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.”