Catholic Identity and Online Education

What is it that makes an education Catholic?
Can one get a Catholic education online?
Would a degree from an online program be any more or less Catholic than one from a “traditional” college or university?

As I was thinking about this post for today, I wanted in particular to draw on insights from Brian Flanagan’s post about the models of Catholic higher education. Brian very helpfully noted that most of the “Catholic Identity” debate centers on disagreements between Immersion and Persuasion models of Catholic education. As I looked at those models, I thought about my own institution and where it might fit. Saint Leo University is partly a “Diaspora” school, in that our student body is predominantly non-Catholic and we are a (mostly) regional draw. We are also more of the “Cohort” type of school: while we maintain a structured core-curriculum of liberal arts study, many of our most popular majors are job/vocation drive, such as business, criminal justice, social work, and hospitality.

But another distinguishing feature of my school is online education. Most of our students will, at some point, take one of their courses online. Some students are wholly online students who may never set foot on our main campus or any of our satellite education centers. Sometimes I think the school takes literally Paul’s desire to be all things to all people: we have traditional face to face courses (what I will call here “on ground” courses), online courses, and teleconferencing courses, we serve students in a variety of age ranges, and our student body includes 30+ countries and hundreds of active duty military.

For many students, this is what a classroom now looks like
For many students, this is what a classroom now looks like

What I’m interested in with this post is not so much my university in specific, but rather the question of online education more broadly. Specifically, what would it mean to talk about questions of Catholic identity with respect to an online program of education – or even a fully online university (while my school, and many other Catholic schools with online programs, are anchored by a main campus, this is not universally true and current trends suggest there will be more colleges and universities untethered from a central location). As much as changing technological and economic realities are encouraging the growth of online education (for better and for worse), the conversation about the Catholic identity of colleges and universities must take account of this question.

Pursuant to that, what I have noticed in conversations about Catholic identity with colleagues, friends, and students is that there are roughly five areas of concern when it comes to Catholic identity:

  1. The course of study
  2. The religious makeup of the faculty and/or administration
  3. The sacramental and liturgical life of the university
  4. Service and social justice
  5. Doctrinal orthodoxy/orthopraxis

This is not to say that everyone agrees it is these five, but rather these seem to be the recurring areas of concern.

1. Course of Study:
In terms of the structure of a course of study or the number of theology courses a student must take, there’s no substantive difference between an online and an on ground university. The same courses with the same texts and the same learning outcomes can (conceivably) be taught in both contexts. The quality of the education can vary – many still dispute whether online courses are genuine equivalents for on ground – but differences in quality can also exist between different professors or different universities.

2. Religious Makeup of the Faculty and/or Administration
Similarly, there is no clear reason why this question would be different between online and on ground – both types of programs will feature faculty and administrators, if possibly in different proportions. Some advocate for hiring a greater percentage of Catholic faculty or expecting that certain administrative positions be filled by Catholics. The easiest and most common critique of this is that Catholic identity is not reducible to percentages, which is absolutely true. On the other hand, having faculty and/or administration who participate fully, actively, consciously in the life of the Church can have positive benefits for the life of the Catholic school. But then again, having non-Catholics who are nonetheless committed to the mission of the Catholic university is likely better than having Catholics who can check off the affiliation box but are not themselves that invested. Nonetheless, the more significant question in comparing online and on ground is whether the faculty and administration have the skills, talent, or at least interest to learn how to make online courses more effective in educating students.

3. Sacramental and Liturgical Life

About half the monks at the Saint Leo Abbey use phones/tablets for daily prayer. Might digital technology open new prayer and liturgical spaces/
About half the monks at the Saint Leo Abbey use phones/tablets for daily prayer. Might digital technology open new prayer and liturgical spaces/

This is the area of concern that presents the most significant difference. Given the centrality of physical contact for sacraments, there can be no real sacramental life mediated online. There can still be liturgical life – people can pray together online, especially through means like FaceTime or Skype. Regular liturgies could be scheduled and streamed online. It would absolutely be different from my own college experience of going to 11:15pm daily mass with Fr. King before a long night of reading, but that doesn’t mean that full, active, and conscious participation in some kinds of liturgy would be impossible.

What I don’t know is whether this is something Catholic schools with online programs have really invested time, thought, or money in. Big event liturgies (like the Mass of the Holy Spirit or Baccalaureate Mass) might be streamed online, but I suspect that’s as far as most places go. Do any campus ministries make an effort to reach out to online students? Does the word “campus” in campus ministry have any meaning in that context? Or have any universities considered having chaplains specifically for their online students (the way they might for specific dorms, for sports teams, for clubs)?

4. Service and Social Justice
Work and concern for social justice seems to me to be essential to the Catholic Church’s mission in the world. Kevin’s claim that “how we embody what Francis describes as the ‘gospel of the marginalized’” gets right to this point. Online education has the potential both to alleviate and to exacerbate marginalization. Overwhelmingly the primary reason students (of all age groups) choose to take online courses is because it allows them to fit college courses into an already packed schedule, one that frequently includes jobs (sometimes multiple jobs) and family responsibilities. Not everyone is able to afford to attend on ground universities, even at so called “in state” tuition. However, many can only afford college at all because they take jobs during “business hours” when the bulk of college courses are taught. Online courses provide a flexibility for students who would otherwise be unable to attend college.

Yet online courses can also increase marginalization. First, the mode of learning (sometimes problematically called “content delivery”) can be isolating and can limit how much interaction students have with professors and other students. Second, online students tend not to have the same types of access as on ground: imagine all the non-course events and opportunities on ground students have, or the comparative ease of accessing library resources.

Third, while there are legitimate questions about whether the quality of an online course stacks up to an on ground course, there is perhaps a less often considered question about how degrees from online programs compared to on ground. Will it make a difference in hiring? Are course credits the same cost? One significant risk with online programs is the existence of for-profit online schools that are predatory and drive students to take out huge amounts of student debt. Such practices work to increase marginalization by saddling students with debt without giving them much of anything in return.

5. Doctrinal Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis
While the meaning and valence of this category is hugely (and understandably) disputed, this seems like a place where online universities might actually fare better. By that I mean that online universities and programs are (a) not inviting controversial speakers to campuses, (b) supporting student organizations that one cohort or another disapproves of based on church teaching, (c) dealing with the provision or non-provision of artificial birth control, or (d) debating whether or not there should be crucifixes in the classroom. These kinds of culture issues tend not to show up, but precisely because there’s not necessarily a clear sense of shared culture and shared space within which these issues flare up.

So…what to do?
Online education is not going away. The teaching tactics and technologies will change and develop, but online courses will remain a significant and growing aspect of higher education for the foreseeable future. The conversation regarding Catholic identity in higher education, which has been largely “been reduced to an argument between those promoting a goal of immersion and those promoting a goal of persuasion,” will need to begin considering what that identity looks like for online programs. This question jabs at necessary questions about both the nature, quality, and mission of online programs and the nature, quality, and mission of Catholic education.

Many of us who have gone into higher education have done so out of a sense of vocation; we feel called to serve the Body of Christ by teaching. Changing demographics, changing technologies, and a changing job market are leading many of us into the world of online education. As we enter into that world, we must ask ourselves:
Are we serving the Church?
Are we serving our students?
Can an online program provide an authentic Catholic education?

Click here for more posts from our Theological Shark Week on “What is–or should be–Catholic higher education?”