A former west Texas farmer named Davin Winger not only earned his Master of Arts in Theology online at Catholic Distance University but, as an evangelical Protestant, found the Catholic Church online. A Catholic priest connected with him and became a spiritual guide in Davin’s journey of conversion. Davin was recently installed as a candidate for the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Amarillo.
Today he is considering an online Ph.D. program, and through his online educational accomplishments, he has changed careers from farming to college professor. Davin publishes an online newsletter called Mary Mail and rises early to help manage the online Student Life Center at Catholic Distance University, where he works part-time. As Davin notes, “There is no Catholic institution of higher education within 200 miles of my home. Without CDU, I could not have pursued my dream of an accredited theological degree.”
Although access to Catholic theological education is an immeasurable benefit of online programs, there is more to the story. Along with a challenging curriculum taught by well-qualified faculty who are passionate about their faith, CDU strives to offer a unique “Catholic” online experience that reflects the sound pedagogy of distance education research and a Catholic learning community that fosters communion in an atmosphere of welcome, openness, dialogue and mutual support. Secular culture is about the individual. The Church is about belonging to a community. Pope Francis speaks of this as neighborliness: “Those who communicate in effect become neighbors ... The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people.”
Hospitality online begins with introductions. In the online world, introductions are even more important than in a classroom because of the diminished human presence. I learn about each classmate’s geographical location, family, work, hobbies, volunteerism and aspirations. Even before classes begin, in the Student Life Center I meet other students in my program who gather digitally in our cohort “space” in the online campus, pray with them in the online chapel, engage in general conversation in the café and upload a photo of myself and my family. In traditional classes, where I can see all of my classmates, I may never formally meet most of them and learn little about them personally.
Although research in adult learning consistently reveals higher learning outcomes in online programs, most online programs still try to replicate the classroom as though it were the ideal. Some online programs use videos of professors teaching in front of a class. I like to highlight the differences and point out their advantages such as greater diversity, more thoughtful elaboration of ideas, more time for reflection and dependence on written communication. These are the basic components of critical thinking that lead to deep and transformative learning, especially when engaging with content rich in the living Word of God.
Online learning is naturally contemplative to a Catholic student working in solitude. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks about silence in his 2012 World Communications Day message: “In silence we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves ... by remaining silent, we allow the other person to speak ... in this way space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible.”
Time changes when we study online. The asynchronous model of being able to log on within a week’s time at the student’s convenience — early morning or late at night — allows the learner to work at peak time rather than learn synchronously in a traditional class where students and faculty must convene at the same time. For working adults, this usually means attending class at night after working all day while nibbling on granola bars for dinner.
Online discussions are usually richer and more thoughtful. Everyone is required to contribute to the online discussion. Unlike the traditional class, where extroverts generally dominate, each student in an online class posts a response after reflecting. There is time to prayerfully consider other viewpoints as well as the comments of the instructor. Best of all, this is done in the comfort and relaxed atmosphere of home.
The relationship with faculty is different in an online setting. Although initially it may seem harder to “read” the personality of one’s professor, having a professor only a click away with a promise of a quick and thoughtful response more than makes up for meeting face-to-face once a week. In addition to getting my own questions answered, I am able to read the responses to questions that other students pose, which provides even more information. Using written language to communicate adds richness, depth and permanence to human dialogue despite the loss of body cues. It requires more work, but it opens up the potential for deeper understanding. Pope St. John Paul II in his book “Gift and Mystery” writes, “The Polish language ... introduced me to the mystery of language ... ultimately, the mystery of language brings us back to the inscrutable mystery of God himself.”
As media choices grow richer and mobile devices become the gateway to education as well as communication, more hybrid models of learning will embrace both face-to-face and online opportunities. These models will better serve each learner’s pedagogical needs and ultimately enrich the fullness of the human encounter that remains at the heart of the learning experience.
Marianne Evans Mount is the president of Catholic Distance University.