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Disc drive to salvation

Gerald Haigh looks at a striking array of religious education resources.

Some teachers think that religious education and computers do not mix very well. Others "revere computers rather like the early church revered fragments of the true cross as a way to salvation," according to Michael Morris the ordained Christian minister who runs the University of Wales Computers and RE Project at Lampeter, Unsurprisingly, Michael Morris cleaves to a more middling way, although there is undoubtedly a philosophical underpinning to his work. Influenced by the ideas of Seymour Papert, he believes that if you allow children to explore the range of routes and choices offered by the right kind of software, then you are giving them time and space for reflection and development.

"If you want children to internalise their learning you take them into what Papert called a 'growing place' or 'micro-world'", he says. Importantly, too, he sees the Lampeter work as an opportunity to give children alternatives to the standard video game: "I saw an arcade game recently where the aim was to kill everything and everybody as a reflex action. We can stand against that violent and competitive general trend."

He is also very concerned that the computer should support RE, and that the RE lesson should not be just another occasion for developing information technology skills. "I'm fiercely defensive of the already limited time available for RE in school. So IT must be able to bring something worthwhile that could not easily be done in other ways for example visiting a number of places of worship." (The ideal, of course, as he acknowledges, is to actually visit the places. Time and other practicalities, though, are often against this: "I'm not saying the computer is the best way, but it's a good second best. After all, for me the Gospels are a pretty good second best to Jesus!") At Lampeter, the team has developed, over four years, a group of CD-Rom programs and supportive in-service courses for RE teachers. Two CD-Roms are available: A Journey With Christianity, for early secondary, and Christian Celebrations: Advent and Christmas, for older primary and early secondary.

A Journey with Christianity introduces pupils to animated animals a bat and a church mouse who lead a search through different kinds of Christian church buildings. The parables of Jesus are cleverly worked in as arcade-type games and there are lots of open-ended questions and tasks. The presentation of the parables is particularly well done: the graphics which illustrate the story of the wheat and the tares, for example, demonstrate its meaning clearly and concisely.

The Advent and Christmas CD explores the beliefs and practices of six major Christian denominations Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Salvation Army and Quakers. The task is to journey through the four weeks of Advent, visiting the denominations and meeting people who lead them, and building up an Advent Ring of four red candles and a white one.

Each CD is rich with photographs, sounds and text, and with the opportunity to make notes which can be saved and printed as part of a larger project. Neither of them calls for great IT expertise. Any pupil who can point and click with a mouse will be working happily away in no time. The amount of sheer information available is awesome, and yet it is mediated and presented in a way which will draw in young learners and challenge them to make their own sense of what is on offer. Further CD-Rom projects on, respectively, Judaism, Islam, the life of Buddha and religious artefacts will be published as the year goes on. Supporting all of this and Michael Morris is careful to insist that "this is not just a software project" is a series of in-service courses for teachers at Lampeter, and possibly at other locations.

A similar philosophy to that of Michael Morris is clearly in evidence at Lion Publishing, which has, for over 20 years, been producing books on Christianity and related subjects, and now offers some interesting RE computer software on floppy disc.

Conflict in Jerusalem, for example, is a simulation for secondary pupils. It puts the student in Jerusalem, in the last phase of the life of Jesus, and allows him or her to choose among 120 locations, meeting up to 10 significant characters a priest, for example, or a tax collector, and having a "conversation" in which the chosen character will comment on events as they affect him. The priest, for instance, will start from the assumption that Jesus is a threat who must be removed.

Other routines offers explanations; of the Passover, or the way that crucifixion was generally used for example. The other simulation is Risen!, for key stage 2. This tells the Easter Story in 12 episodes. There are five characters as guides, and the instructions and questions are child-friendly: "OK Clever Clogs, now go and get a paper and pencil and draw a palm tree. "

Pupils who are galloping ahead can take part in "Adventure Quiz". Both of these simulations are founded in the New Testament accounts and cover significant areas of the life and teaching of Jesus in a very accessible and friendly way. The software is imaginative, with lots of choices to make and open-ended questions to answer, and the graphics are excellent. It also, incidentally, demonstrates that in the right hands the floppy disc can encroach quite a long way into CD-Rom territory.

Also from Lion comes the PC Bible Handbook. Although this was produced originally and primarily for private study, it is not difficult to think of ways in which a school could use it. It has a number of separate translations of the Bible, together with commentaries, a concordance, maps, and photographs of places and artefacts.

Not only will it solve forever the old problem of finding the reference that you only half remember, it will go on to provide you with all the background information you are ever likely to need. Additional Bible texts and study units are available at extra cost.

Given the efforts being made by Lampeter and publishers like Lion to produce quality IT resources for the RE teacher, it seems all the more unfortunate that the IT support materials currently produced by SCAA for the curriculum do not include anything on RE. By contrast, the Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales (ACAC) has booklets on RE and information technology. These are going automatically to Welsh schools and are available to other schools on order.

From the Lampeter Project.

A Journey With Christianity CD-Rom for Acorn computers (Pounds 50 including postage). Christian Celebrations: Advent and Christmas CD-Rom for Research Machines and IBM and compatible PCs (same price). Both discs will be dual-format by September. English and Welsh versions on the same CD. Prices do not include VAT.

Details, and information about software and In-service sessions, from Computers and RE Project, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Wales, Lampeter, Dyfed. SA48 7ED From Lion Publishing.

Conflict in Jerusalem, (single user price Pounds 35; network licence for schools Pounds 15). Risen! (Pounds 35 including site licence). The Lion PC Bible Handbook (Pounds 79, additional network licence Pounds 25).Additional Bible texts (including the NewJerusalem Bible) and study modules coveringthe history of Christianity, world religions andother subjects, all cost in the region of Pounds 20-Pounds 30 each. All Lion prices include VAT. All software is for PC (minimum specification 386 processor and Windows 3.1). A video is available, on inspection copy basis, which gives a short guided tour to each of the products.

Lion Publishing, Peter's Way, Sandy Lane West, Oxford. OX4 5HG The ACAC pamphlets one for key stages 1 and 2 is free. The one for KS3 is part of a pack covering the other subjects which costs Pounds 2. (Postage 50p) ACAC, Castle Buildings, Womanby Road,Cardiff. CF1 9SX

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