Online institute enables theological study

No homework, no tests, no papers. It’s every theology student’s dream — study college-level material but without high tuition and fees or frantic exam-cramming. If it sounds too good to be true, fear not; Taylor Marshall has invented just such an online program called the New Saint Thomas Institute (NSTI).

“Technology has allowed us to create this solution,” Marshall said. “Catholics are excited to be able to study theology in a way that’s fun, easy and accessible.”

A Catholic convert and former Episcopalian priest, Marshall was writing books and teaching — while being approached by people who wanted to learn theology without having to move near a well-known school like the University of Dallas, or Franciscan University, or Ave Maria. Nor did people wish to pay high tuition for online learning with rigid deadlines.

His solution? To create an online community with inexpensive tuition and a plethora of resources including high-quality videos, online forums, worksheets, book recommendations, podcasts — and much more. If enough people signed on, he thought, the venture could be a success.

“The Internet can be used for horrible evils — human trafficking, pornography, theft,” Marshall said. “We can use it for good.”

A speedy beginning

The Institute is named after St. Thomas Aquinas, the brainy Dominican and patron saint of Catholic education. Many of the courses are taught through the lens of Aquinas’ classic teachings. On the feast of the Holy Rosary, Oct. 7, 2013, Marshall launched the site from his home. Within a few hours, all the spots were filled.

“We sat in front of the laptop, the wife and I, at the dinner table,” he said about the moment they sent his brainchild into cyberspace. “And sure enough, seven people joined. And we were like, ‘All right! People joined, that’s great!’”

A moment later, Marshall hit “refresh.” The number had risen to 28. Another tap of the mouse showed 128. Yet another click raised the total to 230.

“We both just cheered up,” Marshall said. Within hours, hundreds of slots were filled. He and his wife prayed in thanksgiving in front of a Marian shrine in their backyard for the success of the project they’d dedicated to her.

Now, just over a year later, 1,250 students in more than 25 nations and the six inhabited continents are learning theology from Marshall on his online school. They vary in age and in profession. The clientele ranges from priests, deacons, religious sisters, monks, lay people, young professionals, young mothers, Franciscan friars and Dominicans. While the materials are available right now in only English, Marshall is eyeing the possibility of Spanish and Filipino materials.

“I don’t think I ever would have thought I’d have a classroom with 1,200 people, and from all over the world,” said Marshall of the days spent studying for his doctorate.

Marshall is also gaining staff, including content director Will Edmonson. Edmonson, a “revert” to Catholicism, had followed Marshall’s materials for a long while before an impromptu meeting in a confession line.

“I’m a big fan,” Edmonson said. He helped Marshall in the crafting stages of the institute and recently became a full-time staff member. Edmonson’s background in digital marketing and his education in theology and psychology fulfills the unique niche created by the institute.

“It’s an incredibly rare opportunity, this integrating business and theology,” Edmonson said.

Teaching the Faith

Marshall emphasized that the program doesn’t exist to teach just for the sake of learning or getting a degree. There is no plan to seek accreditation for the NSTI. “All we’re interested in is proclaiming the Good News of Christ and his kingdom and Catholic theology that is faith to the Church,” he said. “The Scriptures, Catechism, encyclicals.”

New Saint Thomas Institute
Taylor Marshall, a former Episcopalian priest, launched the New Saint Thomas Institute in October 2013. Courtesy photo from newsaintthomas.com

Just because the product is cheap for the consumer, the quality is anything but — tuition is less than a dollar a day, with a 100 percent back guarantee and no time frame restrictions.

“It’s not a commitment at all; almost anyone can afford it,” he said. The institute boasts a studio, sound stage and green screen. “It’s not just me in a bedroom with a video camera,” Marshall said, laughing. “It’s all very high-end production, very professional.”

Marshall touts the study’s popularity, even sans accreditation, because “a lot of that is not necessary if the student loves the material. If you absolutely love 19th-century French literature, it doesn’t matter about the papers or the tests. You’re going to be passionate and learn about 19th-century French literature.”

That example exactly fits Marshall’s base.

“They’re not doing it because they want to get a piece of paper. They’re doing it because they love Christ, they love the Church,” he said. “They want to learn the theology and the skills and the message that they can bring other people in the Church, grow in their own faith and be better apologists and evangelists in their family and among their friends.”

An evangelization tool

Aficionados of the New Evangelization would be correct in suspecting that the “New” in the “New Saint Thomas Institute” is a reference to the movement.

“We’re not making up new stuff, but we’re bringing out all these old beautiful treasures within the Church and we’re presenting them in a new way, mainly through this new technology,” Marshall said.

Although his background was in theology, Marshall became engaged with social media through a simple blog he started 11 years ago as an online community for faith discussions. He learned more and more how to use different vehicles, whether spoken or visual, to present truth in a way to be received by many.

“You can make an impact in one day on 20,000 people with a YouTube video. It’s compelling. Never before in the history of mankind was this possible,” Marshall said. “St. Paul would have been blown away by the possibilities he could have had if he’d had a Twitter account.”

Thanks to social media, Marshall is helping spread the Gospel to the far corners of the globe. “We have people in Africa who could never go to a Franciscan University of Steubenville. [They could] never afford it, never travel,” Marshall said. “But with the NSTI and these technologies, suddenly they do.”

Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.