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Adult education and distance learning: a new frontier for Jesuit higher ed

A historic gathering of Jesuit university educators took place in Denver, Colorado, USA, from November 1-3, 2006. One hundred and twenty-two representatives from Jesuit universities around the globe gathered for three days of inspiration, collaboration, and sharing best practices in two important areas for the future of Jesuit higher education - adult learning and distance education. Co-sponsored by Regis University, The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in the United States, and the Office of the Secretary of Communication of the Society of Jesus (Rome), the conference was one of many gatherings in Jubilee 2006 marking the 450th anniversary of the death of St Ignatius, and the 500th anniversary of the births of Peter Faber and Francis Xavier. While Jesuit universities in the United States have enjoyed many meetings and collaborations with their AUSJAL colleagues over recent years, this was the first time faculty and staff from Jesuit universities worldwide gathered to share best practices in adult and distance learning. In attendance were fourteen Jesuits, and faculty and staff from Australia, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Micronesia, Philippines, Spain, United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Seventeen AUSJAL members participated.

Adult and distance learning are offering unprecedented opportunities to extend the mission of Jesuit education. These pedagogies reflect a Jesuit way of being in the world, adapting to new times and cultures. From the beginning, Jesuits pursued innovative ways to "enculturate" for ministry, social justice and education. Adaptable and risk-taking, Jesuits were among the first Europeans to cross the Himalayas and enter Tibet, they were the first Europeans to paddle the headwaters of the Blue Nile in Africa, they were the first to chart the Upper Mississippi River in North America. They were unafraid to explore new means to achieve important ends. The three Jesuits honored in Jubilee 2006 lived out this exploration in their own ways. Xavier, for example, immersed himself in the local languages of Goa, India, southern Asia and Japan as he traveled far from his European roots and lifestyle. He was also the first Jesuit to buy a printing press for his schools only 100 years after its invention, a new technology that would transform history and education.

Much like Xavier's printing press, distance education is the new technology and language of an emerging worldwide culture where the Internet has become a way of life. Increasingly, Jesuit schools are innovators in these new ways of learning, including the alliance of five Latin American Jesuit universities for an online diploma in human rights, and the online poverty course to be shared by several U.S. and AUSJAL institutions. This creativity in new learning models is Jesuit to its core -- as a way of being in the world. Author, and former Jesuit, Chris Lowney has written in his readable study of Jesuits entitled Heroic Leadership: "When people see the world as their home, they can turn a hopeful, interested, and optimistic gaze toward new ideas, cultures, places and opportunities." The Internet has become home to many. Don't many of us literally "live" on the Internet throughout the day as we communicate, collaborate, and solve problems? Lowney goes on to write that this way of being in the world led Jesuits over centuries to embrace ingenuity, not just thinking outside of the box, but also living outside of the box, rather than hiding in an attitude of "we've always done it this way."

Worldwide Conference keynote speakers and topics included: Dr. Peter Stokes of Eduventures -- "Hidden in Plain Sight: Adult Learners Forge a New Tradition in Higher Education;" Fr. Charles Currie, SJ of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (USA) -- "Jesuit Universities and the View of the Future;" Susana DiTrolio of AUSJAL -- "Online Education, University Collaboration, and the Mission of Jesuit Universities - the AUSJAL Experience;" Fr. Michael Schultheis, SJ, recent President of the Catholic University of Ghana -- "Distance Education - What Possibilities for an Outreach to Africa?;" and Fr. Michael Smith, SJ, of the Jesuit Theological College in Australia -- "For the First Time in My Life I Feel Excited - What Online Tertiary Education Means for Refugees on the Thai-Burma Border." Hands-on workshops over three days included faculty development in adult and distance learning pedagogies, open source and online course hosting systems, best practices in developing adult-centered learning environments, crossing the digital divide in developing countries, simulation technology for the classroom and business cultures, building an international distance education catalogue for Jesuit universities, service learning with adult students, and new opportunities with the Jesuit Distance Education Network established in 1998 (

On all continents, adult and distance learning is growing rapidly. One of the conference keynote speakers noted that the traditional 18-22 year old, full-time, undergraduate college campus resident student in the United States represents only 17 percent of total U.S. enrollments - fewer than 3 million of the more than 17 million students enrolled today. Who are the others? In the U.S. higher education population, students 25 years of age or older are rapidly approaching the majority. In calling the conference to the opportunities of distance learning, Dr. Stokes asked: "What does it mean to be a world-class university today?" For an answer, we must look to the fact that online learning is growing at a rate of 20% annually - almost ten times as fast as higher education generally.

Many at the conference voiced their belief that Ignatius would have loved the Internet. The founder of the Jesuits, who wrote over 5000 letters in the latter years of his lifetime, shows an individual passionately interested in staying in touch with the ministries of compassion and learning he spawned. Always interested in community, our Jesuit universities are discovering that community today is being re-defined not by place, as it has been for thousands of years, but by shared interests and values regardless of where people live around the globe. Young people are instant messaging with new friends thousands of miles away, global businesses sell their wares on the Internet well beyond their own national borders, Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, has put the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius on the Worldwide Web and offer spiritual direction with people around the globe. (For more information see -- During Lent 2006, Creighton's web site received more than one million inquirers. This raises many questions about the way we teach, where we teach and to whom we offer our educational resources. Our Jesuit university communities are re-defining themselves through those who want to participate in our common life together, but who will rarely - if ever - set foot on our campuses.

One of the most inspiring calls for adult and distance learning came from faculty at the Australian Catholic University who are using adult and online learning pedagogies to educate refugees along the Thai-Burma border. This program enables young adult men and women to continue their tertiary education, even though their lives have been tragically disrupted by violence in their home villages of Burma. Rising out of this inspirational model, many at the conference will be collaborating in the future to create a group - to be called The Messina Initiative - that will broker the resources of Jesuit universities worldwide with the needs of in-situ Jesuit works of social justice, such as Fey Allegria, Jesuit Refugee Service, and education for the poor and marginalized.

Jesuit universities worldwide speak a common mission, share common values, and have a passion for finding God in all things. The Worldwide Conference in Denver re-confirmed the will to break down the historic physical boundaries between our institutions, and to use adult and distance learning to find new ways to share our resources on behalf of others.

Report written by J Stephen Jacobs, Assistant Provost for Accreditation, Regis University, Denver, Colorado USA