Mormons formally launch worldwide online college program

By: 
AP
Staff Writer

In a nod to its increasingly global membership, the Mormon church said Monday it will bolster the organizational structure and appoint a leader for a worldwide online higher education program that has expanded to 50 countries since it started eight years ago at a church university in Idaho.
High-ranking church leader Dieter Uchtdorf announced the formal launch of BYU-Pathway Worldwide during a news conference in Salt Lake City at headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He said Clark Gilbert will transition from his current role as president at Brigham Young University-Idaho to oversee the program.
The courses, all in English, combine academic and religious education and are designed to give church members low-cost opportunities to earn higher education degrees, whether they live in the U.S. or in other countries, said Uchtdorf, a member the religion's highest governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The certificate programs offered will be tailored to meet the economic needs of each country, with many focusing on business, health care and information technology, said Kim B. Clark, the religion's education commissioner. They stack on top of each other to allow students to earn higher degrees in incremental steps.
The program is another educational layer for a religion that already has BYU in Provo, Utah; BYU-Hawaii in Laie on the island of Oahu; and BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho.
"This will bless the entire church," Gilbert said. "You will not have to come to Rexburg or Provo to Laie or Salt Lake to access a spiritual education."
More than half of the religion's 15.6 million members live in countries outside the United States. Membership growth is driven by a missionary force of young men and women who proselytize around the world.
About 57,000 students have participated in the church's higher education program since it launched in 2009. It has grown from three pilot sites to about 500.
Program rates will be adjusted for each country's economy. For example, it costs $69 per credit hour in the U.S. In Ghana, it will cost $10 per credit hour.
Students are put in groups and supplement their online studies by meeting together in their cities for religious education and other activities.
Other brick-and-mortar religious colleges, such as Oral Roberts University, offer online courses in different parts of the world, said Rick Ostrander, vice president for academic affairs for the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. But Ostrander isn't aware of any religion offering such an organized and wide-reaching program like the Mormons. His organization represents 180 schools worldwide.
Ostrander said the Mormon plan to combine online courses with in-person meetings among students is intriguing and offers great potential to provide the sense of community that online colleges are lacking.
The decision to keep courses only in English was made because learning the language has "enormous value" around the world, Clark said. But he acknowledged that the decision limits the number of people who can participate in non-English speaking countries.
He said usually only about two in 10 people who come to open houses for new sites around the world know enough English to start the program. The church is ramping up its efforts to teach those people English so they can get in the program, Clark said.
The program will help fill a gap of higher education opportunities for Mormons outside the U.S, said Matt Martinich, an independent LDS researcher and project manager of The Cumorah Foundation. Having courses in English only will limit the reach, but Martinich isn't surprised. He doesn't' think the religion has the resources and capacity yet around the globe to offer degree programs in multiple languages.
"The church is still very much an English-speaking, Western Hemisphere church," Martinich said.
Students are put in groups and supplement their online studies by meeting together in their cities for religious education and other activities.
The courses will be offered to non-church members, though they must understand the heavy religious component of the courses, Clark said.
As students get deeper into the program beyond the first year, they will need a recommendation from a local church leader and be asked to follow the religion's college honor code that prohibits drinking alcohol, coffee and tea and bans premarital sex.

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