FUS and distance education: At the threshold of a new missionary frontier

by Stephen Miletic

Editor’s Note:
Thanks largely to new technologies, including the internet and satellite hook ups, the idea of “correspondence courses” has expanded into the concept of “distance education.”   It is no longer a question of simply giving credit for courses sent by mail, but rather of whether a person need go to college at all in order to receive a college education. It is a question currently before Franciscan University. How necessary is residence in Steubenville to an FUS education?   Can modern technology provide an adequate substitute for campus life? Since this is a topic which touches so nearly on the nature of educa- tion, as well as on the mission of Franciscan University, the Concourse thought it would be good to initiate a campus-wide discussion of the pros and cons of distance education. We accordingly solicited articles from a known critic and a known advocate of DE to help us get the conversation off the ground. We welcome further written contributions for subsequent issues.

We stand at the threshold of a new phase of missionary activity in the Church and at this University. As the Church prepares for the twenty-first century, so to we at Franciscan University prepare for a new Evangelization. Technology and the internet make it possible to fulfill our institutional mission of bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Offering Distance Learning1 degrees in theological studies represents an unprecedented opportunity for our University to touch of hundreds upon hundreds of adult learners scattered across the world with the gospel. So great is the potential that one is tempted to imagine the shades of green envy in the souls of such very great missionaries as Saints Paul, Boniface, Ignatius, Francis, Cyril and Methodius!

This missionary opportunity has raised many questions among faculty, administration and staff. Can we do it? Ought we to do it? Do we have the resources? Who’s taking these courses? Why? Other questions present themselves. What technologies do we have at our disposal? What are the differences and similarities between learning through a Distance Learning program and learning on campus? What are the pros and cons of each delivery system? Is communication through DL technology vastly inferior, utterly impersonal, in comparison with a lecture hall of forty-plus students, a seminar with ten students, a directed study with one student? Do we learn all the same way: in a class room, in conversation, through correspondence, video, receiving lectures, reading books and articles, watching TV, listening to the radio? Are values transmitted only face to face? Do adults learn differently at different stages in life? Are there different reasons for adult learning?

These questions raise more fundamental questions. What is teaching and learning? How are they related? How is learning related to education? How are learning and education related to earning a degree? I will focus my reflections on three themes: Catholic Tradition and Distance Education, The “Typical” Adult Learner, and Teaching, Learning and Degree Programs.

Catholic tradition and distance education

If anything is characteristic of Catholic faith, theology and pastoral life it would be its mediate contact with God through the sacraments. Grace, divine life and Trinitarian life are all mediated to us through material means. Just as God mediates his divine life—his personal presence—through such simple material as bread and wine, water, oil, human language, so also the professor/mentor mediates his or her values, beliefs, convictions and knowledge—that is, the elements of his inner life and external witness—through the medium of the lecture, delivered in person or through audio tape, print materials, phone conversations and written correspondence. This fundamental principle—the material mediation of divine life—is the prime analogate for understanding the Catholic or incarnational quality of Distance Learning.

The Church in no stranger to Distance Learning technology. It has promoted one of the most effective DL technologies ever developed—the written word! We learn of the great Patriarchs, Moses, the Prophets, Jesus, the Apostles from the Scripture, the written word. We learn of the Fathers of the Church, the Doctors of the Church, the lives of the saints, the teachings of the great Councils through the written word. The Catholic Church preserved the intellectual heritage of the West though the written word. During the dark ages monks copied Scripture, science manuals, Hebrew, Greek and Latin grammars, prayers etc. They preserved knowledge and values for future generations. It strikes me that this publication is itself a form of Distance Education; it transmits certain information and (in this case) the values and opinions of two professors to readers dispersed across the globe who might read this text long after we have gone on to the Lord.

Lest I be misunderstood, I do not wish to raise audio tapes and the Internet to the level of sacramental mediation! Clearly not every form of Distance Education technology is necessarily appropriate for the transmission of Revelation, Catholic culture, values and mores. Learning strategies and delivery systems which re-configure truth to the point of obsfucation or depersonalize the mediation process by making less evident the professor/mentor’s values are unacceptable. Any technology in which “glitz” impedes communication or makes high technological skill a prerequisite for communication seriously inhibits the authentic interpersonal exchange of goods like friendship, happiness, love and truth. We shall return to this point below.

The “typical” adult learner

The magnitude and depth of the missionary opportunity before us is very difficult to assess with any definitiveness. We can catch a glimpse of it by means of developing a profile of the typical kind of Distance Learning student.

Research generated by numerous institutions as well as by our own Distance Learning Office indicate that the typical DL students are “adult learners;” they are cloistered nuns, hermits, mothers raising their children at home, professionals, teachers, catechists, Directors of Religious Education—that is, people who wish either to complete their education or earn undergraduate or graduate degrees for personal or professional reasons, but are not able to go to college. They are from all over the world. No matter their continent, domicile or profession, the message is virtually the same, “I can’t get to you, even for three short weeks of summer school! Can I learn from your faculty and earn a degree through Distance Learning?”

These people are not disembodied e-mail addresses; they are real people with real problems and real needs. They have social and spiritual communities through their families, parishes, Marian or charismatic prayer groups, lay movements, third order communities. They are busy with full-time jobs; they care for real families which make real demands, they offer real apostolic services to the Church; and yet, they are so motivated as to sacrifice two very precious resources, their time and money. They come to us because we offer something real for the Church. We cannot touch their lives, families, jobs and world except through Distance Learning programs. They need a real, substantial, high quality education which will deepen their spiritual and professional lives. They seek a share in our cherished values: academic integrity and excellence, moral and spiritual growth, and prudential judgment.

Teaching, learning and degree programs

Teaching is distinct from learning. Teaching transmits understanding, learning interprets and inculcates it. A teacher transmits information, that is, value laden data. A learner receives information, interprets it and inculcates its inherent values. These are the fundamental principles of the educational process.

Teaching is a form of interpersonal communication of “information.” I understand interpersonal communication to mean the embodied communication of values, person to person. By “information” I understand that data which has been organized, processed and structured by the values and perceptions of the communicator. Under these terms, the communication and reception of intelligible, value laden data constitutes interpersonal communication. The question is: are there different modes of interpersonal and embodied forms of communication? Yes.

For example, it is possible to communicate to a person face to face, via telephone, by letter and through satellite. In these instances the communication is synchronic and lives in that sense. But there are other forms of interpersonal communication. For example, if I read Josephus’ Jewish Wars I still would be engaged in interpersonal communication, but now asynchronically. Let’s look at this issue from the perspective of reading Augustine’s Confessions and, say, a computer printout of random numbers, examples of information (i.e., value laden data) and data.

Augustine’s Confessions engage the late twentieth-century reader at the most profound levels of reflection and Catholic life. When we read him, we, in a sense communicate with him personally. How? Because through reading his words, we encounter something of Augustine’s person, his hierarchy of values, his perceptions of reality and morals—those elements of his personal, interior and intellectual life. And they challenge us! We the readers connect with something of his person—his inner and external life—through the medium of the written word. That book is not a disembodied e-mail note from cyberspace; it was created by a person intended to be received by many other people. We can “catch” Augustine’s values by reading his thought life, even in translation and in print.

Another example, taken from another medium, might be helpful. When I take long-distance calls from people all across the nation and from Europe, that communication is personal, embodied, material. Both my body and person is involved in the act of communication, just like writing a book. I am able to overcome the problem of distance via the mediation of fiber optics. A lack of physical or temporal proximity does not necessarily imply a lack of interpersonal contact.

Technology has the potential of drawing together the contemporary human community through making possible inter-locale and intergenerational learning. As the Holy Father has said of the amazing power of contemporary means of social communication: they “...undoubtedly facilitate relations between people, making the world a ‘global village,’ and therefore posing the urgent need for Evangelization in new terms” (Address to the Central Committee for the year 2000, February 16, 1996).

Not all information promotes interpersonal communication. When we read random numbers generated by a computer driven by a computer programmer, that form of communication would not qualify as interpersonal communication. The random numbers do not mediate or communicate any of the programmer’s hierarchy of values, perceptions of reality, orality—in short, nothing of the programmer’s inner and external life. The numbers provide no access into the “personality” of the programmer.

Notice how time has only a minimal effect on the interpersonal character of these two very different types of communication. In the case of the phone calls, distance is overcome. In the case of Augustine, the interpersonal communication is asynchronic, it takes place across several centuries, and yet it can be designated as interpersonal. In the case of the generation of random numbers, the programmer could compose the program, run it, generate random numbers in the presence of the recipient and those numbers still would still not constitute interpersonal communication. That is, the significant difference between the two examples is not the asynchronic dimension of the communication, but its interpersonal qualities. The reception of Augustine’s value laden data is no less personal or powerful today than when it was originally written.

There are great differences and similarities between the kind of learning that takes place on campus and Distance Learning. Let me briefly outline some of the issues. The Socratic method of teaching and Newman’s idea of the university both reflect one mode of learning. Are they ideal? It is difficult to say. Are they excellent? Yes. Do we practice them at Franciscan University of Steubenville? Not to my knowledge; not with classes which often exceed forty students.

As one who has engaged in adult learning via electronic media, I can safely say that I would prefer to meet my students face to face. However, I know many many scholars and other adult learners who prefer reading books, writing papers and making phone calls to the conventional classroom mode of learning. They never go to professional seminars and yet they stay in touch with their colleagues, learn and lead productive lives. Older adults typically learn differently from college-age students. Their basic values have already been formed or are in the process of being reformed, thus they have less need for the environment of campus life. Such is the nature of adult learning. The technology proposed by the current Distance Learning program is quite well suited to the needs of those who are asking for it.

Do adult learners actually “catch” and retain values. The two hundred and forty-eight studies showing no significant differences in learning outcomes through Distance Learning and the traditional classroom setting indicate the affirmative. Why? They take tests, quizzes, write mid-terms, research and reflection papers just as the undergraduate young adult does at the university. If these elements of performance evaluation signal levels of learning effectiveness on the campus, they certainly do so off-campus.

A final reflection about Distance Learning and the scholarly community. University culture has extended itself irreversibly to the remote regions of the world. By inviting the remote adult learner to participate in the mission of our small University, we embody the learning process, set guidelines and expectations of academic quality and behavior and discourse within a framework of morality, truth and love. This invitation to the remote adult learner, with all of its attendant values, requires both leadership and risk-taking work, requiring Socratic reasoning both on and off campus.

Dr. Miletic chairs the theology department at FUS.

  1. For reasons I hope will emerge as I proceed, I prefer the term Distance Learning to the more standard Distance Education. ↑