Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE) has launched the University’s first online course program, an 18-credit certificate in faith formation.
The distance-learning certificate, which will enable people from around the world to take classes with Fordham faculty via their computers, is a joint effort of the GRE, Fordham’s Department of Instructional Technology (IT) and the Jesuit Distance Education Network (JesuitNET), a Web-based clearinghouse for online courses offered by Jesuit universities across the country.
According to Rev. Anthony Ciorra, Ph.D., dean of the GRE, the certificate is a pilot project designed to establish distance learning at the University and to prime it for expansion across all schools.
“Higher education distance learning is an essential part of the conversation in contemporary pedagogy, especially in dealing with younger constituencies—the classroom of the future is a ‘virtual’ one,” Father Ciorra said. “Through the venue of JesuitNET and its emphasis on Jesuit pedagogy, Fordham’s distance learning will offer the University’s high standard of academic excellence through the latest technology. We hope it will open up new learning opportunities.”
According to the United States Distance Learning Association, a non-profit group promoting online education, more than 2.5 million college students are taking online courses, with many on their way to earning degrees.
Based in Washington, D.C., JesuitNET is a portal for some 500 courses toward programs, certificates and degrees from among 28 Jesuit colleges, according to Executive Director Richard Vigilante. Vigilante added that many of the students are people with full-time jobs who don’t have time to attend classes in person.
The online education market overseas is also robust, Father Ciorra said. Residents of many developing countries are using Web-based certificate and degree programs, which are available without the expense of relocation or the need to secure visas.
On Jan. 14, the GRE rolled out four courses toward the certificate, which helps prepare students to practice lay ecclesial ministry. Courses initially will be taught by Father Ciorra; Claudio Burgaleta, S.J., Ph.D., assistant professor of theology; Kirk Bingaman, Ph.D., assistant professor of pastoral counseling; and Harold Horell, Ph.D., assistant professor of religious education.
Faculty members upload materials and weekly assignments through the University’s Blackboard technology and make themselves available online during “virtual” office hours. Students also discuss material among themselves via online boards or blogs, Father Burgaleta said.
“Online teaching provides a level of interaction with students that surpasses anything that goes on in the classroom,” he continued. “[Because] everything is done in writing, it forces students to clarify their thinking and engage their classmates at a whole different level.”
The “virtual” nature of distance learning also requires extensive technology techniques that make the online experience enjoyable and pedagogically comparable to a traditional classroom experience, said Fleur Eshghi, Ed.D., executive director of Fordham’s Instructional Technology-Academic Computing (ITAC).
“Online, you have to aggregate all the information for students in such a manner that they can enjoy the characteristics they normally enjoy with face-to-face communication,” Eshghi said, “like how to access the library, or how to contact enrollment and other services.”
Eventually, Father Ciorra said, the GRE hopes to expand enrollment by offering an online degree. The certificate courses may be applied toward a 36-credit master’s degree in religion.