Catholics interested in pursuing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in theology don’t have to look far to find an institution of Catholic higher education. In fact, they only have to look to their home computer. 

That’s because one unconventional yet increasingly popular option is now available online through distance learning programs that allow students the opportunity to earn a degree or take classes with professors who lecture and assign coursework via the Internet. 

Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Marianne Mount, the president of Catholic Distance University, an accredited online school based in Hamilton, Va., to find out more about how distance learning works and what it has to offer. 

Our Sunday Visitor: What is distance learning? 

Marianne Mount: Distance learning goes back to St. Paul when we’re talking about faith formation. What it means is that there’s geographical distance between an instructor and a learner, and that distance is bridged through technology. In the time of St. Paul the technology was writing and communicating the written word to the communities that he had been with in faith, and over the centuries the technology has changed.  

When Catholic Distance University began 27 years ago, the technology that we used was the printing press and the mail system. And then in the year 2000 we were able to move into Web-based learning. It revolutionized distance education. The reason I say that is that when we were doing paper correspondence courses in the 1980s and ’90s there was communication between the learner and the instructor, and it worked very well, but learners did not have the ability to communicate with each other. So it was more a one-on-one tutoring model. But with the advent of the Internet and the ability to use the World Wide Web, students are actually in a class together [online] and able to communicate with each other, as well as their faculty member. 

OSV: What are the benefits of distance learning? 

Mount: I think the benefit of distance learning and the reason you see it growing exponentially — you’re seeing growth rates of anywhere from 10-20 percent a year — is the flexibility and also the cost. When you’re looking at an undergraduate program you have to factor in room and board, or if you’re doing a graduate program, you have to factor in commuting costs, maybe babysitting, parking, all those things. It is more cost effective. 

Also, I think it’s important for a prospective student to try to discern the kind of learner that he or she might be. Distance education may actually work better than face-to-face for some. If you’re someone who needs that face-to-face interaction then probably distance education would not be satisfactory. A lot of our students, interestingly enough, start a program with some anxiety, not really understanding how it works, and they discover they actually like it better. 

There are several reasons for that. When you do distance education at CDU, we use what we call an asynchronous learning model, which means you can log on at anytime, day or night, within a period of time. So if you’re a night owl, then you can do your work in the middle of the night. If you like to work really early in the morning you can do that. If you’re doing it at home, where a lot of people are much more comfortable, you can do it in your pajamas, in your comfortable clothes, have a cup of coffee. With a traditional program you’re locked into the convenience of the institution. 

Another benefit of online learning is what I call the contemplative dimension. When you are posting a response to a discussion question, unlike a traditional classroom where you’re on the spot and usually the extroverts dominate, in an online class you have time to reflect and think about that question. You can look at it, read it, think about it, pray about it and then finally come up with an answer that you feel really reflects what you want to say. 

OSV: What are some of the potential drawbacks of distance learning programs? 

Mount: If you look at completion statistics, the completion numbers in distance programs are significantly lower than traditional classes, and because of that CDU does a number of things. We are, as an accredited university, required to have programs in place that address the challenges of a distance student. 

As one example, students who are in our degree program are in a trimester system, so they have the equivalent of a traditional semester to do their work, but they have to log on every week. Each week, at the beginning of the week, they’re given new reading assignments, new writing assignments, a new lecture by the professor, so if they don’t log on the following week the professor is going to be after them with an email. 

OSV: Who makes up the student body at CDU? 

Mount: About 10-20 percent of our student body will be represented outside the United States. We’ve had students over the years from more than 60 countries. We’ve also had students from every U.S. diocese, so it’s a very broad and rich learning community. 

OSV: Social interactions and friendships have always seemed to shape a large part of the collegiate experience. Does distance learning have that element of community? 

Mount: We have a very strong and vibrant learning community because our online campus is highly interactive. We have committed a lot of resources in staff/faculty oversight to encourage and foster interaction. I hear educated people all the time in the Church talk about how there is no community in distance education. I like to quote Harold Reingold, who wrote a book, “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier” (The MIT Press, $32), who said that most people meet and then decide to get to know one another; in the online world, we get to know one another first and then decide to meet.  

[Those in] our online community are talking to each other every day in our campus. We have a student center that includes a reception area where students introduce themselves, post photos, a café where 24/7 they meet for conversations, an online chapel where prayer intentions can be posted, the chaplain posts a weekly homily for Sunday and has a Q&A on anything related to the Church. Strong friendships do form both inside and outside of classes.  

OSV: What are some of the reasons students enroll? 

Mount: Theology is frequently a subject that people are choosing to study, not because they’re looking for a job promotion. About 20 percent of our students are working for the Church or are planning on applying to jobs in the Church, but the majority, particularly in our M.A. program, are professional people who just had a hunger to really know their faith systematically. We have a lot of doctors, we have some lawyers, we have young mothers who are professional people who are now raising their children, so it really is a great cross section. 

I think more and more lay people recognize that they have a distinct vocation in the Church and they want to serve the Church, but they don’t feel comfortable without being grounded in their faith. The faith is so rich that, for many, doing a graduate program is satisfying their desire to understand and deepen their relationship with God. Frequently we’ll hear our students say, ‘I don’t know why I’m in this program. I don’t know exactly what drew me, but I knew I wanted to do this.” And then after they graduate they end up taking on very strong leadership positions in their own parish or dioceses. 

OSV: Why don’t more people consider distance learning programs for theology? 

Mount: I think there’s some anxiety from people, because, unfortunately, we’re surrounded by a lot of the evil that is distributed by the Internet. But if we look to Pope Benedict XVI, he clearly has embraced it. He is following in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II who in his 2002 World Communications Day message de clared that Internet was the proper forum for the new evangelization in the new millennium. So I think we’re living in a very exciting time. Imagine, today you can be comfortably in your living room accessing a fully accredited graduate program in theology without ever having to step out of your house. You have access to a first-class education. It is absolutely incredible. It is a gift. 

Stephanie Kornexl is OSV’s assistant editor. For more information about Catholic Distance University visit www.cdu.edu.

Distance Learning Schools (sidebar)

Listed below are some schools that offer adult faith formation through distance learning programs. F or a larger directory of schools and descriptions of the programs, visit the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website at www.nccbuscc.org/laity/laysurvey/schools.shtml

  •  Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis, Mo. 
  •  Boston College, C21 Online, Chestnut Hill, Mass. 
  • Caldwell College, Caldwell, N.J. 
  • Felician College, Lodi, N.J. 
  • Gannon University, Erie, Pa. 
  • Holy Apostles College and Seminary, Cromwell, Conn. 
  •  Marymount University, Arlington, Va. 
  • Mount Marty College, Yankton, S.D. 
  • Regis University, Denver, Colo. 
  • Saint Joseph’s College / Maine, Standish, Maine 
  • Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, Winona, Minn. 
  • Saint Meinrad School of Theology, Saint Meinrad, IN