A 'little way' toward digital evangelization

For a generation of smartwatch-wearing, smartphone-toting, app-installing millennials, learning about the Catholic faith is not difficult. In fact many tidbits are only a click, swipe or Siri-prompt away. But this isn’t enough unless it moves people “up from in front of their screens or their mobile devices and into community,” Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, told Our Sunday Visitor. Bishop Coyne also chairs the Committee on Communications of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“We are an incarnate Church and not a Church of digital avatars,” Bishop Coyne said, noting that it is not enough merely to engage with people digitally. “I’m not talking about just Sunday Mass. How do we get them to connect with other people around them?”

This is how the Burlington diocese’s new online initiative, the St. Therese Digital Academy (STDA), transcends typical online education for students in grades 9-12 whose physical locations or busy schedules might prevent them from earning their diplomas at one of the diocese’s brick-and-mortar institutions.

Beyond the screen

STDA, which formally opened in June 2016 and recently completed its first year with an enrollment of two full-time students and nine part-time students — some who registered from as far away as Germany and Japan — is a means of “forming intentional disciples.”

“It’s not just about education. It’s about formation. It’s about evangelization,” Bishop Coyne said, emphasizing that the starting point for all of the diocese’s schools is their Catholic mission. “To me, if our high school students are graduating from our high schools but they have nothing to do with their parishes, that they’re walking away from the Church, that they’re spiritual but not religious, for example, then we failed.”  

An avid user of social and digital media, Bishop Coyne found inspiration for the school in the analogy between the short, quick exchanges characteristic of platforms like Twitter and Instagram, and the “little way” of evangelization coined by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whom he believes could be a candidate for patron saint of digital media. 

“As a person who tries to follow the ‘little way’ in my life, I started thinking that this is an excellent opportunity to practice a little way of loving and little moments and little opportunities to love as God loves, to love as Christ has called us to love,” Bishop Coyne said. “When I’m on digital media, when I’m posting, when I’m Facebooking, when I’m texting, when I’m emailing, I always try and think this is a graced opportunity to love as God has called us to love.”

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Lorenz

According to interim principal and diocesan superintendent Lisa Lorenz, the way in which STDA bridges the gap between the online and offline is through its “Hub Days.”

Though not yet operational, Lorenz said that the Hub — which will alternate between different locations throughout the diocese, such as St. Edward’s Hall in Derby Line, Vermont — will provide students with opportunities to socialize face to face, attend Mass and even participate in community service projects together. Lorenz even envisions satellite hubs located outside of the diocese for those students living abroad in Germany, Japan and elsewhere, whose parents may serve in the military, as hers did.

“The idea of the student being isolated behind a computer is definitely not the full intent,” Lorenz said, adding that while online, students do have the capability to communicate with each other through blogs, among other methods. “The idea is that they were provided the solid Catholic education but that they would in turn go out and do good.”

Virtual environment

In contrast to the traditional in-person classroom experience, the majority of STDA’s learning take place online — not during Hub Days — and therefore isn’t affected by quick bell schedules or other distractions.

Using Canvas, an online web platform, students, Lorenz said, have the flexibility to decide when to complete their assignments, since many of the classes are taught asynchronously and not in real-time. All activity, however, happens under the watchful eyes of parents, who retain their role as primary educators and get a “bird’s-eye view,” in Lorenz’s words, through the platform’s observer account capabilities. 

As executive director of USCCB’s Secretariat of Catholic Education, Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming doesn’t disregard this role for parents, as established in Church documents including the Second Vatican Council’s Gravissimum Educationis, but she also believes that teachers are the “witness in the classroom, both in their person and in what they’re teaching” and insists that their roles cannot be replaced by technology.

To that end, Canvas doesn’t usurp that role but rather enhances it: Teachers can monitor the progress of students, provide feedback and ask students who might need more individualized attention to revisit lessons and assignments, if necessary, before moving forward. 

“Canvas is nothing more than just a doorway into the classroom,” Lorenz said, explaining that just as Harvard, for example, also uses Canvas, it is up to individual teachers to create the lessons and decide how they are taught.

As Catholic educators, “our challenge,” Sister Fleming said, is “not necessarily just adopting technology. Our challenge is to be smart about how we use it in relationship to what we’re trying to accomplish, which is the formation of young people in the Faith.”

In its first year, STDA faculty and courses were provided by the Archdiocese of Miami, which claims to be the first in the United States to offer comprehensive Catholic high school education online. Other online Catholic schools like the Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy merely “complement schools’ existing instructional programs,” per the Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy website.

However, with the assistance of grants from the USCCB’s Catholic Communications Campaign and the Our Sunday Visitor Institute, Lorenz has begun the process of hiring STDA-specific faculty to teach freshman classes in the fall. Some of STDA’s other curricula will continue to be “borrowed,” Lorenz said, from Miami through their partnership. In the upcoming fall semester, Lorenz also hopes to be able to offer adult theology classes for “lifelong learners.”

“It’s just a clear vision that we would approach all people that they may blossom in their gifts,” Lorenz said of how she believes St. Thérèse’s spirit is embodied in STDA. “So this is not intended to be elite ... but it is meant to bring the Catholic education to all for those who seek it.”

Mission territory

Though not characterized as a “home mission” diocese, which the USCCB describes as “generally speaking ... everywhere that Catholics are few and the Church is fragile,” as per its website, the Diocese of Burlington does share many of the same challenges with its mission brethren, especially when it comes to education.

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According to Bishop Coyne, those who may want to be formally educated in the Catholic faith in the diocese — which comprises the entirety of Vermont — are hindered by the extensive rural nature of the state. He suggested that, demographically, it’s difficult to sustain physical schools in the diocese. Of their 13 schools, only two of the physical schools serve grades 9-12 alone.

Richard Coll, director of the USCCB’s Home Missions Office, said one of the themes explored during the recent Convocation of Catholic Leaders, which took place July 1-4 in Orlando, Florida, was the potential of technology to “supplement the need to travel over long distances.” Coll told OSV, “I think that the lessons to be learned [from programs like STDA] would be of great value across the home mission dioceses in the United States and elsewhere.”

Jessica Marsala writes from Georgia.