How Will Digital Publishing Impact Catholic Religious Education?

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about how digital publishing will impact religious education in the coming years. As of this week I start a new position within Ave Maria Press in which I will focus exclusively on our digital publishing efforts in both the catechetical and general Catholic publishing areas. As you might imagine this includes e-books and e-textbooks, but also publishing in websites, blogs, social E-readersmedia, mobile devices, and whatever new technologies that arise in the coming years. So, needless to say I’ve been thinking a lot about the progression of catechetical publishing and the future we might have in store as religious educators.

Publishing During the Time of Christ

Jesus the Teacher clearly taught with the spoken word. He taught in parables and often quoted Scripture. He, like his contemporaries, would have memorized the Scriptures orally since there were so few copies of the books of the Old Testament. But we know that they used printed material to teach as well. One of Jesus’ earliest episodes as a teacher portrays him reading a scroll of Isaiah in his hometown of Nazareth (Lk 4:17-20). This would likely have been one of the few scrolls in the area. It was very expensive to create scrolls and it would have been unlikely for a town like Nazareth to possess a full set of Old Testament books (as we know the Old Testament today).

Publishing in the Early Church and Middle Ages

Not much changed in the centuries immediately after the time of Christ. Scribes and scrolls continued to be expensive and a relatively small percentage of people were literate. Education was mostly passed on from parent to child, while some young boys were mentored by popular teachers of the area. We know from Augustine, that people did not read silently to themselves, so books were understood completely differently than we understand them today. The Scriptures and scrolls were read out loud and in groups not as silent study materials.

Publishing After the Printing Press

The printing press, of course, revolutionized education. For the first time, books and ideas could be printed and copied by the thousands. People could actually own and read a copy of the Bible. This opened the door to a new kind of learning that required individuals to possess and study books of many different kinds. Although literacy grew, it was still a major road block in the education system and most young people still had very little opportunity to read for themselves. The revolutionary nature of this technology can not be understated, of course. From this point forward, education and books went hand in hand. The Gospel was now a series of four books and the Church teachings were now in a Catechism (after the Council of Trent).

New 20th Century Technology

After the printing press but before the Internet, a few new technologies changed the way people learned. Electricity, radio, and then TV changed people’s experience with new information. Radio and TV became entertaining devices that were soon utilized by educators. TV shows like Sesame Street use video to educate and students would soon expect to learn through entertaining media. Teachers were expected to show films in classrooms to provide a multimedia experience.

21st Century Learning Technologies

I don’t think we could have predicted the changes that were to take place in the last three decades. We are rightfully in what is known as the “information age.” The Internet–and most importantly Google–has changed the way people learn. If we have a question, we Google it. We have immediate access to questions and issues. In recent years social media changed the way people relate to the web. Social networking sites are among the most popular reasons for being online. And now mobile devices are taking us another step further in the evolution of technology that is causing another revolutionary change.

The biggest change in the publishing industry has been the advent of the e-book. An e-book, as I recently had to explain to my grandmother, is a book that exists on a computer or e-reader device and not in print. An e-reader is a device in which many books can be purchased and read easily. A growing percentage of books are now purchased and read on e-readers.

A few questions have arisen: What do our schools and religious education programs offer that students can’t find online (once they can read, of course)? There is so much information out there, what can a teacher bring to the table? Why do we need textbooks, if there is so much free information online? Are e-books better for reading than printed books?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. We’re all trying to figure out how to effectively catechize young digital natives. But I will say this: publishers, whether they are publishing companies or individual self-published creators, will meet the demands that these new technologies have placed on religious education.

Some Things Never Change

The way people learn has not changed. We learn through listening, reading, writing, images, video, and by cooperating with others. The difference as I see it is that new technology allows learners to learn in these ways simultaneously. You can now read and then share your thoughts with others in 140 characters or less (or in a 1000+ word blog post). You can take an image and edit it yourself or combine it into a video with familiar music. Books can come alive at our finger tips.

The most effective element in religious education (and all education) is not found in any tool. No matter how the much the technology improves, the teacher remains the x-factor. Google cannot replace the influence and ability to teach that educators possess. Whether books are in print or on computers, you cannot replace the teacher.

I would like to remind everyone of some important points from Catholic tradition as well. The first is summarized in an essential Latin phrase “lex orandi, lex credendi,” the law of prayer is the law of belief. We believe what we pray. In two thousand years, the Eucharist has not changed. Christ is still present in the Sacraments and in the Church. The Gospel is still passed on from person to person regardless of whether it is in a book, a face to face meeting, an online conversation, or a blog. There has never been a greater need for the Magisterium to evaluate and clarify the true teaching of the Catholic Church. There are so many content-creators that may be in good standing with the Church and have the best intentions in their work, but fall short of representing the deposit of faith.

I’m intentionally leaving out specific possibilities and plans because you have all been teased with them before. The possibilities are endless and the opportunities are great.

How will you embrace the new technologies of the 21st century? What changes can we expect to see in the arena of religious education now that so many new technologies have been created?

(Photo credit: edvvc)


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Jared Dees is the creator of The Religion Teacher. He is the Content Marketing Manager at Ave Maria Press and the author of 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator, To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach, and Praying the Angelus.


  1. Hey, congratulations on the new position, Jared! I’m interested to hear about your experiences.

    My number one concern with all of this digital catechesis and such is the effect of the “digital divide” on our catechesis. I really see this as a tiered situation for a while, where those who have access to even pretty basic resources like a laptop and a projector will be teaching differently from those whose high-tech classroom consists of a markerboard and a bunch of kids with cell phones, you know?

    And I kind of think this difference will tend to be greater in a religious education setting than in most American classrooms. Even financially strapped districts often provide a computer lab on campus and access to other technology, while volunteer catechists at even a more affluent parish are unlikely to be handed the keys to take the Smart Board for a spin.

    • Thank you for pointing this out, Dorian. I couldn’t agree more. Whereas literacy was a dividing factor in the past, now technology is a barrier between sets of people as well. Both are linked to affluence and create an educational divide between the rich and poor. At the same time, many schools and parishes look to technology to actually save money rather than spend more. The challenge is not in the content but the devices. I’m glad that the price of computers is shrinking (though they are not cheap) and I’m sure the same will happen to e-readers in the coming years.

  2. Julie S Donati says:

    We are a laptop school and will probably buy the online books for next year. It will relieve extra weight on the kids shoulders as well as being earth friendly. Being a lap top school has its pros and cons. I find that the kids have lost the ability to take hand notes, especially at a quick pace. Plus, the distractions on the computer are VERY enticing…But you cannot go backwards so we try to go on the best and to be vigilant teachers.

    • Julie, this is good feedback. I can see the note-taking issue being a big problem. There are some good programs out there (Microsoft OneNote and Evernote) that are helpful, but my guess is that students still need some tips on taking notes effectively using digital books. The distractions are probably a much bigger challenge that is going to call for teachers to apply a whole new level of classroom management (see Dorian’s comment).

    • David says:

      I am a student and my favorite class is religion. I use an iPad for all my notes. I find it much more effective than taking handwritten notes. The problem with students being distracted is probably based around internet, so if you have a private WiFi you shouldn’t have many distractions. I am a very tech-savy kid, which, surprizingly, results in not being distracted by basic things on a computer where as a not-as-tech-savy kid would be more enticed to do things they shouldn’t. I have an IEP to use my iPad, so the rest of the school doesn’t use an iPad, but with the IEP I am not allowed to have any extra apps that aren’t what I use for note-taking. I use Pages, Apples word proccessing software, instead of word because I found that on recent versions of Pages work far superior than Word on almost all tablet devices including andriod and Windows devices. Also, if you are sending a Pages document to another device it can be sent as a PDF. Pages is also much more secure than word cosidering that you can always save it on the cloud if you want to in case anything happens to the ipad. I also believe that waht most psycholgists, psychiatrists, communications sepcialests, and cognitive-ability therapists say about typing: it is going to somewhat replace hand-writing, it will not hurt society, it will not damage intullectuality, and it will be benificial to educationg (not becuase of students backs). Also, when the iPad was being created the idea in mind was education. I am specifically against social media, I do think that if a shcool sets up an iPad program that would be there major problem, but again that requires WiFi. Sorry to say it but in 10-30 years technology is going to be present in class rooms, and it is vetter to have a head start than waiting until its almost required for a better than average school. So, in conclusion, I say that all schools should allow students to use an iPad as a notebook if the student can, and even provide the iPad if possible.

  3. I think I feel the same as you, Julie – I like the idea of MY having access to technology, to put on a great show for the kids (ha), but monitoring a whole classroom of kids with laptops on a day-to-day basis is not really something that appeals to me. I wonder if the next logical step will be to equip kids with tablets, which seem like they’d be easier for teachers to monitor and for kids to use while still focusing on the teacher. (I tend to think of all these questions first in terms of classroom management). It certainly does require a whole new skill set on the part of teachers to be able to provide rich educational experiences while keeping kids focused.

    • Julie S Donati says:

      We have tablets…and it is still an issue…I find I have my desks situated so that I can see their computers and I move around a lot!

  4. Congrats on your new position!!!! First a baby and now this! WOW!

    I teach in a parish with little funds and buying books for each student each year is extremely hard for us (we still do not have enough books for everyone). The only technical thing the catechists have access to is 1 TV/VCR.

    • Thanks you!

      I think your experience is shared by many (if not most) parishes. Getting access to the devices needed for new technology is a challenge. I started teaching using an overhead projector as a tool. Even with all the new technology out there, we can all get creative with the tools we have at our disposal.

      But you know that and you have created some incredible resources on your website that any teacher can use.

      • Ah, the good old days of overhead projectors! The marker smeared all over my forearm, the sending a student to the library for a new bulb in the middle of class, the transparencies getting stuck in the copy machine. Good times, good times.

  5. Interesting thoughts about how some things will never change. I makes me think that, in the end, all publishing is really just about the tools and teachers have the biggest influence on learning. The tools may change but this will not. Whether it’s in how they use the tools or how they present the material or, most importantly, how they witness the teaching in their own lives, the teacher can never really be replaced.

    It’s something we’ll continue to deal with I’m sure as we become more tech oriented. How do we integrate these tools without losing the human connection? I know it can be done and it needs to be done.

    It will be interesting to see how tech tools will speed up and improve learning in the future and how it might also hamper it.

    • This is great: “how they witness the teaching in their own lives.” No tool will ever replace the witness to the truth that we bring as teachers. The tools can go a long way. They will continue to get better as technology gets better. But nothing can replace the impact of the human person.

  6. Jared, Congrats on your new position and new baby to your family! Wonderful changes for you!

    This is a fascinating discussion, as in general Catechetics/Religious Education is about 35 years behind what is happening in our regular school environments in the area of what is referred to as Educational Technology. I’ve been involved in “ed tech” since 1983, and I’ve watched how other subjects have grown in leaps and bounds in this area. Yes, budgets are tight! However, that has not stopped the educational world from moving ahead! It is a “mindset” that must change! Many involved in catechetics/religious education are not deeply involved in educational technology. So, how can one be creative with new tools when they do not know or understand the new tools?

    One of our major challenges today is where parishes have a school and a religious education program…that both of these programs will have equal access to what is available in the parish. I’ve recently heard from over 400 parish religious educators, many have indicated that there are electronic white boards in their classrooms. However school personnel have access and parish religious educators do not! Schools have access to the Internet and Parish Programs do not.

    This is one of the places where Parishes should now be involved in Technology Planning – that includes the staffs of the parish school, religious education program, youth ministry, young adult ministry, RCIA and any of the parish ministries.

    Technology today is not only for a school! It needs to be integrated and utilized in every ministry today. And the wonderful part of this challenge is – We can learn quickly the “Best Practices” that exist in the educational world and apply what we learn here quickly to our catechetical ministries.

    I believe, that once the “total” parish engages in the integration of technology into all their ministries, the parishes without the school will learn quickly that they need to integrate technology into what they do! In fact, there are already parishes that in the process of rebuilding their physical structures are engaging in bringing in 21st Century technology into what they are doing in their parish.

    Let’s watch for these stories and their Best Practices.

    • Caroline,
      I was hoping you would offer your thoughts. Like always, you did not disappoint! You bring up some really good points here. Unfortunately, I have experienced some of the disconnect between parish and school. Thankfully, I volunteer in a parish that built a “school” for the Catholic school students as well as religious education students. Both the school teacher and the catechists have a closet specifically for themselves. Since teachers use the technology daily, it is easier for them to use. Catechists, I believe, have less time to use the technology and even less time to learn it.

      It is an exciting time to see new technologies built into infrastructures.

      Thanks again for your comment. I hope readers will find your new blog a great resource for the crossover between catechesis and technology.

      • Jared, It is so good to hear stories like yours about parishes that “…built a ‘school’ for the Catholic school students as well as religious education students.” In my heart, I believe that this underlies what many of our parishes want. However, there is a “disconnect” in many parishes for a variety of reasons. Earlier today I was reading about the Toms River School Project ( Needless to say, mobile devices need to be considered.

        As catechetical ministers, we have not kept up with the educational technology conversation that has been going on over the last 35 years. There is minimum training in these areas, if any at a diocesan level. And you know me well enough to know that I could go on with the issues we face as catechetical ministers in a 21st Century!

        Thanks for you support of my new blog. It is my hope and dream to inspire others to see the potential and possibilities. More importantly, that we learn to “walk the walk and talk the talk” that our students are comfortable with as Digital Natives.

        • Let me clarify what I meant by “school.” The parish built a building as a “parish education center” specifically named so that it would not be seen as the “school building.” The parish has a large and thriving CCD program that is truly seen at the level of importance that the school maintains.

          Great point about mobile. It is big and growing.

          • Thanks for the clarification! There are several parishes like yours that could be wonderful models in catechetical ministry for 21st Century Catechetical Ministry. However, it takes a staff who see the importance of 21st Century style learning who are…
            – curious about technology,
            – willing to advocate for the use of technology in religion,
            – willing to invest in the “right” technology for your parish setting,
            – able to engage others in learning more about faith-based educational technology, and
            – willing to be a “pioneer” to try out to see what works. Here is a story about pioneers in the Global Church Project – see pgs. 18-20 –

            Once we do projects like this with our students, and we experience success, let us share our stories in order to encourage one another!

  7. Jared – I want to go back to your questions – How will you embrace the new technologies of the 21st century? What changes can we expect to see in the arena of religious education now that so many new technologies have been created?

    Here is an article – Algebra, Meet the iPad: A Year-Long Study Explores Learning With the Tablet ( This statement caught my eye in the article:

    “We like to say that the course is ‘re-imagined,’” said John Sipe, senior vice president, national sales manager at HMH. “It’s a lot more than just adaptation. We know that it’s a more iterative process than a revolutionary process in moving things to mobile delivery to a place like iPad.”

    It is easy to embrace “technology.” However, the challenge for all of us will be to go beyond just changing the delivery system of a traditional book to the delivery system of an ebook.

    I agree with John Sipe, we will need to reimagine how we will teach Religion with an ebook, mobile devices, SKYPE, Digital Storytelling, and more. We are in a period where we need to MIND-SHIFT: Technology is revolutionizing the world of education – replacing familiar classroom tools and changing the way we learn. (Tina Barseghian) Unless religious educators open their minds to the change around them, we will miss many opportunities to involve, excite, and engage our Digital Natives to learn more about their faith.

  8. Couldn’t decide where in the “tree” to post this reply, which addresses what you and Caroline are talking about. Anyway, I think the big issue is the disconnect between paid teachers and volunteer catechists, in terms of accountability when using technology that belongs to the parish/school. I mean, I get why I can’t use the Smart Board in my classroom. I haven’t been trained on it, it costs a zillion dollars, and who knows if I’m going to let my students draw on it at the end of class for a reward and they’ll end up damaging it?

    I do have the ability to bring in my own laptop and hook it up to the classroom projector if I want to use video or slides as part of my class. But I think we are going to continue to see the lag you’re talking about, Caroline, in terms of parish religious educators being “late adopters” of much technology. Unless a parish wants to invest in having a paid part-time technology coordinator who could “float” from room to room, based on which teachers were using things like Smart Boards and such. I wonder if there are places where that’s happening.

    And, as someone married to a person who used to do pro bono technology work for a parish, I can say without reservation that relying entirely on volunteers for tech support is a terrible idea. For many reasons. (Not that anyone suggested that, just wanted to go on record there). :)

    • Dorian, I couldn’t agree with you more! You have shared what is really happening in most catechetical programs – THE DISCONNECT! Up until this time, schools have focused on Technology Planning and Fund Raising and Training and more in the technology area. It is time now for the Parish to take on this role and to engage every ministry in Technology. We have a MINDSHIFT to do as it can no longer be done by volunteers. You have every right as a catechetical teacher (volunteer or paid) to be trained to use technology like a whiteboard. When “blackboards” were the available technology, were you forbidden to use the “blackboard”?

      I’d love to hear the stories from parishes that are sharing these types of resources. I do not remember the name of the parish, but this parish with both a school and a parish program (in Indiana)decided that when computers first began to enter into the classroom, they decided that:

      – all would have access to this tool.
      – all would be engaged in fund raising.
      – the parish would provide access for families who did not have available computers and/or Internet access
      – training was provided to ALL parish staff.

      That was in the early 1990’s! I wonder what they are doing now? We need more parishes today who have this MINDSET – equal access for all!

      And that does not mean that each parish needs to do it all…as “collaboration” could happen easily in this area. Large companies have IT Departments that handle tech issues of regional groups outside of the home office.

      Educational Technology specialists – those who understand how technology needs to be integrated into the learning process could be hired to handle training in several parishes. Most of us in ministry do not have a clue what “educational technology” is about. It is a fairly new field, just a little over 35 years in existence.

      As a parish, we need to imagine how we minister in the 21st Century. Which also means that new MINDSETS