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“In the first place, it is intended to stress that at the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, ‘the only Son from the Father…full of grace and truth,’ who suffered and died for us and who now, after rising, is living with us forever.”

Catechesi Tradendae 5

The instructional design industry focuses on online learning, but this presents a roadblock for certain types of education. Surgical healthcare, trade apprenticeships, and other hands-on fields need to be personal — and none more than catechesis. Personal encounter is absolutely essential to every catechetical model because while other fields teach some conceptual theory, Catholic catechesis teaches the Incarnate Word, the Person of Jesus Christ. Catechists do not simply teach about Him. Catechists bring learners “not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ” (CT 5). They do this even by modeling Him to their learners: “anyone else teaches to the extent that he is Christ’s spokesman, enabling Christ to teach with his lips” (CT 6).

Yet anyone working in the world of catechesis today will recognize immediately an unworkable problem: how can the catechist be Christ to learners, Christ who is so deeply personal, via the impersonality of remote instruction and online learning?

Some institutions respond to this challenge by reducing their online catechesis to an automated selection of content with multiple-choice quizzes. They do this for a variety of reasons, including limited budgets. However nobly intended, this approach falls short because it teaches about Jesus but does not teach Jesus Himself. There is no personal encounter here for learners to fall in love with Jesus Christ.

How Should We Keep the Personal Encounter in Online Catechesis?

Certainly, no one doubts that Jesus Christ, who is with us always (cf. Matthew 28:20), can maintain a personal relationship with us all. But catechists still have a duty to help learners plumb the depths of that relationship in prayer. Here are three ways to keep your online catechesis focused on a personal encounter with Jesus Christ:

Begin, End, and Saturate Every Moment in Prayer

We have confidence that when we pray, our Heavenly Father hears us with a loving heart. Just because online learners are separated in different parishes and households doesn’t mean they can’t pray as one. Ask learners to begin and end each lesson with a common prayer, to post their prayer intentions to a course forum, and to study in a prayerful, docile spirit.

Facilitate Discussion & Encourage Dialogue

We learn best when we learn together in an environment of discussion and dialogue. This allows all our best thoughts about our common subject rise to the top. Likewise, social dynamics allow others’ (Christian) behavior to influence us. Online Learning certainly has a hard task in the social dimension, but that doesn’t mean there are no options. Train catechists who are willing to oversee small discussions on web forums, social media groups, or live video conferencing sessions. Note: the secular industry literature constantly promotes teacher-learner and learner-learner discussion. Dialogue and discussion are deeply Catholic activities, so think how well we can do this even better than others.

Alternative Assessment

Many online programs rely heavily on the advantages of technology, such as automation. As a result, the default assessment model is multiple-choice, true/false, or short answer quizzes. These are excellent for assessing a grasp of basic knowledge or understanding, but fall incredibly short of assessing higher forms of learning. Try getting learners to think more deeply about their learning, to internalize it and build on it in their lives, and see what you can assess of that. A weekly group conversation — with a suitable degree of anonymity — about successes and failures in living the Christian life could be a huge help.

Looking for more? Check out my Catholic Instructional Design articles.