teacher. She takes courses from various courses over the internet, writes papers, interacts with other students and the instructor via chat, takes exams etc. And then there is the Georgia Tech program where they will offer the $7,000 master's degree to thousands of students. This is described as massive but not open as only serious students will be able to take the courses. Here is the link: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/05/14/georgia-tech-and-udacity-roll-out-massive-new-low-cost-degree-program What effect will this have for higher education? One is to lower costs for those who are willing to pursue this route as revealed in this article. An ex college professor reveals how he got a $10,000 undergraduate degree and a $5,000 masters:
But I never met a teacher, never sat in a classroom, and to this day have never laid eyes on my beloved alma mater. And the whole degree, including the third-hand books and a sticker for the car, cost me about $10,000 in today’s dollars. Now living back in the United States, I followed the 10K-B.A. with a 5K-M.A. at a local university while working full time, and then endured the standard penury of being a full-time doctoral fellow in a residential Ph.D. program. The final tally for a guy in his 30s supporting a family: three degrees, zero debt. Did I earn a worthless degree? Hardly. My undergraduate years may have been bereft of frissons, but I wound up with a career as a tenured professor at Syracuse University, a traditional university. I am now the president of a Washington research organization.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/01/opinion/my-valuable-cheap-college-degree.html?_r=0 What was missing was football and basketball games, Saturday night parties and schmoozing at the local pub with fellow students. Not for everyone but a way to get ahead. Like the old days, one commuted to a local college to learn and get a degree and spent little time on the campus with fellow students.
Richard Birdsall
6 years 1 month ago
Holy Apostles College & Seminary has excellent and accredited Masters programs in philosophy an theology offered online. Theology majors can specialize in a number of programs including a nationally recognized bioethics program. All at a very reasonable tuition. You can find more information at http://www.holyapostles.edu . Click on the "Distance Learning" tab.
Barbara Radtke
6 years 1 month ago
I like the direction of your editorial, and I’d like to point out an additional Internet-based resource in adult religious education. MOOCs are usually characterized by free admission and massive enrollments. For over a decade, several Catholic universities have employed their theological and educational resources in online adult religious education programs available to the public for a nominal fee. Boston College’s C21 Online (www.bc.edu/c21online) is one such program. One appealing feature of these courses and workshops are that they provide small communities for conversation where the discussion is facilitated by experienced religious educators. Another attractive feature for busy parishioners is that they are shorter than the university semester.


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