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 academic excellence.
The International 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 responses.”
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 considered active.”
And all are actively working toward a master’s degree.
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 Catholic.
“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 ministry.
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 class.
“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 mobility.”
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 Garrison.
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.