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 media, 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)