Mt. Mercy and archdiocese partner in online education effort

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

CEDAR RAPIDS — Catholic school teachers, parish staff, volunteers and people in the pews now have a new way to enhance their faith and learn new skills to help them in ministry.

Mt. Mercy University (MMU) in Cedar Rapids and the Archdiocese of Dubuque recently worked in conjuction to create the Center of Learning for the Church (CLC). The program allows for many five-week online undergraduate courses Mt. Mercy offers to be audited for the reduced price of $150 per course, with the approval of an MMU advisor.

“Our idea is that for our Catholic faithful, for those who work for the church and also those who are committed to their faith, there should be an opportunity for anyone who would want to deepen their faith in terms of learning and going deeper. We think that Mt. Mercy can play a role through this center,” said Father Tony Adawu, chaplain at MMU and a professor in the philosophy and religious studies department.

Father Adawu is currently teaching the first CLC course, which began earlier this month and runs through early March. Titled “The Church in Contemporary Society,” the course examines how the church understands herself in today’s world and how the church envisions herself engaging so as to bring the Gospel to modern society.

Father Adawu hopes participants walk away from the class with an “understanding of what the church stands for in the world and what it does to bring about change in the world.”

Organizers hope to expand CLC offerings in time. The center is aiming to add business courses focused on parishes or nonprofit organizations and other faith formation courses. There will be the possibility to tailor seminars to meet the specific needs of or requests from the parishes and people of the archdiocese. The CLC also offers in service days and face-to-face workshops, according to Dr. Philip Drey, another pivotal figure in the development of CLC.

“We knew everything would be online because of the distance, and online is a lot of where education is going anyway,” said Drey, who also teaches philosophy and religious studies. “Mary Ducey (another professor in the department) and I contacted perhaps a dozen priests in the archdiocese to see where the interest was. We got some fantastic support within the administration. The online people welcomed it. We figured that every student would be working full time and have a family so auditing a course will give them a lot more flexibility.”

People of the archdiocese who take CLC courses interact with faculty through an online platform called “Brightspace.” They are required to apply for Mt. Mercy’s online program and also petition to audit classes with the endorsement of their local pastor. Once accepted, they are in classes with other Mt. Mercy students. They complete reading and other assignments, but are not graded in a traditional sense. The courses are designed to require a commitment of about 8-10 hours of work per week over the five-week period. Participants who audit can later decide to take courses for credit, but would then be charged the standard rates per credit.

MMU will begin offering its religious studies degree program entirely online beginning this coming fall semester, according to Drey. Mt. Mercy’s innovations in online learning are happening at a time of enormous change in education. Father Adawu believes the church must integrate technology with traditional modes of Catholic education as is being done with the CLC program.

“The  questions of technology and evangelization is something the church cannot move away from,” said the priest. “Each medium has its advantages and its drawbacks. Face to face is great. You have the opportunity to listen to each other and read each other’s body language. It also really helps with community relations, but we are also coming to a time where people find themselves forming communities online and, for some, the online community is more concrete to them than even the communication they have with the people around them. The online platform is really shaping people in significant ways.”

The CLC isn’t the archdiocese’s first experience with online learning. It has been partnering with the University of Dayton for many years. The CLC, however, is the archdiocese’s first endeavor with a local Catholic university, and the arrangement offers new opportunities to adapt the education program to the unique needs of local parishes and communities.

The development of CLC began several years ago. In April, 2016,  Drey was hired to replace Tom Wetzel in the religious studies program. One of the charges in his hiring was how Mount Mercy University could increasingly and purposefully assist the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Given his 17-year tenure as a theology teacher at Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids, Drey had been able to create strong relationships with a variety of archdiocesan personnel, including Msgr. Tom Toale, the vicar general of the archdiocese. Msgr. Toale asked how Mount Mercy University could potentially assist the archdiocese in strengthening and improving the archdiocese’s parishes and schools, especially through the use of online courses.

At the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year, Drey brought Msgr. Toale’s idea to the philosophy and religious studies department of MMU. The department, which includes Father Adawu, Bryan Cross and Ducey, as well as the recent addition of Taylor O’Neill, discussed the prospects of this idea. As the department discussions progressed, other archdiocesan and MMU personnel were consulted.

“I am enthused for the new Center to begin its work,” said Mount Mercy President Laurie Hamen, J.D., in a statement. “Our faculty have been listening to the voices within archdiocesan parishes and schools, and we know that many people who serve the church need the concepts and skills contained in Mount Mercy courses, particularly when provided with the convenience of an online delivery system and a reasonable price. We look forward to a continued fruitful educational partnership with the archdiocese through the center and other initiatives.”

The two upcoming online courses through the CLC are “Introduction to World Religions” (begins March 12 but sign up by March 9) and “Introduction to Ethics” (begins March 12 but sign up by March 9).

If interested, visit mtmercy.edu/clc for more information regarding the CLC and the application process. Please contact Dr. Phil Drey at pdrey@mtmercy.edu or 319-363-1323 x1855 with questions.

PHOTO: (left to right) Father Tony Adawu, chaplain at Mt. Mercy University, and Dr. Philip Drey played key roles in establishing the Center of Learning for the Church. Both  teach in the university’s philosophy and religious studies department. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness) 

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