ICT and religious education
Carolyn Reade with revisions by Sharon Artley
Of all subjects explored in this RE CPD handbook, because of the rapid nature of change and development in digital media and technology, this section is likely to date far sooner than all the others. In addition, since the writing of this article, both QCDA and Becta (the government agency which led the national drive to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning), have ceased to operate.
That said, much of the advice these agencies gave is still relevant.
A pupil's entitlement to ICT
QCDA pointed out that ICT capability is fundamental to participation and engagement in modern society and few would dispute that pupils and their teachers need to develop their skills and understanding to keep apace with developments. ICT is transforming the working life and environment of the vast majority of schools. The new curricula for both primary and secondary reinforce the expectation that pupils have an entitlement to opportunities to develop and apply their ICT capability throughout their learning.
Becta, provided general, (eg e-safety or copyright issues) and subject-specific ICT guidance for all schools and teachers. For RE two key documents were published in 2009:
These outline ICT’s beneficial contribution to quality RE, providing case studies and practical examples to show how ICT supports, enhances and develops learning and teaching in the subject.
When and when not to use ICT
Although the entitlement documents have no doubt that ICT offers a range of powerful tools to help pupils to learn and to achieve high standards in RE, a word of warning is necessary as the road to the successful integration of ICT in RE has not been easy for many teachers. Both Ofsted and QCDA have observed that ICT has been a major issue and weakness in the subject, with inappropriate use of ICT identified as the most frequent weakness. There are three simple principles by which teachers can judge whether theirs will be a weak or strong use of ICT. The questions to ask are:
- Will ICT enable the learning objectives of the lesson to be met more effectively? (ie better than if other sources/approaches were used)
- Will ICT enable the learning objectives of the lesson to be met more efficiently? (ie make better use of pupils’ RE time)
- Will the ICT add value to the lesson, eg by enabling the pupils to do or experience something of value in relation to the learning objectives, which would otherwise not be possible?
The key message here is that a strong use of ICT depends on it offering the best means of achieving a particular RE objective. Direct relevance to the lesson objective is essential, but not sufficient:
- the ICT source must be well selected and “up to the job"
- the tasks set must be worthwhile and designed to make the most of the stimulus
- the pupils must be capable of the required RE and ICT skills.
These would seem obvious but all teachers will be familiar with scenarios in which the ICT has been completely irrelevant to the learning, great activities have been neutralised by inscrutable sources, or fantastic ICT resources have been squandered by low level and pointless tasks.
Research has shown that the teachers who use ICT most successfully are those who already establish clear learning objectives for lessons and have a well-honed sense of ‘fitness for purpose’ when using resources or setting tasks. A general instinct for what makes good subject teaching seems to be essential for good use of ICT in that subject. This also results in a double benefit as pupils’ ICT capability is directly linked to opportunities to apply what they have learnt about ICT in good uses of ICT in other subjects.
For further guidance on planning and effective task setting using ICT see REonline Better RE. Teachers also need to be sensitive to their own use of ICT in the classroom. Interactive whiteboards, for example can all too easily foster a default position of ‘display and explain’ and teacher-centred learning. A document on the using interactive whiteboards in RE was published in 2004. Since that time, the increase of technology in classrooms including such hardware as the iPod Touch, iPads and other tablets, the development (and explosion) of Web 2.0 tools means that it is now possible for far more pupils to be involved in ICT related RE activities than one learner performing an activity at the interactive whiteboard whilst the rest of the class observe. That said, when used effectively, the interactive whiteboard may provide opportunities for high quality RE learning experiences. See Embedding ICT @ secondary – use of Interactive Whiteboards in RE.pdf (2004) There are also various whiteboard resources on the CLEO (Cumbria and Lancashire Education Online) website .
Why is ICT a powerful tool for RE?
It is the unique characteristics of ICT which make it a powerful tool, but like all powerful tools, misuse can be disastrous. In practical terms of learning this might include mindless copying and pasting, “surfing” for information, often combined with unsuitable websites, experimentation and concentration on decorative features, often resulting in an unjustifiable use of pupils’ RE time, low level tasks or outcomes or the teacher's own use of PowerPoint, creating a climate of passive learning, watching and listening. The characteristics of ICT which are most relevant to RE are:
- speed and automation enabling tasks to be carried out more quickly and easily (examples might include locating biblical passages or Muslim prayer times). Listening to children and young people talking is a searchable database of material on children’s different religious and non religious perspectives.
- capacity to provide access to local, national and global resources not usually available in the classroom, including images, sounds or clips (multi-modality) (examples might include virtual tours, web cams. BBC’s learning zone classic clips or local information) currently contains 149 primary and 288 secondary clips for use in the classroom. Use a resource such as Google Earth to take a virtual tour of a place which could not be visited by the class e.g. Makkah, or Google Streetmap to prepare for a visit by looking at the environs or outside of the place of worship or sacred space to be visited or 'signs of religion or community to look out for on the way'. Many sources exhibit great versatility enabling flexible, non-linear routes through their material. Examples include Educhurch or Britkid.
- interactivity and communicability which enable pupils to interact with sources or people in a way not possible with books or videos (eg British Hindu temple, Golden Temple, Amritsar, interactive whiteboard games, Email a believer or CBBC’s message boards, Listening to children and young people talking database. It is also possible through video conferencing or tools such as Skype for the classroom to bring together diverse populations of learners to explore different views on a particular issue or to work on a joint project.
- provisionality enabling pupils to be creative in how they explore, express and present their work. Examples could be visible on a school's RE website or blog through use of digital cameras or videos, or using a smartphone to record an interview or an instant radio broadcast for example using a web tool such as ipadio or QR (Quick Response - similar to bar codes which can store information digitally) codes could be used to provide an RE learning trail. Although the illustrative examples here are web-based to aid access and availability, there is a range of RE-specific CD Roms and other commercial ICT sources for networks and whiteboards, providing comparable resources and activities, (except communication). For a searchable listing and some reviews see REonline’s multimedia database
A powerful tool for professional support
Recent research into the resources used in RE lessons reveals that many teachers create their own classroom materials and activities using an eclectic selection of religious, educational and general resources.
In 2010, Becta produced a support document: The 21st century teacher: religious education - using information technology to enhance religious education teaching.pdf
An important self evaluation questionnaire (page 8) invites teachers of RE to consider and review how they use and develop their range of professional teaching skills with information technology in a range from 'regularly' to 'not at all':
- Do you use technology to access information to enhance your personal knowledge of religious and belief communities and understanding of professional issues around the subject including the use of ICT to enhance teaching and learning in RE?
- Do you use technology to access information and concepts using the authentic voices of religious and belief communities?
- Do you support your learners to record and share audio and video to aid understanding of religious and belief communities and provide feedback, including peer assessment, e.g. podcasts?
- Do you encourage learners to be critical readers and evaluators of texts and ensure that they recognise bias and issues of accuracy?
- Do you use technology to enable collaboration between learners and with partner schools and their learners?
- Do you extend learning by providing RE activities and resources on the learning platform or website?
- Do you audit the range of resources, software and hardware used in the teaching of RE and identify any gaps in provision?
For sources of inspiration and free materials, visit the Celebrating RE website where there are a whole range of ideas for all ages and abilities, including a specific resource on using social media.
For general communication and professional support with other teachers of RE, the TES Community Forum for RE might be a good place to initiate a query or browse previous conversations The TES also now houses the Teachers' TV videos:
For generally updating professional interests in RE and keeping up to date with RE developments and resources, key websites include:
- Religious Education Council of England and Wales
- National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE)
- RE Today Services
- Shap working party on world religions
- local authority or diocesan websites and for many more helpful sources of support - see the RE Directory.
Social media, for example, various Facebook pages and Twitter feeds also provide up to the minute information about happenings in the world of RE or about religious issues and use of such media can mean that the dissemination of important or useful information can happen very quickly.
Using the web to enhance pupils’ understanding of religion
The web presents a wide range of issues related to information overload, incoherence and inaccuracy, authority and representation, not to mention accessibility or the mismatch between depth of content, literacy levels and the intended audience. The use of children’s general search engines may do little to help steer pupils in the right direction, as a quick search for ‘Jesus’ using Ask Kids or Yahoo Kids amply demonstrates. Even educational websites can return some puzzling listings when it comes to RE. Instead, teachers and pupils should familiarise themselves with REonline’s well-established RE-specific search engine http://www.reonline.org.uk/ which links to websites pre-selected for their suitability for RE in the UK.
Even so, it is essential that both teachers and pupils become skilled evaluators of any web resource, howsoever found. Increasingly important concepts are provenance and intention, so that the origins, backgrounds, biases and purpose(s) of various websites are recognised and used to help make informed decisions about their accuracy and appropriateness for RE.
The concepts of provenance and intention are not unfamiliar in RE, even though more commonly associated with sources in history or English, however the importance of being able to distinguish sources designed to educate, nurture within a faith or proselytise, sometimes all within the same website, has been highlighted by recent research .
This is certainly not to say that only ‘educational’ websites are desirable – the whole point of the web is that it can bring actual, real-life, unmediated living religion into even the most remote RE classroom and it is this authenticity which is particularly valued – including the new questions this brings to RE about representation, plurality, diversity and authority. Questions to think about include:
Authenticity / Credibility
- Where does the site originate from? Is the author (individual or group) identified? How is this significant?
- What is the intention, purpose and bias of the site? Is this obvious or stated?
- What is the academic credibility of the site? Does it attribute sources or cite evidence?
- Is the site acceptable in terms of gender, creed, race, sexuality, age, values?
- Is this site suitable for your purpose (lesson aims, objectives, outcomes)?
- How is this site better than another resource? What range of content does the site offer?
- Which (age) group is it suitable for? Is the readability suitable for the age group that the material is aimed at?
- Is the content of the website accurate (how do you know?). Is the content up-to-date? Does this matter?
- Is the structure of the site easy to navigate and its contents easy to find? Is it attractive with a good balance of text, space, images, multi-media?
- Does the site have a search engine - how useful is it?
- Does the site direct you to other sites - is it obvious when this has happened?
- Does the resource require you to download / install any software / plug-ins? If so, is this easy?
RE, Communication and Community Cohesion
Although real encounters with people from different religious and non religious backgrounds and visits to places of religious significance are preferable, one of ICT’s real strengths is its capacity to bring pupils into contact with people from different faiths and backgrounds in the UK or beyond. In addition to the Listening to children and young people talking database which presents a fantastic means of accessing a wide variety of young people’s religious and non religious perspectives and lends itself to a range of activities to develop skills in investigation, analysis, reflection and expression, there are now many other similar resources available. One such is TrueTube a site for 15-19 year-olds containing hundreds of high quality short films on social, moral and ethical issues, made by young people.
Even better than database searching or watching a video, would be to take part in conversations and projects with pupils from different backgrounds. The Schools Linking Network provides the vehicle, case studies and guidance to support this, including a project for linking faith schools. Local authorities or organisations may also provide examples of regional support and examples of international projects can be found at British Council Schools Online (formerly Global Gateway). Links between schools or groups of pupils could easily be forged with the purpose of supporting particular aims in RE, rather than opening general lines of friendship.
Essential reading for developing ICT for dialogue is Ipgrave’s Building e-bridges: inter-faith dialogue by e-mail (2003), and for something more meaty try McKenna, U. Ipgrave, J. & Jackson, R. (2008) Interfaith Dialogue by Email in Primary Schools: An Evaluation of the Building E-Bridges Project Münster: Waxmann. Many of the guidance sites or documents mentioned above also contain case study examples of ICT being used to promote communication and community cohesion.
Current developments in web technology are continuing to open up a plethora of new opportunities for communication and collaboration and it is developments in this department which might generate the most powerful tool for RE of them all.