Forming Faith Online: Dioceses Partner with University of Dayton to Provide Internet Classes to Those Out of Reach

DAYTON, Ohio -- Whether it is a farming or business career that makes taking parish and diocesan classes impossible or a full family and work life that means mom has little time for herself, some people who want to further their Catholic education can't find the time to do it.

The Internet is proving to be a good tool for interactive faith formation classes.

In partnership with nine dioceses in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, Massachusetts and North Carolina, the University of Dayton's Institute for Pastoral Initiatives has established eight courses online 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, Catholic schools, and social justice and media literacy. Six new courses, including sessions on Mary and ecclesiology, are being developed.

"The Internet is here to stay, it's part of the fabric of our lives," said Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, D.Min., director of the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives and associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton. "But very few people are engaged in designing and developing catechist and adult faith formation courses for e-learning for dioceses and parishes. Furthermore, this is a pioneering effort. We do not have successful models upon which we can point to guide us. This is a new learning environment that requires new approaches to learning for both teachers and learners.

"Our diocesan partners are very enthused about being part of something they couldn't do alone. In collaboration and partnership we can expand the opportunities for new adult faith formation," Zukowski said.

A pilot program between UD and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati started in September 1997, and the roster was expanded to include select rural dioceses in January 2000. The partnership roll will open again in July for additional dioceses that want to take part. Only a few additional partnerships are made available each year to maintain steady growth and even development.

The format allows for deep interaction between participants, said Harry Dudley, associate executive director for faith formation for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, an early partner. "People share more in this format than when they are sitting in front of you in a classroom," he said. "They share at a deeper level and build a community of learners. You can't be an anonymous learner. Participants can get to know one another and engage one another.

"We're always thinking of how to get young adults involved, and this format is one they are very familiar with," he added. "It can be a way of evangelizing and educating young adults in religious education."

Individual classes cost $40 for students from partner dioceses and $75 for people from other dioceses. Participants earn continuing education credit from UD upon completion of the courses.

"We learned from both the pilot program and research to keep the number of participants in the online courses small - no more than 12 - and to limit the sessions to five or six weeks," said Zukowski, who acts as a facilitator and course designer. "All of the information on the course Web site is no more than three clicks away from the class home page, and we limit the amount of graphics to keep downloading time to a minimum."

Intermediate deadlines keep students from procrastinating, she said, and facilitators offer motivation to those who need it. Technical assistance is available within 24 hours from the VLCFF multimedia coordinator located at the University of Dayton.

Typical students are people of deep faith who indicate that time, distance and course availability hinder their opportunities for participating in parish or diocesan courses. Most of the students are women, with a rapidly growing enrollment of men. Most are between 35 and 60 years old and more than two-thirds are engaged in ministry.

The class Web sites are most active between 4 and 6 a.m. and 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," she said.

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

"This is a new and steep learning curve for individuals not familiar with e-learning," Zukowski said. "We want our course participants to have a sense of success in completing the course work without too many technical hurdles."

Those who haven't taken an e-learning course 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."

The courses emphasize online interaction with the facilitator and with other participants, she said. "These are not designed to be correspondence courses 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."

A recent development is a possible expansion of VLCFF to include and Asian partnership.

During May, Zukowski participated in two symposiums for Asian bishops held in Bangkok, Thailand, on the Internet and ministry. One recommendation from the symposium was to explore creating an Asian VLCFF component in various Asian languages.

"If this project is realized, this means that some of our Asian Catholic communities will be able to take VLCFF courses adapted to their own language and methodology," Zukowski said.

Dudley credits the University of Dayton with making the commitment to help further Catholic education. "The University has invested in setting up the infrastructure so all we need to do is see how best we can use it. We can look beyond our budget and beyond our limitations as a diocese to offer education that no one of us could afford to do. We all get the best of the best because we share with other dioceses."

For media interviews, contact Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, D.Min., at (937) 229-3126 or via e-mail at Angela.Zukowski@notes.udayton.edu and Harry Dudley at (800) 382-9836 or via e-mail at hdudley@archindy.org.