The Internet has changed the face of society, and theology schools are no exception. More and more, theology schools are enrolling people in online courses. Photo by Michael Swan

Internet changing face of theology schools

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  • February 27, 2016

Journalists, taxi drivers, musicians and motels have all had their economic apple carts upset by the Internet. Theology professors are discovering they too are not immune from the game-changing, democratizing effect of the world wide web.

Ever since the Council of Trent mandated seminaries to train priests, the only way to become theologically literate has been to enrol in a university, faithfully attend all the lectures and seminars, write the papers, debate with fellow students and pass the final exam. All of this had to happen in a classroom, on a campus.

No more.

“A lot of really interesting online learning is happening in theological education. It’s one of the growth areas in online learning,” said University of St. Michael’s College professor Reid Locklin. Locklin teaches in the Christianity and Culture program at the university on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus.

At Edmonton’s Newman Theological College about 10 per cent of the students for degree programs take their courses online. The college also offers more than 40 continuing education certificate courses that don’t count toward a degree. Over the last four years enrolment in these general interest courses, covering everything from Church history to moral theology, has doubled every year.

The school has plans to increase its online offerings beginning this fall, making it possible for Catholic teachers all over the globe to earn a Master of Religious Education degree at their own kitchen tables. Online courses have meant more students and more money for Newman at a time when most theology schools in North America are seeing enrolments decline.

“It certainly provides us stability,” said Newman president Jason West. “Our enrolment increased about 20 per cent last year and this year it will increase another 10 per cent. A lot of that increase is due to the online courses.”

West doesn’t look at online courses as just a source of money.

“Ultimately we’re here to fulfill our mission and if we aren’t reaching a broad range of people, providing a place for developing a theologically educated laity in the Church, then we wouldn’t be faithful to our mission,” he said. “We can today contribute to the New Evangelization that the Church is calling us to.”

The Edmonton college provides online courses for men studying to become deacons in seven dioceses in Western Canada. In Regina, a city with no Catholic seminary, the Newman online courses make a diaconal formation program possible.

“I’ve got a cattle farmer who lives three hours from Regina, let alone from the nearest seminary — which is in Edmonton,” said Regina archdiocesan theologian Brett Salkeld, who runs the deacon formation program now in its second year.

The online courses make theological education available in places where it could never be delivered to people who don’t fit the usual mold. It makes learning about the economy of the Trinity and connections between Aquinas and Aristotle more affordable and accessible for dioceses and for individuals.

But Salkeld, whose own job depends on being able to enrol candidates in online courses, has his doubts about computerized distance education.

“I would not be enthusiastic about any program that was done completely online,” he said. “Can it be done in combination with faceto- face? I think so. But I think it requires care.”

In Regina’s program the deacon candidates come together at a retreat house over weekends where they can debate and discuss what they’re learning on their laptops. It’s in the give and take of face-to-face relationships and the dynamics of a group that deacons- to-be learn the human implications of the theology they are studying.

Learning theology is not the same as mastering the data or techniques that go into nursing, engineering, accounting, etc., insists Fr. Gilles Mongeau, a theology professor at Toronto’s Regis College.

“The kind of knowing that theology engages in is a knowing that is supposed to lead to meeting Christ,” he said. “It’s also supposed to be the kind of knowing that is transformative of the person. That kind of knowing requires mentoring. Online education can go a long way in shaping an experience — I don’t deny that. It really cannot provide the kind of mentoring we’re talking about.”

Mongeau, a Jesuit, is no curmudgeonly old elitist insisting that to be theologically educated you must come to his green, leafy refuge in downtown Toronto and walk the hallowed halls of Regis College. As a theologian, he’s got knowledge he wants to share. But how he shares it matters.

Regis has tried to reach out to non-traditional students and a curious public in a number of ways. For the casual learner there’s the Windows on Theology program of free lectures. Regis recently launched Faith Issues, another series of evening lectures and discussions in which theologians take on contentious issues.

Regis professors take the St. John’s Bible out to parishes, schools and other groups to make presentations on how Catholics read the Bible today.

Catholic teachers get the benefit of Regis’ most ambitious project in democratizing theology when they take the religious education additional qualification courses from the Jesuit graduate school. These courses are offered in conjunction with pilgrimages and retreats — intense spiritual experiences that give a human dimension to the reading, essays and exams that follow.

“The temptation is to think the kind of universal access that the Internet seems to offer will solve the problem, but in fact it creates new ones,” Mongeau said. “People do not have a mentor to help them navigate all this information. They don’t develop the ability to discern what’s good information from what’s bad information. The temptation is to think that because I have more information I’m somehow better formed religiously. That’s just not so.”

But it’s wrong to think of online education as the opposite of an immersion in the culture and give and take of a classroom, said Locklin.

“The really good evidence suggests that the best kind of teaching that uses online tools is teaching that combines it with face-to-face learning,” he said. “The evidence suggests that good online learning, if anything, requires more effort (from professors connecting with students) than face-to-face learning.”

For more than a decade the academic world has debated MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs have been used heavily in technical disciplines, especially in computer programming. But introductory psychology and history courses have also adapted well to the online environment.

“At one point people were talking about MOOCs redefining teaching as we know it,” said Locklin. “Nobody talks that way any more.”

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