WASHINGTON — Georgia Tech recently announced that it would offer an online master’s degree in computer science for under $7,000, stirring hopes that higher education was on the cusp of a revolution that would bring down tuition bills for families.

Experts say the pilot project still must prove that it can deliver a high-quality education for a large volume of students at a modest price. Still, the news marks a trend in higher education that parallels recent initiatives by Catholic universities and colleges that have begun to launch their own online master’s degrees in subjects like education, theology, business and nursing.

Georgia Tech will partner with Sebastian Thrun, a founder of Udacity, which provides open online courses that have attracted 10,000 enrollees per course, and AT&T, which will use the degree program to train employees and identify potential recruits.

But unlike Georgia Tech, Catholic online programs seek to maintain a strong focus on Catholic formation and are generally designed for a limited number of students. So tuition is roughly equivalent to onsite tuition, as faculty spend more time working with distance students.

Enrollees choose online classes because they are unable to pursue their studies full time or because they reside far from the program of their choice, say administrators at Catholic universities.

The online degrees are designed to take full advantage of social media and other platforms to link professors and students. But the greatest challenge facing Catholic educational institutions is the need to develop online curriculum, discussions and group work rooted in an integrated faith-based approach to the formation of the human person.

The Catholic University of America offers no online undergraduate degrees, but has recently launched online graduate degrees in business, nursing and social work.

Typically, online students span various time zones and often pick up their studies after a full workday. Students are drawn to both the institution’s religious framework and its academic reputation.

"They are great students, but they need to be served when they have time. That is part of the appeal of an online program — the accessibility," said CUA provost James Brennan, who also teaches in the university’s psychology department.

Brennan told the Register that CUA has "very cautiously started these programs over the past three years."

"We will pursue online programming for master’s degrees, which have a heavy professional component, with the caveat that they have to preserve electronically or digitally the Catholicity available here on our campus."


‘Extending the Message’

Brennan’s remarks underscore the careful approach of many Catholic university administrators to the challenges posed by online education.

Critics of new trends in American higher education have expressed concern that universities are overly focused on making money rather than on serving students. Naysayers contend that online education, with its promise of high-volume classes, could fuel this development, while advocates for increased accessibility and low-cost tuition have embraced such initiatives.

Brennan acknowledged the growing debate within the academy on the danger and promise of online degrees. He made it clear that CUA did not see online education as "a money maker," but as a "service and a way to extend the university’s message" beyond its Washington campus.

Contrary to Georgia Tech’s low-tuition program, which is predicated on the recruitment of a large number of enrollees, Brennan noted that CUA’s online degree programs were designed for a limited number of students and are expensive to maintain. The online tuition, only slightly lower than campus-based classes, reflects that fact.

"Some institutions may see this as a gold mine because they don’t have to build parking lots or libraries for online students," he said.

"But it is time-intensive if it is done right. You have small classes, and a faculty member must be available 24/7. There is a whole technological infrastructure."

He said that CUA had no plans to offer an online undergraduate degree.

"At that level, we are very holistic in our approach: It is formative and developmental and far more than the classroom experience. We have to have undergraduates on campus for the kind of education we offer."

The University of Dallas, for its part, offers just a limited number of online graduate degrees through its School of Ministry and College of Business, and administrators view the online "delivery system" as an important service to students.

"The majority of online students are full-time working adults. We provide an environment that enables them to meet their educational goals whether or not they are on campus," said Vanessa Cox, the director of online education at the University of Dallas.


Franciscan University

At Franciscan University of Steubenville, administrators and faculty are focused on developing online degree programs consistent with the school’s deeply Catholic identity.

"Online education is not just an intellectual endeavor; it must engage the individual’s heart, soul and mind. Several popes have talked about using social media for the betterment of the Church. We think we can do that, but it won’t be easy," Joel Recznik, vice president for enrollment at Franciscan University, told the Register.

"We continually ask, ‘How can we take the passionately Catholic part of who we are and have that imbued in the experience of the student?’"

Franciscan now offers online graduate degrees in business and education, with tuition equivalent to programs available on the campus. Next summer it will launch a graduate degree in catechetics that will only be accessible online.

The university does not offer an online undergraduate degree, but Recznik noted that it may launch several online undergraduate classes in philosophy and theology that would help fulfill prerequisites for students interested in the master’s degree in catechetics.

Charles Joyce, director of graduate education for Franciscan, acknowledged the steep learning curve for university administrators and faculty engaged in online learning.

"Education is about giving meaning and knowing your students. That is easier in the classroom," said Joyce, who also teaches in the graduate education program.

But the silver lining of online education, he said, was that the delivery process provided strong feedback from students, and that has helped faculty improve their teaching in the classroom and online.

Joyce has also learned another lesson about online education. While many students are attracted to this option because it provides flexibility, the learning process requires time for group discussion, collaboration and "creating a sense of community." Educators call this "live" experience "synchronous learning," and Steubenville makes this part of the online experience, though some students will resist fixed appointments for real-time discussion.


Top-Ranked Program

Jeffery Olson, the associate provost for online learning and services for St. John University, rated by U.S. News & World Report as the top-ranked online graduate education program in the nation, agreed that effective online learning required courses "designed so that students interact with each other, the faculty member and the course material."

St. John’s began offering online courses over a decade ago and has emerged as a leader in this field, with 2,000 course enrollments in graduate and undergraduate programs this year.

St. John’s online undergraduate degrees, Olson said, partly reflected the needs of non-traditional students drawn to this large urban university, with many returning to college after financial and family issues disrupted their education.

Many of the students go to class for some courses and take others online; tuition is the same. Faculty have learned to be equally comfortable with both "delivery systems," and they receive intensive training to help them meet students’ needs.

Olson noted that Skype has become a tool for communicating with distance students during office hours.

Said Olson, "You create the faculty member’s online presence in different ways; for example, by responding quickly to students and interacting with them through postings."