UD’s Virtual Learning Program Goes Global: Wealth of Online Courses Makes Catechesis Accessible Anywhere
by John LeComte
Pope Saint John Paul II ‘s Apostolic Letter for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Novo Millennio Ineunte, in which he called the Church to “put out into the deep” (Lk 5:4) was the inspiration for founding the University of Dayton’s Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation (VLCFF).
Now, two decades later, after “putting out into the deep Internet,” the VLCFF celebrates 20 years of delivering online adult faith, catechetical, permanent deacon and leadership formation courses for Catholics around the world.
With additional courses in Spanish and Arabic, the VLCFF established a new enrollment record in 2019, with more than 6,500 Catholic adult learners completing online courses.
“We see our e-ministry as inviting Catholics to deepen their understanding of their faith, encouraging them to witness [evangelize] with an authentic living faith as they invite others to have
an encounter with Jesus Christ,” said Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, D.Min., the director of the VLCFF and professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton.
“To be able to inspire, animate and realize this online is amazing,” she added.
An Early Vision
Sister Zukowski recalls initial skepticism of the idea in the late ‘90s.
“People were asking me who would take a course online,” she said. “I heard phrases such as, ‘The Internet is only a fad. It has no future. Definitely, there is no future in using the Internet for faith formation. Who uses the Internet now anyway?’”
However, Sister Zukowski says there were religious educators with a vision of what could be possible.
In 1997, in collaboration with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Sister Zukowski and her team at the University of Dayton began to research how they could integrate the new online learning into the mission of the Catholic Church within an evolving new digital milieu.
Jane Pierron and David Riley held archdiocesan catechetical leadership positions within the archdiocese: Pierron as northern area director and Riley as Dayton regional director. Both were outstanding catechetical and leaders on the diocesan and national levels and brought a wealth of catechetical, professional experience and a willingness to explore a new methodology and medium for adult faith formation.
Together, the team of catechetical leaders designed the first archdiocesan e-course, “An Introduction to Scripture,” in 1998.
“We were looking for a convenient way to allow catechists to be certified, instead of driving to a parish office,” said Pierron. “We felt online learning is convenient and participants can
also meet people virtually all over the world.”
Following that pilot course, the feedback determined that an eightweek online course was too long, so the VLCFF re-designed the curriculum into three weeklong seminars and five weeklong courses.
Since its inception in 2000, the VLCFF has grown rapidly, offering more 137 courses, partnering with 88 dioceses around the world, including Southern Arabia, Africa, Australia, Latin America and Canada.
A few years ago, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk’s book, Being Catholic: What We Believe, Practice and Think, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press, was converted into an e-course along with a 10 video presentations. This course continues to be one of the most popular basic e-courses around the world.
Two years ago the text, videos and course were translated into Arabic for catechists in the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia. Thus, Archbishop Pilarczyk’s solid Catholic teaching is spread around the world today.
A Source of Inspiration
“We hear that the interaction within the VLCFF e-courses have inspired people to become more involved in their parishes on many levels,” said Sister Zukowski. “We are thrilled to receive feedback from our Catholic e-participants who have been sharing their faith experience and discovering new ways to evangelize others in the faith sustained by the clarity of authentic Catholic teachings presented online. These are the kind of results we had hoped for when we began in 2000.”
The number of online learners participating in Spanish e-courses in the archdiocese and across the globe has seen rapid growth, according to Liliana Montoya, coordinator for Hispanic e-courses and outreach at VLCFF. Montoya says Dina Beach (assistant director for Latino Catechesis) has been instrumental in this process, along with the leadership of diocesan parishes and volunteers.
“The VLCFF en Español equips students and ministry leaders to grow and share the richness of faith formation in an online environment that fosters participation and sharing of experiences,” said Montoya. “Through all these years, our partnership with the archdiocese has empowered many leaders with Church teachings they can apply in specific ministry contexts.”
Learn more about the VLCFF at vlcff.udayton.edu.