Into the “Digital Continent”
One of the goals of Sacred Heart’s Institutional Strategic Plan is to expand the seminary’s outreach through the use of the online environment, especially in online classes. Sacred Heart took a major leap forward in meeting this priority when it named Dr. Matthew Gerlach to the newly-created position of Director of Online Programs.
The appointment was presented to the Board of Trustees at its quarterly meeting on February 13. Dr. Gerlach will lead the new effort while continuing to serve as Dean of the Institute for Lay Ministry.
“Our commuter students frequently comment on how much they love coming to Sacred Heart, because of what a ‘sacred space’ it is, the quality of our faculty and the character of the people they encounter here,” Dr. Gerlach says. “Many others who long for a solid theological education but who live farther out of town are not able to travel long distances to experience the excellent education and formation that Sacred Heart provides.”
With the development of Sacred Heart’s online class and degree offerings, explains Dr. Gerlach, “we will be able to reach people on what St. John Paul II called the ‘digital continent.’ This expansion promises to be one important way we may live out our identity as a center for the New Evangelization—using ‘new ardor, methods, and expressions’ as St. John Paul II says—to reach people with the Gospel and equip them for their own work of ministry and evangelization.”
Currently, Sacred Heart offers two online courses at the undergraduate level and eleven at the graduate level. Dr. Gerlach’s first task as director of online programs is to obtain permission from the seminary’s accreditors to offer complete certificate or degree programs online and not just a limited number of classes. He will establish a timeline for this development and then facilitate the transition to a new online delivery platform that will support the online programming.
“Programs such as the Certificate in Catholic Theology and the Master of Arts in Theology will likely be the first to be launched over the next couple years,” Dr. Gerlach states.
Rector Msgr. Todd Lajiness says it is “very exciting” that Dr. Gerlach has graciously accepted the duties of the directorship.
“As an institution, we have thoughtfully considered the way in which online programs can be an effective and exciting way to enhance our mission,” Monsignor Lajiness explains. “The expansion of our programs in this way reflects our commitment to a key priority articulated in our long range institutional strategic plan.
“I am very than confident in Dr. Gerlach’s leadership in this area.”
Dean of Studies Fr. Timothy Laboe also has great confidence in Dr. Gerlach’s capabilities, stating that he is “the right person” to lead the seminary in meeting its online objectives.
“We wanted a single director for our online courses to ensure that they meet the educational standards and distinctive character that students experience in the seated courses at Sacred Heart. We also wanted that person to be a peer for our faculty,” Father Laboe says, “and be an academically credentialed theologian who has experience teaching in both seated and online courses.
“Dr. Gerlach meets both of these qualifications.”
The new director is adamant that students enrolled in the new online programs will have an educational experience with the same “feel” and the same exceptional quality “as those blessed to be present in the physical classroom”—programming that has the same “Sacred Heart stamp,” as he calls it.
“We have a special opportunity—and obligation,” Dr. Gerlach says, “to design online courses that carry out the Church’s holistic, incarnational, and ecclesial vision of education and formation.
“My intention,” he explains, “is to implement programs that facilitate the ‘culture of encounter’ and the ‘accompaniment’ of people along their journey of discipleship and formation, something dear to the heart of our Holy Father, Pope Francis.”