The Church in Cyberspace

The Church has been one of the last institutions to adapt to cyber culture and to take advantage of the far-reaching opportunities it presents.  Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, D. Min., an internationally recognized leader in the field, says, "The Church may be going into cyberspace kicking and screaming, but that is where the future Church is being formed."¯ 

"The internet has created a new culture with a new language, psychology and techniques that stimulate both communication and imagination.  Young people are woven into this culture, so how we evangelize and catechize has to continue to change radically."¯

The first years of the new century"”called the digital decade"”have seen a staggering growth in communication technologies and their applications.  Microsoft founder Bill Gates, addressing the International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, said that 40 percent of American homes have more than one computer, and the younger generation spends more time on a Windows PC than watching television.

How We Learn

            The face of education has been altered dramatically by electronic communications, and specifically, the Internet.  By the end of 2005, there were an estimated 1.2 million students taking online degrees or certificate programs.  Another 2 million were taking one or two online courses.  Most of the participants are adults with full-time jobs who need a degree or some course of study to further their careers.  Today there are 400 institutions offering online courses.  Man corporations use e-learning in their continuing education offerings.  But the Church has been slow to embrace online education.

            Sister Angela Ann was one of the cutting edge catechetical leaders to recognize the potential of distance learning in the Church.  She has been a pioneer in the field when she began producing catechetical and adult faith formation programs for cable television. 

            In 1979 she began her long association with the University of Dayton (UD), a Marianist college, where she is the Director of the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives and Professor in the Department of Religious Studies. Her first assignment in 1979 was to explore the ways in which communication could be used more effectively to support the work of the Religious Studies department and the outreach of the Marianist community.

            "In 1996, the Internet was slowly gaining momentum in the area of education,"¯ she says.  "We were given a grant to explore its use for adult faith and catechist formation, and we engaged in research to so this for the following years."¯

            In 1998, she launched an online pilot program"”single course"”for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, and the next year added a second course.  The courses were Introduction to Scripture and Catholic Beliefs.  In 1999, six other dioceses were invited to look at what Cincinnati was doing, and in 2000 those dioceses agreed that online learning was something the Church needed.  That same year, the University of Dayton formalized the Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation (VLCFF) as part of the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives.  Its goal was, and is, to support the Church's ministry of Catechist, adult and lay ecclesial formation in cyberspace.

 

We've Come a Long Way

            Today there are more than 40 partners with the Virtual Learning Community.  Over 8,000 people have taken courses to date, and 2,000-plus people from 113 dioceses, including groups in Asia and the Caribbean, are expected to join in the coming year.  (Sister Angela Ann, a former World President of [UNDA] lecture and holds workshops on Internet learning throughout the world.)

            Seventy-two courses are currently available and offered in more than 400 sections of online courses/seminars.  They are supported by 78 instructors and facilitators and 24 course designers.  In July 2007, a gathering of national catechetical leaders met at the University of Dayton to prepare the ground to establish a National Certificate in Catechesis and a National Certificate in Adult Faith Leadership Formation to be formally announced in 2008.  A think tank is being established to explore a National Certificate in Lay Ecclesial Ministry (2009). 

            "We've come a long way from cable television,"¯ says Sister Angela Ann.  "But basically I'm doing the same thing 30 years later in a different and more advanced technology that is more user friendly and easily accessible to most people around the world."¯  She notes that innovative programming for catechesis and faith formation "is very much historically in step with our Mission Helpers charism and vision."¯

"One of my goals,"¯ says Sister Angela Ann "is to demonstrate that Mission Helpers continue to contribute to the national and international developments of catechesis in the 21st century."¯

The Curriculum

            All courses are offered through the University of Dayton website.  The courses are available to everyone, but members of partner dioceses receive a 50 percent discount.  Courses can be designed to meet the particular needs of a partner diocese, and their people are encouraged to become online facilitators or instructors.  "We are engaged with these dioceses in a way of collaboration and partnership that brings forth our combined resources in support of faith formation and catechetical ministries,"¯ says Sister Angela Ann.  "We need to find a way of being Church in the 21st century and collaboration and partnerships are the key."¯

            The courses are geared to adults"”college level or older.  One-quarter of the participants are catechists working towards certification; one quarter are Catholic school educators or administrators; one-quarter of the people who are in lay ministry; and one-quarter are people who are eager to learn more about their faith, especially following their RCIA parish experiences. 

            The course offerings still include Catholic Beliefs and Introduction to Scripture, but there are dozens of others at basic, intermediate, and advanced levels.  Each course is five weeks long and students can expect to spend about five hours of work on the course each week.  Among the 72 course offerings are: Catholic Social Teaching, Ecumenism, Evangelization, Digital Catechesis, Islam, Survey of Catholic Doctrine, Praying with Children, and Spirituality. 

            [See all of the course offerings at the University of Dayton website: vlc.udayton.edu]

Technology Woven into Lives

            Sister Angela Ann says there is still resistance to e-learning for a variety of reasons.

            Some people still feel uncomfortable with technology; some say learning is better face-to-face; people don't understand all the dynamics of e-learning because it is a new way of adult learning; finally, there are people who are afraid they will be replace by the technology.

            "However,"¯ she says, "these fears are unfounded because the seamless user friendly online experience of the Virtual Learning Community is opening new pathways, engaging adults in a deeper appreciation and understanding of their faith.  For many, this experience cannot be found in any other format."¯

            "As the years go by,"¯ she says "these issues become less and less important because the technology is now woven into people's lives.  It's not novel anymore.  People are using e-learning, e-communication and e-administration in creative ways.  Families are discovering that their children are required to have state-of-the-art communications technology in order to succeed in school.  Grandparents who want to communicate with their grandchildren are using webcams, skype.com, or other forms of audio-video conferencing.  So the gap is closing very quickly."¯ 

Seeking Learning Alternatives

            "We don't find resistance from the individuals who engage in our online courses,"¯ she says.  "The challenge is with shifting the paradigm of adult learning today.  While the face-to-face learning experience continues to hold a priority, we are discovering that adults today are seeking alternatives.  We cannot ignore this new dimension.  It is already manifesting itself within parishes of dioceses where some are discovering that their life contexts are changing and they need to have a more immediate adult faith formation learning experience.  For many people, engaging in a well-designed course with an expert facilitator online is what is required.  They like to have some distance and be able to read, reflect and participate. 

            "Online, everyone has a voice because everyone has to communicate; they have to go to discussion boards and participate in exercises.  They form and online community of learners.  Whereas if you have a large group in a conference room, you have no idea it the people understand what you are striving to communicate or share with them is there is no immediate feedback."¯

            "Where and when possible, we encourage parishes to include blended online learning.  This offers both online conversation and face-to-face meetings in parishes or homes.  Some people have been reluctant to go to parish classes because they think they don't know the right questions to ask.  But once they are more comfortable and are more confident going to a traditional class.  It's a stepping stone to new and deeper adult faith learning."¯

An Eye to the Future

            Cyberspace is changing so rapidly that Sister Angela Ann won't speculate about what might happen in the next ten years.  "I won't go that far out,"¯ she says, "technology is simply changing too fast to predict what 10 years will bring, but I will tell you what I think for the next three"¯:

            "The whole concept of wireless is going to become the norm.  We'll do away with wires altogether.  That's already happening, but it is going to become more dominant."¯

            "We're going to see the cost of all technology coming down exceedingly fast.  It will also be smaller and faster.  It will be more users friendly and more multi-media.  It's going to be video and audio and music and Internet and telephone all woven into one system. 

[Editor's note: Sister Angela Ann made this prediction six months before the introduction of the new i-phone.] 

            "We are already looking at smart houses that are being built with speed, high tech in the walls"”kitchen, living rooms, security systems, everything will be high tech."¯

            The technology is constantly leapfrogging.  ipods and iphones are already changing so much.  I've just taken a course on how to use ipods for teaching.  So everything can take place in the palm of your hand. 

            "The younger generation lives in this culture so how we teach is going to continue to change radically.  Young people are working in teams, working on the Internet, and working internationally.  With everyone out in cyberspace, our educational space doesn't have to be in a classroom"”it can be anyplace."¯

            "The Church is still producing books, but that is all going to change because that is not how this generation processes information.  They process information electronically.  Furthermore, space is going to be a problem and the new communication technologies take up less physical space."¯

Faith in Cyberspace

            To those in the Church who fear that those seeking spiritual support online won't need the parish community, Sister Angela Ann says that she finds the faith experience growing and becoming much stronger in parishes and retreat centers because of online learning experiences.

            "People are critically reflecting in their faith.  And they're sharing their faith with others in online conversation at very deep levels, I think we're going to see people surface in parishes as a result of their online experience.  Their hope is not to get lost in cyberspace; their hope is to become part of the faith community.  There is a high tech-high touch equation.  We have found that people become more active in their faith life living out the Gospel in concrete ways."¯ 

            "The Church is slowly waking up to all of this, but it's still way behind."¯