Changing Times – Changing Methods – Timeless Truth: The Catholic Distance University

by Mark McElrath

Have you just found yourself downsized and feel the need to complete your Bachelor’s degree?  Are you feeling empty in your current field of employment and want to work in a new career direction, maybe something related to the church but need further academic development or certification?  Are you one of those people that just has a love of learning and an insatiable appetite for knowledge?  If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the Catholic Distance University might be something to check in to.

Founded 25 years ago in the new dioceses of Arlington Virginia, then Bishop John Welsh developed a very innovative program to develop catechists to share in his call to teach the faith.  Bishop Welsh did so by using doctrinally sound catechetical material developed with assistance of teaching theologians including Fr. John Hardon SJ and then delivering it to students via correspondence course.  No heavy overhead of buildings and staff to slow down this bootstrapping Bishop who was busy developing his new diocese.  He wanted agile and efficient and used what we now call “Lean Organization Methods” to get the Word out to his people via competently trained catechists trained and developed in the comfort of their own home or the convenience of their parish center using materials they could trust.

Over the years the technology revolution has allowed Catholic Distance University to broaden its reach to a world wide audience and enlist the help of adjunct faculty from the best teaching institutions to grow is accredited curriculum to include Bachelors and Masters degrees in Theology as well as offer Basic and Master Catechist certification for its own diocese of Arlington as well the 15 others which includes the Military Archdiocese of the USA, and offer a non credit seminar program that speaks to the adults who just want to learn more about the faith from a doctrinally sound and trusted source.  It seems to be working.  CDU’s Director of Marketing Therese Cashion says that over 350 students are currently enrolled in degree completion programs and over 1200 students are currently taking advantage of CDU’s online learning method in either seminar or catechesis certification course work.

Today the university is led by Bishop Welsh’s successor the Most Reverenced Paul Leverde, its Chancellor, who takes a personal involvement in the selection of the teaching faculty and its President, Maryanne Evans Mount who has been there since the beginning and insures that the school adheres to the spirit of Ex Corde Ecclesia, the Vatican document that details what it means to be an authentic Catholic University.  It is state of the art and yet, oh so simple.  You just visit the website, browse the catalog, register as a new student and receive you schedule and take the course on the computer at the time of day that works best for you. 

CDU has developed some very slick systems to ensure authentic community exists amongst its student body and faculty; it has a virtual chapel where students can pay a visit for prayer and petition, it has an online coffee house where students can gather for broad themed discussions, it has class specific discussion boards for students to flesh out ideas in non-threatening environment of dialogue encounter via keyboard, a method that allows for the voice of all participants to be heard, not just the loudest or most extroverted. 

In other words, online learning is a great leveler of the playing field that is the classroom.  Course material is delivered via down load, course instruction delivered in similar fashion.  Materials might include written texts or podcast of a lecture given in a traditional class environment on some other campus.  There is time sensitivity to assignment completion that keeps students on task and motivated.  There is full time staff accessible 24/7 to deal with computer support issues.

The audience is broad-based.  A virtual classroom might include a professor from a college in New York seeking more understanding about his faith, a student from southern California pursuing certification as a catechist, another student from Delaware completing a Bachelor’s degree in Theology, another from Germany who is the spouse of active duty military on deployment temporarily outside the U.S. who is interested in learning more about the faith, and still another student who might be an active duty soldier in a forward combat area trying to make sense out of a very confused modern world.  The key point that enables this broad student base is the systemic architecture of the delivery mechanisms. The World Wide Web allows for as much flexibility as can be imagined delivering doctrinally sound material, in a variety of learning methods to individual learners at a fraction of the cost of traditional brick and mortar colleges.

Catholic Distance University keeps growing its programs and abilities via a unique partnership with Harrison Middleton University, another fully accredited online, non-residency-required institution of higher learning.  CDU can now take a student with no basic college credits, run them through the Harrison Middleton University AA,  90 units in their Great Books program, and then bring them back into the CDU Bachelor’s program for degree in Theology which requires another 36 units — and deliver it all for what many traditional brick and mortar school charge for one year’s instruction. 

Cashen estimates a full Bachelor’s degree can be had using this dual school program for under $19,000 and, as a Title IV school, students can avail themselves to the myriad of financing options that are available at those same traditional schools.  That’s a four year degree for less than $19,000 and no transportation costs, no additional residency or insurance fees, no impacted class schedules to slow down progress.  Now, this is out-of-the-box thinking and passing on real value to consumers who are self-motivated and interested in getting to the end in a fast, efficient and cost-effective way with material that is sound and instructors who are proficient in their fields.

We live in a transformative time; all across the marketplace many of the old rules that governed product development and delivery no longer apply.  The faster change occurs, the more people look to the institutions that have weathered radical transformative times before, for assurance.  The Catholic Church is a perfect example.  Empires grow and crumble, governments are formed and then reformed, but Jesus is the same; yesterday, today and tomorrow.  In the earliest days of the church,   the fledgling followers of “The Way” used the highway system of the pagan Roman Empire to evangelize that dark world with the light of truth. 

The Catholic Distance University is a perfect modern example of that same reality.  It uses the architecture of a World Wide Web filled with so much darkness, sin and ignorance to bring the light of truth and its ensuing joy.  These are transformative times. Catholic Distance University is a transformative instrument of higher learning.

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