“Higher education as we know it will forever change.”
“The coronavirus will shift colleges to more online learning.”
“The demand for on-campus teaching will drop as the demand for online learning grows.”
In recent weeks, pundits have made all sorts of proclamations like this about the future of colleges and universities. In some ways, they may be right. The massive and sudden shift to online learning, precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic, may forever alter the landscape of higher education. But if that happens, it’s students who will be the biggest losers, especially students attending religious schools.
Don’t get me wrong. Online education is a valuable and effective resource. It serves a real need in our world, helping people who otherwise couldn’t pursue degrees to further their education. I’ve been a student in an online degree program and know how helpful these can be.
The university I serve as president, Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, offers numerous online degree programs and I’m proud of the engaging, high-quality course content we provide our online students. If one of the consequences of this pandemic is more schools learning how to better serve students online, that’s a good thing.
Nevertheless, while I see value in online learning, and while I’m also grateful that it allows us to serve our students during this difficult time, distance learning cannot measure up to the on-campus experience. It can’t offer what living and learning on campus can. It simply doesn’t meet the need we have as human beings to gather with one another, grow together, and learn from each other face to face.
So much of the formation my university offers happens outside the classroom. The relationships formed in residence halls, the lessons learned on the playing field, the conversations that take place in the dining hall—these are every bit as formative as teaching and discussion in the classroom and they can’t be replicated online. Nor can the spiritual growth and maturity that comes from participating in mission trips, worshipping with classmates and friends in the Mass, and living in a vibrant Catholic community, surrounded by peers who strive for holiness.
Even in the classroom, a type of learning takes place that doesn’t exist online. The relationships students form with their professors, the personal witness faculty give through their presence, and the intimacy that comes from living in the same community together deepen the academic formation students receive, completing it in an irreplaceable way.
I’m not just the president of Franciscan University. I’m also an alumnus. And while I received an excellent education as a student, my experiences outside the classroom formed me every bit as much as my experiences in class. I found my vocation through the Franciscan friars I met on campus. I made my best friends through our household life system. I grew as a man and as a Catholic through the conversations that took place walking across campus, sharing dinner in the cafeteria, and staying up late in my dorm with other students. All those experiences made me who I am today. They formed me not just intellectually, but spiritually and emotionally as well. And not a one of them could have happened online.
Right now, much of America is isolated. We’re trapped in our homes, separated from friends, family, and colleagues. And we miss them. Yes, we can see them on a video call, but we know it’s not enough. We miss the gift of our loved ones’ presence. We miss the comfort, joy, and understanding that comes when we sit together in person.
Human beings weren’t made to interact with each other primarily through screens. The history of our salvation tells us this. God didn’t communicate the Gospel to us via text message. He didn’t show us who we are and for what we were made with a Webinar. Instead, he took flesh; he became one of us. He walked among us, lived among us, and died on a cross among us. He then communicated to us the salvation he won for us though a Church and through the sacraments, person to person, flesh to flesh.
A college education isn’t salvation, but it should help lead students to heaven. An experience of higher education deprived of the rich human formation that can only take place within an on-campus community will ultimately deprive the students of the transformational power and grace they ought to receive from a Catholic education.
The coronavirus has already done so much damage to our culture. I pray it doesn’t irreversibly damage higher education, too.
Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, a well-known speaker and author, became the seventh president of Franciscan University of Steubenville in May 2019.