Catholic colleges take online learning to new level

University of Notre Dame professor Peter Holland estimates he spent 60 hours over three days last summer in front of a green screen in Washington, D.C., recording lectures and voice-over commentaries for short video clips.

Working with a producer in a studio, Holland, who teaches a popular “Shakespeare in Film” class, also recorded a series of workshops with trained actors, a feature not normally available in a traditional classroom but one Holland incorporated into the online version of his course.

“I found it to be great fun. It was very demanding for me, but very interesting also,” Holland told Our Sunday Visitor.

Holland is one of two University of Notre Dame professors who are teaching online courses in a new initiative called Semester Online, a first-of-its-kind education consortium that offers for-credit online courses to students attending participating universities. Holland and Candida Moss, a University of Notre Dame professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, combine produced lesson plans and prerecorded lectures with live, streaming interactive class sessions once a week.

“It’s the same level of engagement, the same discussions as in a real classroom,” Holland said. “It’s as close as you can get to sitting around a seminar table without actually sitting around a seminar table.”

Growing trend

Semester Online — which includes Boston College, a Jesuit institution — is one notable example of how Catholic colleges are incorporating online courses into their curriculum. 

“Since Catholic higher education is committed to affordable access, online education is one way for us to demonstrate that promise,” said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

In 2012, Galligan-Stierle told OSV that more than 70 percent of Catholic university and college campuses offered online classes or some form of distance learning, which marked a 30 percent increase from 2004.

Online courses are quickly becoming more commonplace among secular and religious-affiliated universities. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation reports that at least 7.1 million American college students — about one-third of all students — took at least one online course in 2012.

“That’s a pretty significant number, and those figures have continued to climb,” said Janet Castleman, the dean of the School of Continuing Education at Providence College in Rhode Island.

There are several reasons why Catholic higher education is embracing online learning. The Web-based classes are convenient and flexible for older students in continuing education programs who may have difficulty attending a class twice a week because of work and family commitments.

“Online courses have a convenience that exceed that of evening classes,” Castleman said. “Being able to work on their own schedule is really attractive for our students, especially the adult learners.”

Catering to students

Online courses also offer Catholic universities and colleges an effective and engaging way to expand their reach beyond their local communities. For example, the Jesuit Commons program offers online courses and other higher-educational resources to students living in refugee camps in Syria and Africa. University-level classes are beamed into those refugee camps thanks to donated electricity, computers and other materials.

“It shows you the wonderful genius of online learning where you are helping some of the least in society to use their time wisely in a very, very difficult situation,” Galligan-Stierle said.

Catholic Distance University was one of the first higher-education initiatives in the country to offer distance learning and online educational opportunities. CDU offers a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theology, an associate’s degree in Catholic Studies and certificates in other disciplines. 

At Providence College, the Certificate of Religious Education program is completely online and offers professional certification for Catholic school teachers and administrators, as well as parish catechists.

“There is a lot of thought given to what are the unique offerings of a school like Providence College that can be shared with the larger community and help extend the college’s reach beyond commuting distance,” Castleman said.

Holland said the online version of his “Shakespeare in Film” course, with its once-a-week real-time discussions in a virtual classroom, is designed to be as similar as possible to the on-campus experience.

“Judging by the response of the students, the course has been very satisfying for them,” Holland said.

‘Not a replacement’

However, Msgr. Michael Heintz, a Notre Dame theology professor who, in the fall 2013 semester, taught an online version of his Christian Theological Tradition course that consisted of prerecorded lectures and other asynchronous materials, said virtual classrooms are no substitute for real class discussions in a college campus setting.

“In my view, online and electronic communities are contrived, fabricated, artificial communities,” Msgr. Heintz told OSV. “They are not a replacement for a group of people living a shared experience, learning as part of a community, communicating with each other and engaging each other in discussion.

“I think online learning is a good thing in small doses, but I wouldn’t want to base an entire curriculum or degree program on it,” Msgr. Heintz added. “You need personal interaction with the professor.”

Holland noted that his online course consists of only half the amount of real classroom time.

In a normal class setting, a professor can also change his presentation as he walks into the classroom, but the produced materials for an online course cannot be edited once the semester begins.

“It’s kind of locked in a moment in time,” Holland said. “It’s not a terrible disaster, but it’s a noticeable difference.”

Online courses, which require significant personal discipline to complete the coursework on a student’s own personal time, may also not be a good fit for younger college students between ages 18-22. Two recent studies conducted by researchers at Columbia’s Community College Research Center found that community college students in Washington State and Virginia were more likely to fail or drop out from online courses than they were in traditional classroom settings.

“I think a lot of that has to do with how the courses are structured. You have to make sure there are enough touch points with the professor so that the students can’t get lost or go (missing in action),” Castleman said.

Access to learning

Galligan-Stierle said online learning is not intended to replace traditional, in-person learning on campus.

“It’s just another way for Catholic higher education to widen access to a larger population of people,” he said. “Since the Church has a mission to meet people where they are, online learning allows higher education to be flexible, and in many situations, to become a little more affordable.”

Galligan-Stierle also noted the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education’s recent instrumentum laboris — “Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion” — emphasizes the importance of educating citizens who are able to use the digital resources available in today’s world.

“Catholic higher education is devoted to the development of the whole person,” Galligan-Stierle said. “Online learning is a wonderful complement to the in-person, on-campus experience to that development.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.