Catholicism and Distance Education: A Conversation with Mark Giszczak


With the rapid advance of technology, education is in the midst of a transition between the traditional classroom model and newer, online-based methods. InsideCatholic editor Brian Saint-Paul spoke with Mark Giszczak of the Augustine Institute about Catholicism, distance learning, and the future of theological instruction.

Is the age of the university nearing its end?

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Brian Saint-Paul: Before we talk about distance learning and education trends in general, let’s get some of your background. What is the Augustine Institute?

Mark Giszczak: The Augustine Institute was founded in 2005 by a few scholars in the Denver area, including our current president, Dr. Tim Gray, to educate lay people in Catholic theology. I was actually a member of the inaugural class, but have since become Director of Distance Education and an Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture.

The program itself was designed to support those evangelists and missionaries who would be serving the Church in the New Evangelization. So the focus isn’t just on theology, but also covers history, culture, and the practical side of evangelization and teaching.

So is the Institute part of the Archdiocese of Denver?

Well, it’s located in the Archdiocese of Denver, but it’s an independent entity.

Understood. What was it that drew you to the Institute as a student?

I did my undergraduate degree in philosophy and theology at Ave Maria College, and I was interested in pursuing a PhD in Biblical Studies. I was attracted to the scripture program at the Institute — especially the idea of learning Scripture and academic Biblical studies in the context of the New Evangelization. That way, I could become both a scholar and an evangelist.

In addition to on-site classes, the Institute also has a distance education component. How does that work?

Our distance education program was founded in 2008 to serve students who were unable to come to Denver to study with us. The program works like this: We teach a class on campus that’s part of our regular curriculum — with students in the classroom. At the same time, we film that course and turn it into a DVD package that we then mail to our distance education students.

What’s unique is that we’re able to deliver this education experience via high quality video that’s professionally produced.

In other words, this isn’t low quality streaming video that’s continually pausing and buffering.

Right. Rather than receiving your course content in bits and pieces over a website, or exclusively by text or audio, you’re actually getting a DVD set that you can play on your laptop or your desktop or your television. Our professors’ teaching styles are quite dynamic, so the videos are an engaging way to learn.

When a student signs up for a course, he or she is put into a group of other students — called a “cohort” in educational lingo — that proceeds through the semester together. So you’re not alone, but with a group.

A teaching assistant is assigned to the cohort to help them through our online learning platform.

So this is a multi-faceted approach?

Yes, it is.

As you know, in the past, distance education has been associated with the correspondence school model. How is the Institute — and distance education in general — different from that old system? How has it changed?

Correspondence schools started back in the late 18th century, with mailed courses. They’ve grown over time, of course, but really, the Internet has revolutionized the world of distance education. Now, 90% of public universities offer online courses, and the number of students taking online courses increases every year. So the Internet has changed what we can do and how we can deliver the educational experience.

Not only do we deliver video, but we also create a course forum where students can interact. The most popular way of doing distance education is through discussion on a website, where students in different time zones and from different countries can talk about the same material. This also allows us to share links and documents. In the old model, you could hand out or mail students a print-out. With the Internet, you can post not only a document, but also a link to another resource on a different website. So the growth of the Internet expands the possibilities of distance education exponentially.

Obviously, this technology has taken a big leap forward in the last 5-10 years with the spread of broadband. What kinds of advantages do you see now in distance education over the traditional classroom setting?

One of the significant advantages this has over the traditional model is learning effectiveness. It’s surprising, but all the research that has been done shows that students who take online courses achieve higher learning outcomes than students who take face-to-face instruction in the classroom.

Another benefit is access. Students whom we’re not able to serve on our campus because of reasons of time and place, we’re able to serve via distance education. They may not be able to move here to Denver, but they’re able to participate in this program and gain the education they’re looking for.

There are still challenges in distance education, and aspects that have yet to be fully developed. For example, the issue of student isolation and the social experience of college. You already mentioned that the Augustine Institute uses student forums and teaching assistants to address that issue. But there are also areas like library access for research — part of the standard furniture of the university education. How is the Institute addressing that problem?

There’s a lot we can do with the Internet that gives students correlative experiences to what they would receive in the classroom. We provide a website where they can discuss course material with other students. They can contact their teaching assistant via email, phone or the course forum to discuss any questions they may have. We’re also working toward providing more online library resources for the students. With the advent of online databases that are getting increasingly sophisticated, there are a lot of things we can provide students that were unavailable even ten years ago.

Library access and the ability to have a social learning experience are both key to education. With technology moving so quickly, newer and better technologies are being developed every day, and we’re trying to take advantage of them. For example, one of the things we’re looking forward to doing in the next year is implementing a social networking platform to accompany our online management system. It would be kind of like Facebook, but would just be for students in the school so they can get to know one another in a less formal environment and start to build those important networking connections that a university setting provides.

Critics of contemporary academia often complain that advanced university education is trending toward overspecialization, and that we’ve lost the role of the generalist. Edward Gibbon would have trouble getting a teaching job these days. It seems to me that distance education could help fill this lacuna by offering a theological education to those from quite different fields. Do you find this with the students who enroll at the Institute?

Our students come from many different walks of life. We have young and energetic youth ministers in parishes, and we really want to serve those people. But there are also those who are seasoned lay catechists, who have been teaching in their parishes for years, and are looking for a more formal, in-depth education. They already have a profession, so this is a supplement to what they’re already doing. We’re able to support those people through distance education as well, even if they don’t want to get the full Master’s Degree. They can do a basic certificate, which is about eight credit hours of study, or they can do the graduate certificate, which involves 14 credit hours, and where they specialize in a given area. That’s particularly good for someone who may already have a Master’s Degree in theology, but who may want more specialized knowledge in Scripture or youth ministry. We’re able to provide different options for different people, depending on what they’re looking for.

For a lot of them — particularly students who are looking more for personal enrichment and to broaden their theological and intellectual horizons — they are able to enter more deeply into an understanding of their faith. Because our curriculum is interdisciplinary — they study history, scripture, and theology — we have a certain degree of that generalist scope in our curriculum.

You mentioned earlier that 90% of universities now offer some kind of online learning component. I had no idea it was that high, though this is clearly the trend in education. We see, for example, the popularity of The Teaching Company or the Modern Scholar series or iTunes University, each of which offer recordings of full university courses for purchase or download. With all of this available, and given that technology is advancing in a torrent, is distance education the future of higher education?

Well, it’s a risky thing to predict. On the one hand, yes, distance education will continue to grow and expand and will eventually become the normal modality for higher education and learning.

However, there are wonderful benefits to being in a classroom with your peers and a professor, and having that social interaction that’s so memorable for all of us. So I don’t think classroom learning will ever go away, but I do think we’ll see more blended learning, wherein students take some courses in the classroom, some classes on the Internet, and some with a combination of both. A professor might post documents and discussions on a website while hosting lectures in the classroom, as well. I believe we’ll see more of a combination in the future, but I don’t believe the classroom experience will ever disappear.

  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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