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Catholic Colleges and Universities

University of Dayton offers faith formation on the Web


Most Catholics report being so busy there is no time to pray, let alone study their faith, that career and family obligations swallow up all available hours. Yet the technology that serves to accelerate the fast pace can also offer ways off the treadmill.

A new program at the University of Dayton in Ohio uses the Internet as a tool for interactive faith formation classes, educating catechists and others. In partnership with 10 dioceses in seven Midwestern and Eastern states, the University of Dayton’s Institute for Pastoral Initiatives has established online classes and offers them to adult students. Called the “Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation,” the program includes basic courses on Catholic belief, church history, Jesus, sacraments, scripture, social justice and media literacy. Six new courses, including sessions on Mary and on ecclesiology, are being developed.

“The Internet is here to stay. It’s part of the fabric of our lives,” says Sr. Angela Ann Zukowski, director of the institute and associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton. “Very few people are engaged in designing and developing catechist and adult faith formation courses for e-learning for dioceses and parishes.” It’s a pioneering effort, she told NCR. “We do not have successful models on which we can rely to guide us. This is a new learning environment that requires new approaches to learning for both the teachers and the students.”

A pilot program between the University of Dayton and the Cincinnati archdiocese started in September 1997. The program was expanded in January 2000 to include some rural dioceses, then more in the last year. Only a few additional partnerships are made available each year to maintain steady growth and even development, Zukowski said.

“We were interested primarily in how to reach the rural churches. We wanted to learn how to enhance faith communities there. Rural parishioners were eager to sign up for these classes. These programs have also proved to be helpful to dioceses that have had to cut back on staff due to lower revenues.

“The emphasis in our program is on learning in community, not independent study,” says Zukowski. “In the virtual learning community, we are using the concept of a community of learners in cyberspace. Our goal is to explore and define the most effective means for communicating academic excellence in course content as well as interactivity among students and instructors.”

Diocesan participants in the program have been enthusiastic. “There is a high expectation for catechists to have good post-Vatican II theology and catechetical skills,” said Sr. Kathy Gallo, director of religious education for the diocese of Owensboro in western Kentucky, a partner in the program. “We have some very rural, out-of-the way places in our diocese. With the virtual learning community, catechists can get professional classes and update their skills in interaction with others. And they don’t have to travel, they don’t have to come to the big city.” A survey of her diocese showed an “amazing number of people have computers,” she said.

Individual classes cost $40 for students from a partner diocese and $75 for people from other dioceses. Some classes feature online materials while others may require a textbook. Access to Web sites is protected by password. E-mail and chat rooms are used for exchanges between students and instructors. Participants earn continuing education credit from the University of Dayton upon completion of the courses. Diocesan catechists in training receive credit toward diocesan certification.

Intermediate deadlines keep students from procrastinating, Zukowski said, and facilitators offer motivation to those who need it. Technical assistance is available from the multimedia coordinator based at the University of Dayton.

“Classes are not offered unless there are at least 3 or 4 signed up, so there will be some interaction,” said Zukowski. “We wanted to avoid setting classes up as correspondence courses.”

Most of the students are women, according to Zukowski.

The class Web sites are most active between 4 and 6 a.m. and then again from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., Zukowski said. “That’s when students have time for their own pursuits, when they carve out quiet time for themselves.”

The courses are asynchronous, meaning participants can log on at any time. As participants become more familiar with electronic learning, the courses will shift to a synchronous, or real-time schedule, meaning participants log on at a predetermined time and participate together.

“It’s a steep learning curve for individuals not familiar with these electronic means of education,” Zukowksi said. “We want our course participants to have a sense of success in completing the coursework without too many technical hurdles.”

Those who haven’t taken e-learning courses before benefit from intense mentoring by course facilitators, all of whom hold master’s degrees and are engaged in diocesan ministry or related theological academic work. Facilitators receive basic training for their new roles in cyberspace, but they also have to possess, according to Zukowski, “flexibility, patience, diligence, commitment, a sense of humor and an inspiring presence in cyberspace.

“These courses are not designed to be just correspondence courses,” Zukowski said, “where students interact only with the instructor. Our goal is to engage a community of learners being in touch with one another in a dynamic way on many levels.”

Classes that fill up the fastest are church history and scripture. Future classes proposed are a 2-part ecclesiology class, one on spirituality and film and one on Mariology.

Experts on the University of Dayton faculty or within dioceses help design courses. “There is a lot of collaboration,” Zukowski said.

“Dioceses, when they sign up with us, first take a look at what they need. We respond to those needs by offering courses. Partners all meet once a year for evaluation.”

When people get their certificates, Zukowski signs off with the partnering diocese.

“The courses involve a lot of work,” she said. “There’s a lot of reading. Students report on their reading by e-mail to the instructor. There is a message board for discussion among instructors and students in the class.”

“People share deeply,” said Zukowski. “One student sent an e-mail to the others in the class apologizing that he couldn’t finish his class because his wife was fighting cancer. The whole class responded supportively, and the student sent an e-mail back saying, ‘I need you all and I need to finish this class.’ Eventually when students get more sophisticated with the technology, we will offer chat rooms where students can discuss issues in real time.”

Students are evaluated by means of a pre-test before they start class to assess their level of knowledge on the subject. They are then graded on their message board answers to reflection questions on readings.

Dioceses market the courses in different ways, using diocesan newspapers, religious education or adult faith bulletins, talks to catechists and catechumenate facilitators.

“We work closely with diocesan staff. It’s a real partnership,” Zukowski said.

Zukowski added that a new initiative for this program has just begun, a partnership with Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand, and with the bishops of the Philippines. The goal is to develop classes for Catholics in Asian countries. Classes are projected to begin there in 2003. “We will pilot this project initially,” said Zukowski, “and then dioceses in various Asian countries will continue it. After these programs are developed, then we will use them in the U.S., with Asians here.” Future expansion into the Caribbean is also part of this expansion, said Zukowski.

“We have to learn how to share resources in the church,” she said, “to get on the bandwagon together. Dioceses could easily hire corporations and consultants, but better to proceed in this collaborative way. We are trying to bring the best of the church’s teachings to Catholics everywhere.”

The Web site for Virtual Learning Community for Faith Education is www.udayton.edu/~vlc.

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor and the editor of this special section. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001