Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
March 5, 2001
Stay at home and learn
Opportunities growing to study theology via distance education
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — Dan Kingdon has not always been a believer in distance education. It took away the classroom camaraderie that he feels is so necessary in theology courses. But the vice-dean of theology at Newman Theological College is now singing the praises of theology courses via the Internet.
"There's a thirst out there," Kingdon said. "A thirst to learn a little more about (the Catholic) faith, to make sense of a very complex world. This gives everyone a chance to learn more about our faith."
Newman is a rare breed of theological school which offers programs via the Internet. For the past five years, the college offered certificate, diploma and bachelor degrees in theology studies online. There is also a graduate diploma in religious education available to teachers and some courses in the master of divinity program.
"This is a different mode," said Roger Plouffe, Newman's technical consultant. "The content is the same whether you take it online or in the classroom. You have to see this as a different mode of learning."
Theology colleges and universities in North America are slowly getting wired, not just on campus, but to the rest of the world. From Newman to the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, which offers graduate degrees, theology schools are reaching out to those who can't come to the classroom.
Many of the students taking such courses online do so because of work and family commitments.
"This is for people who are interested in faith development or for those involved in ministry," said Mary MacInnis, assistant coordinator of the diploma in ministry program at St. Francis Xavier University. "And they can take it from wherever they live. They don't have to do it in a classroom."
St. FX in Antigonish, N.S., offers a diploma in ministry via its home study program. Although not accessible online as the Newman programs are, the St. FX program is readily available to students anywhere in the world.
Students enrolled in the program receive a binder with all the course lessons. Assignments are either dropped off, faxed, mailed or emailed to the instructors. Each instructor also has a toll-free line students can call in with questions or comments.
The courses are designed for students ranging from high school educated to those who have completed their doctorate. "I've never seen anything on an evaluation sheet that said 'I'm bored.' (The courses) affirm them in their faith."
There are no exams in the program, but the courses are graded on assignments and a practicum.
Although only five of seven courses are required to compete the diploma, it generally takes two and a half years to complete because the majority of the students take only one course a semester. It is recommended that students spend 10 to 12 hours per week on each course because "it's not memorization, it's reading with comprehension," MacInnis said.
In its fifth year, the program has 188 students, which means up to 80 students per course. Newman has restricted its classes to 25 students. There are four online courses this semester and students live as far away as Latvia and Kenya.
The number one reason for having online courses, said Kingdon, is convenience.
The advantage of the course is that it's asynchronized time, he said. Lessons are posted by the instructors "and students can log on and read them when it's convenient for them."
Plouffe added, "You can check it whenever you're at your peak. Some people work better in the morning so they read it in the morning, some people like to read it later in the evening."
Online courses not only allow student to work from their homes, but also professors, said Kingdon. Newman has an online professor based in Saskatoon, Sask., and another in Vancouver.
In a classroom, "the biggest thing is to engage the students so that they don't become just a student, but also a community," said Roger Plouffe.
This is more difficult in a distant education course because students do not interact with each other. Some of the courses do allow students to get together in "learning hubs" to meet with each other.
A matter of convenience was also the key factor in starting the program at St. FX.
"This isn't just people who are interested in this, but those who feel they have a responsibility in understanding their faith," MacInnis said. "This is something very personal, faith is a very personal thing, they can learn when it's most convenient for them without having to be in a classroom."
The disadvantage, however, is that students do not have the human contact which exists in a classroom. It is also expensive. At $450 a course, "some students find it prohibitive. A lot of these people are volunteers in their churches taking these courses. That's a lot of money for them."
A classroom setting often leaves timid students with little opportunity to speak because more vocal students may be dominant during discussion periods. It's a disadvantage in the classroom, but irrelevant online, said Kingdon.
"Online you don't have to answer (the instructor) right away. So when he asks a question, there are students who might need some time to think about it before answering. They don't have to worry about coming up with an answer right away like in a classroom."
Kingdon sees the online classroom as the wave of the future. He sees it as a chance for national and international scholars to prepare their own academic courses, offering them worldwide and there would not have to be a physical home base.
"There would be students world wide and professors worldwide. They would post their lessons and students would access it online.
"Theoretically, any student anywhere in the world can take a course from anyone anywhere in the world."
Although there are some courses in the master of divinity program offered online, Kingdon can't see the entire program offered this way.
"There are so many things (students) have to do in this program you can't do online," he said. "They have to work directly with people, you can't do that through a computer."
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