Catholic Universities Slowly Embracing Online Education

Many Catholic universities and colleges are planning to begin offering online education programs to take a full advantage of new educational technologies, according to Joan Frawley Desmond of National Catholic Register. Catholic colleges and universities don’t want to be left behind as other institutions advance — and grab market share in an expanding pool of students eager to study online.

Recently, Georgia Tech announced plans to offer a wholly-online master’s degree in computer science that stunned the higher education community. The university formed a partnership with Udacity, a Silicon Valley provider of the open online courses, to offer the master’s degree program for just $6,600 — far less than the $45,000 on-campus price.

Experts say the pilot project still must prove that it can deliver a high-quality education for a large volume of students at a modest price. Still, the news marks a trend in higher education that parallels recent initiatives by Catholic universities and colleges that have begun to launch their own online master’s degrees in subjects like education, theology, business and nursing.

Catholic online master degree programs will be different from Georgia Tech. These programs will focus on Catholic formation and are generally designed for a limited number of students. Tuition for these programs will be roughly equivalent to onsite tuition “as faculty spends more time working with distance students.”

According to administrators at Catholic universities, enrollees choose online classes because they are unable to pursue their studies full time or because they reside far from the program of their choice.

The online degrees are designed to take full advantage of social media and other platforms to link professors and students. But the greatest challenge facing Catholic educational institutions is the need to develop online curriculum, discussions and group work rooted in an integrated faith-based approach to the formation of the human person — elements on which course providers and platforms have not focused.

The Catholic University of America recently launched online graduate degrees in business, nursing and social work, and others will likely follow.

“We will pursue online programing for master’s degrees, which have a heavy professional component, with the caveat that they have to preserve electronically or digitally the Catholicity available here on our campus,” said CUA provost James Brennan, who also teaches in the university’s psychology department.

Franciscan University of Steubenville offers online degree programs consistent with the school’s deeply Catholic identity. The university is now offering online graduate degrees in business and education with tuition equivalent to programs available on the campus.

Next summer, the university plans to launch a graduate degree in catechetics that will only be accessible online. In addition, the university intends to launch several online undergraduate classes in philosophy and theology that would help fulfill prerequisites for students interested in the master’s degree in catechetics.

“Online education is not just an intellectual endeavor; it must engage the individual’s heart, soul and mind. Several popes have talked about using social media for the betterment of the Church. We think we can do that, but it won’t be easy,” Joel Recznik, vice president for enrollment at Franciscan University, said.