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Taking the soft option

The benefits of information technology in religious education remain a mystery to most. Jon Judson looks at a range of software that can be used to develop understanding and reflection

While some religious education departments have been demonstrating for many years that it is possible to use information technology to realise the goals established in the agreed syllabuses, statistical evidence from the Department for Education demonstrates that only classics, sociology and physical education departments are likely to have poorer access to microcomputers. There is an overwhelming case for additional resources, and my aim here is to reflect on opportunities that already exist in the hope that others will be encouraged to implement them.

The major software houses have so far failed to acknowledge a market for the subject, but there are specialist programs available and these can be used in three main fields: retrieving key information and promoting understanding; developing critical thinking and reflection; and encouraging empathy.

Retrieving key information and promoting understanding

A computer can provide opportunities for research. With minimal information technology experience, teachers and pupils can be equipped with a resource that is more versatile, stimulating and time-saving than traditional methods of discovering information. The Lion Pc Bible Handbook with accompanying packages such as The IVP New Bible Atlas and The Lion PC History of Christianity can provide a good source of reference material. Though its depth will appeal most to key stage 4 and older students, certain sections can be adapted for use with younger students. For example, Year 8 pupils might use the time-charts to re-arrange Biblical characters into their appropriate places and increase their understanding of historical contexts.

Files on religious beliefs and cathedrals are available in Frontier 2000. This outstanding interactive package provides a wide range of source materials and its activities are likely to captivate key stage 2 and early key stage 3 pupils. The "Professor" encourages them to investigate a variety of sites in the Carlisle area, finding clues that will answer his questions. If possible, buy the CD-Rom version to gain the full impact of animation.

For quick reference material on places of worship or saints, Culham College is producing two files in the Hypercards series. Dates, events, symbols etc on places of worship and saints are easily accessible.

Video stills, photographs, computer graphics and animation ensure that younger pupils will enjoy A Journey With Christianity. Thoroughly researched, this material uses a church visit to promote understanding of worship, symbolism, and religious language. Aspects of Religion is a colourful database of information about eight world religions. A database is particularly useful in accessing information in a variety of ways and in this instance pupils can view religions through the themes of books, worship, artefacts, buildings, rites of passage, etc. Such versatility more than justifies the relatively high cost. This is a vital addition for RE software banks.

pclQ also provides visually attractive techniques as an aid to learning about key events and customs in Islam, developing a geographical understanding of the Muslim world and learning more about the Qur'an.

Critical thinking and reflection

Pupils respond well to programs which provide "open-ended" tasks that promote critical thinking and reflection. For this reason I would still use Arrangements for Worship, a program designed for BBC hardware several years ago. The user selects from a range of possible plans for a church building and places key features such as the pulpit and lectern in place before receiving a comment from the program. Rather than expecting conformity to pre-conceived ideas, it invites pupils to reflect on the implications of their decisions and is the starting point for other work. Where a traditional lay-out has been chosen, the user is challenged about their reasons for emphasising the altar, pulpit etc; those with less formal plans will be asked about the atmosphere they are aiming to promote. The final decision, however, is left to the user.

At it's best, IT work can stimulate the skills in critical thinking. Such skills are implemented in The Life of the Buddha, produced by The University of Wales, St David's College, Lampeter. Far from being merely a narrative account, the beautifully illustrated and well-written text invites key stage 2 and key stage 3 pupils to consider fundamental human issues such as the problem of suffering and old age. With additional attention given to cross-curricular links, this program fully reflects the fact that it has been planned to satisfy a wide range of RE skills identified in agreed and model syllabuses.

Encouraging empathy

Many young people are drawn to programs that simulate situations. Though the games market often overuses fantasy, the same techniques can be used for more educational purposes. Religious education (and history) needs to translate young people's capacity for role play into learning experiences that encourage empathy and tolerance of others. This is the area for greatest potential development.

In Conflict in Jerusalem, key stage 3 pupils may gain some understanding of different viewpoints on the last days of Jesus's life by taking the parts of a Roman soldier, a Pharisee, a Sadducee, etc. However, many educationists will be concerned that their characters have been conditioned to reflect Gospel perceptions of such people. RE needs programs that will allow the user to gain insights into viewpoints that can be respected by people from within the tradition being portrayed. It is by this standard that colleagues might judge Jesus as His Contemporaries Saw Him, in which Michael and Denize Morris present events from a Jewish perspective.

If we are to encourage genuine insights, free from stereotyping, we should expect these roles to adopt the positions of individuals from religious traditions rather than an imaginary character who purports to represent "whole religions". They could be based on the actual beliefs of real people with the user left to draw suitable comparisons where necessary.

In the absence of suitable specialist software, some departments have moved progressively towards the use of other programs. Non-specialist data-bases, graph-drawing programs and desk-top publishing packages (which allow specialist pictures to be imported into word-processors) etc, are already available in most schools and they can all be valuable to RE. In a well-managed school such software has the singular advantage of minimising the amount of precious RE lesson time needed because we should be reinforcing and extending the use of programs encountered elsewhere.

Such software can support RE goals by:

o Retrieving information. As mentioned above, the very structure of database allows the user to access information in different ways, thereby allowing for different approaches to topics in different departments or by different individuals. In the form of CD-Roms, their size can provide the information stored in vast numbers of books, newspaper articles etc; unlike textbooks, they can be constantly up-dated, providing relevant and current source material at a relatively cheap cost. For example, school libraries and open-learning centres are usually equipped with facilities such as the Daily Telegraph on CD-Rom. In RE pupils might use it to investigate the latest statement from the Muslim world on population control, or what the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks about abortion. Such factual information is a vital ingredient in GCSE coursework. Older pupils could use such a facility in examining the portrayal of different faiths in the media and the issue of stereotyping.

o Empathising. Writing "newspaper reports" from different stances is a time-honoured way of encouraging pupils to empathise with particular views. How frustrating it is, however, when pupil time is diverted by the presentational skills. Programs such as Front Page Extra not only ensure neat work, but maximise the time devoted to content. Far from IT depriving us of time, here is an excellent example of where it allows pupils to do what is most important. Rather than looking for stencils, struggling to write uniformly in columns etc, pupils have time to produce two reports looking at the same event from different perspectives (the Hebrew and Egyptian perspectives on the Passover story, for example).

o Producing resources. A variety of "ClipArt" pictures (colour or black and white) can be bought ready to be imported into documents. Particularly useful are those supplied by Image Discs and Minaret House. Enthusiasts with CD-Rom facilities may wish to explore the comprehensive selection of Bible-based images available in Bible Picture Library, though my preference would be for clearer and simpler examples. More competent IT users "scan" illustrations from books, old worksheets etc. All may be used to produce attractive worksheets that may replace the need for expensive textbooks.

o Assessing understanding. More imaginatively, those same pictures are used to assess pupils' levels of understanding. A disc with half a dozen well-chosen examples reminds pupils of significant aspects of a topic recently covered: once imported into a DTP package such as Style or Windows the user describes the relationship between the illustration and the topic.

Such an open-ended form of assessment allows for differentiation in line with pupils' abilities and experiences.

o Processing information. Though RE should reinforce skills learned in other aspects of the curriculum, these should not dominate the time available nor detract from assessment of RE skills. For example, in submitting the results of surveys as evidence of attitudes or to present statistical information, graphs must be mathematically accurate without taking too long to produce.

Programs such as Data Sweet are relatively straightforward to use, providing clear results without the need for calculations. Many pupils get greater motivation using word-processors instead of handwriting and type-written work can reduce the distractions of poor presentational skills which still affect some RE assessment. It is worth noting that GCSE examining boards still permit the use of spell-check facilities despite the introduction of assessment in spelling, punctuation and grammar.

o Special needs. Some schools acquire "banks" of simple portable machines such as Tandy WP3 word-processors. These help with presentational skills, check and correct spelling, and offer a synonym facility for language extension - something I used recently in conjunction with a few slides from Zeferelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Pupils using very basic language to describe the reactions of parable characters were thrilled by the new vocabulary that enabled them to communicate their ideas with greater precision.

Clicker (available in the form of Switch Clicker for those with physical impairments) is another invaluable tool for those who struggle to communicate effectively. Replacing most needs for concept keyboards, it is used to place difficult spellings or technical terms into word-processing packages. Departments can design their own files with ease, and a "sound" option is available.

Future development of software for RE must reflect the opportunities created through CD-Rom. Utilising their superior memory-capacity, such facilities will both provide high-quality visual and audio techniques. CD-Rom also enables interactive learning in which the program responds to the user. Already the teaching of linguistic and mathematical skills employs these methods; religious education must claim its role.

Beyond this we must prepare in the near future for an explosion of relevant information accessed through networks in which the floppy disc becomes redundant. Those departments who already benefit from Q Source, a disc of regularly updated resources for RE, will appreciate the potential advantages of making such facilities available on networks that can make daily changes. Just as Teletext is now a normal feature within many homes, networks will provide invaluable resources at work (page 747 of Ceefax is now dedicated to RE information).

Electrical showrooms already display CD-i (Compact Disc Interactive) players, confident that homes will be unable to resist the superb quality offered via the television. Whether people will respond to the educational and entertainment opportunities it offers remains to be seen. In the meantime, those who have bought Eggshells and Thunderbolts, an outstanding resource for all RE teachers which includes a CD-i disc, will appreciate the extent to which this feature surpasses all others in its technical quality. CD-i is as simple to use as a video; ultimately the world of information technology will become open to even the most fearful.

Jon Judson is head of humanities at Light Hall School, Shirley, Solihull. Currently he is a Farmington Fellow in RE in the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of Warwick

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