Notes from study leave, pt. 2: Web-based education

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how to do more religious education online. I’ve been imagining a kid-oriented Web site that encourages kids (aged 5 through 18) to do religious education outside of that one lone Sunday morning hour of Sunday school. I’ve been dreaming of an interactive teaching/learning Web site that got kids excited about religious education, and drew in their parents as well. What might such a site look like? I decided to do a little exploring and see what was currently available on the Web — are there any Web sites that get me excited and interested?

First of all, if I’m going to do online religious education, I want stuff that is at least as cool and engaging as the Exploratorium’s series of videos on dissecting a cow’s eye — of for that matter, almost anything else on the Exploratorium’s Web site. The best part about the Exploratorium’s Web site is that if you live in the Bay area, you know you can go to San Francisco, visit the Exploratorium, and see that cool stuff in person. The downside to the Exploratorium is that it’s not a place that you want to go every week, so it’s not entirely analogous to what I want to do in religious education. All the Exploratorium really does is to provide a supplement to other educational opportunities; it serves primarily to get kids jazzed up to do science in other venues beyond its walls.

Another great learning Web site is Bre Pettis’ “I Make Things.” Pettis is known online for his short how-to videos, and when I look at the latest topics in his online video podcast, I see that I can learn how to make a robot that will make me a sandwich if I type “Sudo make me a sandwich” into my computer; and I can learn how to count in binary on my fingers (a skill I’ve always wanted to possess though I never knew it until now). Unfortunately, it looks like Pettis has stopped making his video podcasts; the most recent entry is dated March 23, 2009. Pettis’ site interests me because he pretty much does what he does on his own — he’s not a huge educational institution like the Exploratorium — and I think an individual Unitarian Universalist congregation could do something almost as good.

Turning to Web sites that are specifically designed for doing religious education online, most (not all) of the Web sites I’m finding are far less interesting. The best one I’ve found so far (and it’s pretty darned good) is TMC Youth. “TMC” stands for “The Mother Church,” the central church for Christian Scientists. Like many religious groups based in the United States, the Christian Scientists have seen their revenues shrink in the past few years; nevertheless, they still have pretty deep pockets and it shows in this Web site. It’s a well-designed site, with a variety of media — audio podcasts, videos, online Sunday school lessons, online student chats, and more.

I expected some of the big megachurches to have Web material aimed at kids, and they do. Saddleback Church, for example, has fairly extensive resources for junior high kids on their Wildside: Church for Junior Highers Media Center. There’s not a lot there, though — a registration form for camp, a few videos (including one titled “Exposed! Understand God’s Plan For Sex”), and that’s about it. Not nearly as interesting or deep as the Christian Science site. (Their page for children has almost no material, and is not worth visiting.)

Willow Creek Community Church has more interesting online material for kids. Their site for junior youth, Elevate: Church for Jr. Highers, is obviously focused on convincing kids to participate in small groups, but it’s done well, with interesting videos and references to dodgeball and mission trips and so on. This isn’t exactly online religious education, but it does what it’s designed to do — make you want to be a part of this church community. I was pretty impressed.

Obviously, megachurches are focused on serving their own church community; equally obviously, they have the will and the resources to do things that our entire UU denomination can’t take on. But creating a Web site like TMC Youth for Unitarian Universalism is well within our reach, even with the scanty financial and human resources we have in our tiny little denomination. Seeing the TMC site makes me wish that we had taken the money and effort that went into the “Tapestry of Faith” curriculum, and put it into something like this truly kick-ass religious education Web site. Oh well.

It did make me feel better when I took a look at other online Sunday school Web sites that are less well done. Take, for example, Simply Christian’s Online Sunday School — after fighting the clunky interface and looking at the old-fashioned stuff they have, it’s hard to believe they want me to pay to subscribe to their service.

Somewhat more interesting is Sunday School Sources: Free Bible Lessons. There’s some pretty cool resources here — but this is not a site that is aimed at kids, it’s aimed at Sunday school teachers who need lesson plans, bible trading cards, and things like that. (Take a look at this printable page of Bible trading cards — dude, I so want the Satan trading card — and check this out, Cain is about to bash Abel’s head in!) This is still pretty low-budget, and something like could have been well within the reach of Unitarian Universalism. But here again, like the “Tapestry of Faith” curriculum, this site is nothing more than old-school Sunday school resources placed online.

Other cool-looking Sunday school Web sites are hidden behind a pay wall. I liked the look of Spark Online. If you’re going to do old-school Sunday school, something like this would be fabulous: teacher scheduling takes place online, teachers can download lesson plans and resource materials, and they can even watch short videos on how to prepare a given lesson. Parents can stay in touch by looking at what their children learn online, and they can register their children online. (Their program can be adapted to a workshop rotation model of Sunday school, and if I were going to administer a workshop rotation Sunday school, with its high administrative load, I can’t imagine doing it without something like this.) This isn’t a kid-oriented interactive site, but it looks pretty good nonetheless.

Another Web site that combines a more traditional approach to learning with some pretty good online resources is REonline, a site based in the United Kingdom. In the U.K., “religious education” doesn’t necessarily mean Sunday school, it can also mean passing on knowledge about religion and educating for religious literacy; in the U.K., religious education can and often does take place in the regular school system. Though they are traditional and not interactive, I like REonline’s resources for students, which provides a curated set of links to other informational Web sites. Through REonline, I discovered the BBC’s Web pages on religious questions aimed at children — like this BBC page that’s a kid-level FAQ on Buddhism. REonline’s teacher resources page is also excellent, and I’m going to be passing it along to my Sunday school teachers at the Palo Alto church.

Summary: I found a few good interactive Web sites devoted to religious education. But most religious education Web sites seem to be devoted to supporting old-school Sunday school with lesson plans, teacher resources, etc. The only religious education Web site I’ve found that approaches the coolness factor of the Exploratorium’s Web site is the TMC Web site. The best kid-oriented religious education Web site, however, was probably Willow Creek Community Church’s Web site — fun, interactive, and designed to draw kids into actually coming to church.

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