Using the Internet in Religious Instruction
Computers have opened up the brave new world of cyberspace. Cyberspace is the backdrop in which many persons, particularly the young, live and learn by accessing a virtual windfall of indiscriminate data, facts, and images. This world of cyberspace is composed of a complex array of ‘web sites’ and ‘web pages’ that contain vast stores of information on virtually any topic. It offers the benefit of instant communication and access to libraries and encyclopedias of information with simply the press of a few buttons and the click of a mouse. On the other hand, cyberspace poses disturbing challenges. “Most parents are concerned about the easy access children have to pornography on the Internet or other potentially damaging information."1 Moreover, just because information is available on the Internet does not make that information reliable, particularly in cases when a web site claims to be Catholic. In fact, most ‘Catholic’ web sites have no formal affiliation with the Church. Most are sponsored by well-motivated, well-informed individuals and groups acting on their own initiative. ‘Users beware,’ is the operative byword when navigating the realm of religious domains.
Clearly, the Internet offers both amazing opportunities and daunting challenges to those engaged in the vital work of religious education. Nevertheless, “it is important that people at all levels of the Church use the Internet creatively to meet their responsibilities and help fulfill the Church’s mission. Hanging back timidly from fear of technology or for some other reason is not acceptable, in view of the very many positive possibilities of the Internet.”2 In this article, I will explore ways in which the Internet can be integrated into religious instruction; and then offer an overview of instructional techniques utilizing online resources that have proven successful in teaching the faith to Catholic youth.
The first requirement for any successful integration of the Internet in religious instruction is to ‘frame’ or ‘map’ the students’ use of the web toward a specific objective. I have witnessed situations where the idea of incorporating the Internet into a religion lesson plan is simply to unleash students into cyberspace to find information without any direction toward a defined objective. When advanced in this manner, the use of the Internet as an educational tool is rendered completely useless, as more often than not students will navigate to sites unrelated to the subject at hand. Moreover, precious instructional time is wasted. This is especially problematic in school settings that follow a regimented schedule of classes.
Using the Internet as an effective teaching instrument demands that instructors guide students quickly to sites that are certain to include information the student needs to obtain. As such, it is imperative that when students are directed to use of the Internet that their online activity be ‘mapped’ or ‘framed’ by the teacher. To accomplish this, teachers must have identified for themselves a specific purpose for the Internet’s use. This goal should be equivalent to the aim of the day’s lesson. For example, if my purpose is to introduce my students to the New Testament, I may have them navigate to pre-selected web sites that offer a virtual tour of the Holy Land, or a site that offers an overview of the political, socio-economic, and religious climate of that time. One must identify a clear purpose whenever the Internet is utilized in an academic setting. Approaching the web with anything less than a clear objective is to squander time. It will produce nothing but frustration for both teacher and student.
Educators have gained assistance in using the Internet for religious instruction from Catholic textbook publishers who have begun incorporating student web exercises into their textbooks. Some religious textbook publishers will also provide teachers with floppy disks or CD-ROM’s featuring internet-based activities to supplement the course book. One caveat to the instructor: be certain to screen all links on any web site before directing your students to the use of that site. If the web site is hosted on a free-server (whereby the web page author pays no fee for renting web space) you can be certain to encounter annoying and at times, morally offensive pop-up advertisements. This is how the site host recoups the cost of providing free web space to users. If your school has an Internet filter, any questionable or offensive material should be blocked. However, also be aware that no filter is foolproof. Err on the side of caution and screen thoroughly any web site before assigning it for use by your students.
Two techniques, which enjoy popularity among educators in ‘framing’ or ‘mapping’ the student experience of the Internet, is the scavenger hunt and the webquest. Individual students complete scavenger hunts, although it is possible to design the scavenger hunt as a cooperative group activity. Scavenger hunts are used by teachers to teach academic concepts and to teach navigation skills to students. The customary form of the scavenger hunt involves the teacher developing a series of questions and giving the student a hypertext link to the URL that will answer the question. For example, using the online Catholic Encyclopedia at the New Advent Super Site (newadvent.org), I have my students research why certain saints have been designated as the patron of specific places or whose saintly intercession is to be enjoined for particular intentions. Using Trackstar (trackstar.hprtec.org), an interface that helps instructors organize and annotate web sites, my students will navigate to the linked page in the Catholic Encyclopedia and answer my specific questions relative to that page. Such exercises not only instruct the student where to obtain reliable Catholic information on the Internet, but also serve to teach students how to retrieve and collate that information obtained from online sources. The synthesizing and analysis of information which will follow is developed further in another web-based teaching model, that of the webquest. However, before we consider the webquest, allow me to strike another cautionary note: one should be aware that web sites and web pages come and go on the Internet with dizzying frequency. I am unaware of any official assessment concerning the life-span of a web page, but from my own observation, one or two years appear to be the average life of a web site, especially among web pages which are hosted on ‘free-servers’. Nothing can be more frustrating to a teacher than taking a considerable amount of time to design a webquest or scavenger hunt only to discover that the pages or sites to which one’s exercise links, have vanished into cyberspace. When designing any online activity, it is best to utilize only those web sites with proven stability and dedicated domain addresses. However, another caution arises with the latter: some webmasters (those who author a web site or page) will allow their religious domain name to expire. Occasionally the domain name is co-opted by pornographers who will use the web address to direct the unsuspecting user to morally offensive material. Again, instructors should screen all web sites in advance of directing students to their use.
As mentioned above, the second method for mapping student use of the Internet is the webquest. Bernie Dodge developed this model in early 1995 at San Diego State University. Webquests are inquiry-oriented activities, ideal for cooperative learning, in which most or all of the information used by learners is drawn from the web. Webquests are designed to focus on using information rather than looking for it, and to support learners’ analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of the information. It has become an important technique for developing critical thinking skills in the learner. Webquests follow a specific format: an introduction, which describes the quest to the student. This can be very straightforward, or one can assign roles or a scenario for students to explore (for example, “You are the Postulator of the cause of a candidate for sainthood…”). The second step is to specify the task that will lead the student to process any information they gather (for example, “your task is to research the process by which a candidate for canonization is raised to the altar for the veneration of the faithful”). The third step is the process itself that students will use to accomplish the assigned task. Here you are specifying ways for students to organize the information they will be gathering (for example, “each team will prepare a twenty-slide Power Point of their respective findings on the process of canonization for presentation to the class”). The fourth step of the webquest model is to provide resources. Here the instructor directs students to the pre-selected web sites the students need to use to complete the task. You may wish to give the students a list of web sites to be used, or annotate each web site; enumerating for the student what information they are to retrieve from each web site or page. It is here that the instructor must exercise particular vigilance. Choose only those sites that contain doctrinally sound material and that do not contain links to other questionable resources (more about this aspect later). The fifth element of a webquest is the evaluation or rubric by which student performance or the final student product is to be evaluated by the instructor. Rubistar (rubistar.4teachers.org) provides teachers with templates to develop their own rubrics. Rubrics are an invaluable tool for making teacher expectations clear and showing students how to meet these expectations. The effect of a finely composed rubric is a marked increase in the quality of student work and in learning: students know exactly what is required of them by the teacher. Rubrics also protect the integrity of an instructor’s grading scale, as both student and parent understand the criteria for why a particular grade was achieved. The final component of a webquest is the conclusion. Here the instructor may wish to reiterate the primary objective for the students’ involvement in the webquest activity (for example, “your research of the topic of ‘saint-making’ has enabled you to understand the process by which a man or a woman is raised to the altar for veneration by the faithful. You now appreciate that for Catholics, a saint is not simply one offered as a pattern of a virtuous life, but is also one, who, by prayer, is in vital contact with all the members of the Church”).
A final but most important consideration for religious educators in integrating the web into religious instruction, and one to which we have already alluded, is the importance for teachers to choose web sites which advance the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church, not undermine it. My own entrance into cyberspace began five years ago. I began to notice that an increasing number of the theology research papers and reports submitted by my students were littered with references as to either why the teachings of the Church were wrong; or how those teachings were assigned to oblivion by the Second Vatican Council. Because I know that Vatican II had done nothing of the sort, I was curious as to the source of the students’ information. An overview of their works cited provided the answer: all of their ‘facts’ came from web sites with a purported Catholic affiliation but which were, in fact, either anti-Catholic or “We Are the Church” garden variety types. This experience motivated me to enter into Internet development as a web author by designing a web site that would offer my students a safe (read ‘orthodox’), Catholic environment in which to do their theological research. Hence, Internet Padre (Internetpadre.com) was born. The almost 4500 links to articles and web pages contained in the Internet Padre database have been screened for their representation of authentic Catholic teaching. Having one’s own web site or teacher page provides the added advantage of shaping the Internet experience for students, tailoring the configuration of the web experience to one’s personal style of teaching and the instructional needs of the students. The design of any teacher’s web page should factor-in that teacher’s preferred teaching strategies and approaches to the material. Web site design should also consider how the instructor might wish to present their instruction (online notes, charts, Power Points), as well as any new approaches the instructor foresees to try in the online environment.3
Among recommended online resources for religious instruction, a few deserve special mentioning: Peter’s Net (PetersNet.net) offers an unofficial evaluation of the Catholicity of web sites as well as providing a technical rating of the web site for its ‘user-friendly’ nature. If the reviewers at Peter’s Net green light a site as Catholic, it usually is. Peter’s Net is also the publisher of important church documents issued by the Holy See. The New Advent Super Site (newadvent.org) is notable for its hosting of the online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia.
The Eternal Word Network (ewtn.com) and the Catholic Educator’s Resource Center (catholiceducation.org) are both indispensable sources of articles and resources that elucidate all aspects of the church’s teaching. Catholic Answers (catholic.com) is a premier apologetics site. It offers downloadable tracts that explain the why of the Catholic Church’s Profession of Faith as well as articulating effective counter-arguments to rejoin the often vituperative attacks of the Church’s critics. Finally, Catechetical Resources (catecheticalresources.com) makes available to catechists and religious educators a constellation of high quality worksheets, activities, and tracts – all for free of charge.
Pope John Paul II has reminded those involved in the task of evangelization that the goal of Catholic education is “to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.”4 Today we are fortunate to live in a time where we have at our disposal many instruments of communication for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Internet is only one such instrument for teaching the faith. In this article, I have outlined only a few basic strategies for using the Internet in religious classroom instruction. The full potential for the uses of the Internet in the work of catechesis has yet to be achieved, it’s potential circumscribed only by the ingenuity of religious educators and catechists.
1. USCCB, Your Family and Cyberspace (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2000), 3.
2. Pontifical Council for Social Communications (Vatican: February 28, 2002), no. 10.
3. My actual teacher site is Learning the Faith: Catholic High School Theology Online (learningthefaith.com). It is designed to interface with the database of theology articles at Internet Padre.
4. John Paul II, On Catechesis in Our Time (Catechesi Tradendae), (Washington D.C.: USCCB, 1979), no. 5.
Fr. Vierling is an instructor in Theology at Lansdale Catholic High School (Archdiocese of Philadelphia) and is Webmaster of Internet Padre and Learning the Faith: Catholic High School Theology Online.
Copyright © 2003: Internet Padre Resources. All Rights Reserved.
This item 4715 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org