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Catholic ‘Distance Learning’ Comes of Age
BY ROBYN LEE
There was a
time when most students in search of a solidly Catholic college education knew
they’d have to travel to, and live on, a campus far from home. For some
students, especially older ones who’d already started a family or entered the
workforce, the options for earning a degree were severely limited.
Those days are gone. Today, choices
abound for students willing to forgo the chapel, classrooms and student union
in order to study at home, where life can go on pretty much as normal.
Here’s a look at three “distance
learning” programs notable for their combination of ecclesial fidelity and
Catholic University began in 1994 when the distinguished Catholic
scholar Ralph McInerny presented EWTN foundress Mother Angelica with the idea
of bringing EWTN-produced lectures to students via video and audio tape. As the
series would feature noted Catholic theologians and philosophers, McInerny
believed a faithful Catholic college could offer the talks for credits. He
sought out a partner institution.
Four years later, Holy Apostles
College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn. (holyapostles.edu), started offering
courses for master’s programs in philosophy and theology using the EWTN videos
and audios. International Catholic University, a virtual school, was born.
The videos or audios are just the
lecture portion of ICU classes, which are conducted online. Students correspond
by e-mail with tutors from Holy Apostles who correct papers, provide direction
and offer encouragement.
“The demands of family life and
working take a toll on our time,” explains John Miner, an investigator with the
computer-crime unit of the New York State Police. “With this type of program,
you can tailor your schedule to your own needs. I can plan my study around my
work and family schedule with no travel requirements.”
ICU students correspond with tutors
and other students using an online conference area. “Either a student or the
teacher can initiate a discussion in this conference area,” says Bob Mish,
coordinator of distance learning at Holy Apostles. “The teacher will often post
a feed question or something to get the class involved and then others can post
Students from around the world
interact through this online site, following the same 16-week semester schedule
— fall, spring and summer — as the Cromwell campus.
Distance learning at Holy Apostles
is growing at an average rate of 18% a year.
“When our graduate program first
began, there were perhaps 15 or 20 students enrolled, and very few courses were
offered for credit,” says Mish. “Now we have more than 200 students who are
And all are actively working toward a
Father Hardon’s Field
In 1982, Jesuit Father John Hardon
(1914-2000) was teaching at Notre Dame’s graduate school. He had a notion to
bring his materials to a broad swath of the Church by using the mass media.
“I was one of his students at the
time,” recalls Marianne Evans Mount, executive vice president at the Catholic
Distance University (cdu.edu), “and we came up with the idea of
doing the correspondence course as a project.”
Mount contacted the executive
director of the National Home Study Council in Washington, who turned out to be
“When I introduced the director to
the bishop (then Arlington Bishop Thomas Welsh), the director said, ‘You need
to do this not just for your diocese but for the whole country.’”
Administered from its home office in
Hamilton, Va., Catholic Distance University started as the Catholic Home Study
Institute in 1983.
CDU offers continuing-education
courses, a master of arts degree in theology and, for students with 90 or more
undergraduate credits, a completion program for a bachelor’s in theology.
“We offer first of all an education
that is faithful to the teachings of the Church and, secondly, it is in a
format that meets the lifestyle of most Catholics today,” says Mount.
Catholic Distance University has
seen a steady increase in enrollment since its beginning.
“The laity are recognizing their
vocation in the Church and, in order to fulfill their vocation, they need to be
educated,” says Mount. “With online learning they can do this at the most
convenient time for them and not separate themselves from family.”
Catholic Distance University also
provides conferencing software for interactive seminars online.
Like Holy Apostles, Catholic
Distance University follows a semester schedule, but they also offer
paper-based courses that can be taken anytime.
Outward From Ohio
Franciscan University of Steubenville
(franciscan.edu) launched its distance-learning system in 1995 after requests
started pouring in from students who wanted a solid Catholic education with the
convenience of online learning. In 1999 the curriculum was accredited to
include “distance delivery” for a master of arts in theology and Christian
One of the big benefits of the
Steubenville program: continuous enrollment. Students can start a course
anytime during the year; once they begin, they have six months to complete the
“It is self-paced, and it is not
tied to a computer or specific online delivery system,” says Virginia Garrison,
Steubenville’s distance-learning coordinator. “Lectures are recorded live in
our classrooms and provided to distance-learning students on audiotape or MP3.
Our students have a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of scheduling and
Franciscan University also reports
an increase in its online enrollment, from 27 in 1995 to 405 in 2006.
“Students often mention that our
courses help them to remain grounded in their faith. Many of our students are
active in their local parishes and enjoy sharing what they learn with others,” says
One downside is that there is very
little opportunity for online students to interact with teachers and other
online students. Garrison hopes that technological advances will provide
distance-learning students with more “virtual face time.”
Then, too, Franciscan helps online
students mix in person by bringing them on campus. The program requires two
on-campus courses. This component allows the distance-learning student body “to
experience our vibrant campus culture and to spend time with their
fellow students,” says Garrison. “More than 20 distance-learning
students attended classes in Steubenville during the
three-week summer sessions offered last year.”
So it is that, through programs such
as these three, distance learning from authentically Catholic colleges and
universities is extending the reach of Catholic higher ed beyond the
brick-and-mortar confines of the campus.
“Someday I hope to use the degree as
a step toward a second career working for the Church,” says Miner. In the
meantime, his education is helping to foster relationships in his current
position. “I can see how a greater knowledge of my faith gave me a depth of
insight into the nature of man. It helped me look at my coworkers and the
people with whom I have professional contact in a new light.”
Robyn Lee is assistant editor of
Faith & Family magazine.
Distance Decisions To
find other Catholic colleges offering distance-learning programs, go to
usccb.org/laity/laysurvey/schools.html, part of the U.S. bishops’ website. To
learn more about which schools are committed to maintaining authentic Catholic
identity and campus culture, visit NCRegister.com. Click first on the
“Resources” tab, then on the “Colleges” link.