A Khan Academy for religious education

In one of the “lightning talks” in today’s session of the Religious Education Association annual meeting, Dr. Eileen Daily of Boston University’s School of Theology posed some questions about how the pandemic is going to change religious education. One of the questions she asked is whether this is an opportunity to reach out to the “nones,” those who are not affiliated with organized religion (remembering that many of the “nones” are “spiritual but not religious”).

A few hours later, I was in a small group conversation with some scholars and practitioners, and we wound up talking about online learning — not surprising given that the pandemic has driven both the academics and those of us working in congregations to doing all our teaching using distance education techniques. I posed the idea that a nonprofit structured like Khan Academy, but devoted to religious education, could be a worthwhile project. Then the conversation moved on….

But I’ve been thinking about that idea since then. What if there were a Khan Academy for online religious education? I could envision three main curricular areas such an entity could address: (1) religious literacy, including resources to introduce young people to the wide variety of religious expression in their community and in the wider world; (2) skills associated with the practice of organized religion including leadership in nonprofit membership organizations (voluntary associations), social justice organizing, group singing, etc.; and (3) building community including building both interpersonal skills (social skills) and intrapersonal skills (self awareness).

I’m leaving out a fourth major curricular area: the kind of “faith formation” that is instruction on how to participate within a specific religious or denominational tradition. Should a nonprofit producing interreligious learning material produce this kind of faith formation? Well, no — if we’re trying to serve the “nones” as well as though affiliated with organized religion, denominational faith formation will not be a central concern. But what if we think big? If this nonprofit is designed from the beginning to scale up (think: Khan Academy), and if this nonprofit builds expertise in delivering online religious education, then when it grows in size and expertise the nonprofit will eventually becomes able to enter into partnerships with various religious groups to produce this kind of faith formation material.

So what are the funding sources for this nonprofit going to be? I think at the beginning, this nonprofit is either going to be the brainchild of someone like Sal Khan, and inspired charismatic leader with the skills to create content and then bring other people into the project — in this first case, the project is self-funded until it gets big enough to scale up — either that, or it could be hosted by a university that has both experts in religious education and some level of IT support (but if such an organization starts in the academy, I would hope that the plan is to quickly spin it off as a separate nonprofit). Then as the nonprofit grows, because it’s not tied to a specific religious organization, I would expect that a substantial part of the funding would be grants from philanthropic organizations. And why not target Big Tech for grants? — using research that shows that religious literacy can reduce religious bullying and religious violence, you could make a pretty compelling case that this kind of education is important and worth funding.

I’m sure others have already come up with the same idea. And who knows, maybe there’s already such an organization out there….

Padlet

I’ve been looking for a way to extend our congregation’s asynchronous learning, and one of the online tools I’ve looked at is Padlet.com.

Padlet.com is basically an online interactive bulletin board. Some elementary school teachers use padlets to allow students to interact with a teacher presentation — kids can comment on teacher posts, and teachers can also allow kids to make their own posts. (An individual bulletin board is typically referred to as a “padlet.”) Some teachers also use padlets as parent communication tools.

I wasn’t excited or inspired by the gallery of examples on Padlet.com, but since it’s a free service, I thought I’d give it a try. It’s better than I thought.

While it’s hard to imagine that children or teens in a religious education program will voluntarily interact with a padlet — unlike elementary school teachers, those of us in religious education cannot complete students to use something with the threat of a bad grade — I feel that padlets could be useful parent communication tools, to help parents know know what’s going on in a class. I think padlets could work quite well to organize resources to share with adult education classes. And Padlet.com is fairly easy to use for volunteer teachers — there’s not much of a learning curve. Finally, Padlet.com is obviously better for a volunteer-run program like Sunday school than a learning management system like Google Classroom, which has a steep learning curve and requires domain email addresses for all users (who wants another email address?).

However, I don’t think Padlet.com offers much advantage over using existing tools — such as Google Drive — to organize resource materials and allow student interaction. I’m also annoyed because when I just logged on to a padlet I created for other religious educators, Padlet.com refused to display embedded content — see the screenshot below. This does not make me want to pay for a premium account, and if this is what end users are going to see, I’m definitely better off using a Google Drive folder. It also occurs to me that all my volunteers already know how to use Google Drive, and why should I make them learn how to use Padlet.com?

Maybe I’ll return to Padlet.com in the future, but at this point I’m not overly enthusiastic.

Online UU theologies class

For an adult religious education class on Unitarian Universalist theologies, I recorded four short videos. I’ll get to the videos in a moment, but first, a word about online teaching….

Like so many educators, I’ve been trying to figure out how to adjust to our new reality of distance teaching. We feminists have criticized patriarchal pedagogy as disembodied; patriarchal education keeps everything in the head, ignoring the reality of the body. But how do you do embodied teaching when all you see are a bunch of tiny images of people’s heads on your computer screen? A great many pedagogical tools in my feminist-educator toolkit are useless in online learning.

I was talking over this problem with someone I have a great deal of respect for, a feminist who has been doing online teaching for a decade now — she moved to online learning because her subject area is quite specialized, with the result that her students are spread out over the entire North American continent. She said what has worked best for her is to record short videos, of under ten minutes, with lectures outlining a topic area; after showing one of the videos, she moderates an open discussion of the topic.

I’ve been teaching a biweekly adult religious education class — with mixed success — and I decided to try this approach for last night’s class. I was scheduled to teach an hour-long class on Unitarian Universalist (UU) theologies. I focused on four UU theologies, as exemplified by five different persons, prepared four short talks, and recorded four short videos. The class went reasonably well, from my point of view. While the videos were playing, I was able to monitor the chat in the videoconference call, and I could look at the video feeds (of those who left their video on) to monitor facial reactions. The videos were followed by a lively discussion — though with 21 log-ins, it was less than spontaneous, since everyone had to stay muted except for me and one person making a point or asking a question.

Making the video lectures took more time than I would have liked. Yet by recording these short lectures in advance, I could trim out all the times I coughed (with all the smoke in California, I’ve been coughing a lot), and if I stumbled verbally, I could trim or re-record the part where I stumbled. I could also clean up the sound while editing the video, and control the lighting and composition of the visuals.

Another benefit to pre-recording the lectures: I can post them online, where they’re accessible to people who were unable to attend (e.g., due to child care responsibilities). And I can re-use the videos to teach the same class in a year or so, because the discussion that followed the lectures will always be different; plus, with several short videos, I can record new videos on the same topic.

My final conclusion: Although this method of teaching is nowhere near as good as in-person teaching, it was still the best approach I’ve yet tried for online teaching.

In a subsequent post, I’ll include a link to one of the videos, followed by the text of the lecture.

Adventures in online learning

I spent much of this week producing and aggregating online content suitable for UU kids. I’ve been trying to keep up with my sister, Abby, who’s been recording read-aloud videos at a breakneck pace — some of her videos have their own dedicated playlists at the UUCPA CYRE Youtube channel: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I’ve been posting Beth’s Aesop’s Fables on another playlist. Yet another playlist has Amy reading aloud The Secret Garden.

And I had enough time left over to make another video in the “Things To Make” series, as well as adding another episode to the ongoing “Back in Time — to the Year 29!” saga.

Barnabas (played by Greg Becker) in the latest installment of the “Back in Time” saga.

It’s not easy to figure out how to make good online religious education content in the era of COVID. First and foremost, parents tell me that they don’t want another lesson plan; they’re sick of helping their kids do online school lessons, they don’t need another burden. So that means the videos I post have to require minimal supervision from an adult. Second, religious education is always optional, which means it has to be fun or engaging or no one will watch it.

These two constraints mean I have to interpret “religious education” pretty broadly. How is listening to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” religious education? Well, Unitarian Universalist religious education has always included the broad goal of supporting literacy; we want children to grow up thinking for themselves, and literacy promotes that in a number of ways. So while “Alice” doesn’t have any religious content per se, it’s a book that encourages literacy because it makes kids want to read.

And how is a series on “Things To Make” religious education? Well, the things I’m showing kids how to make promote independent play; they give kids a sense of agency; they cultivate creativity instead of consumption; and they have kids engage in hands-on embodied activities as a partial antidote to the disembodied lives many of us are now forced to lead online. This is rooted in good feminist theology: promoting embodied activities, promoting agency instead of passivity.

The “Back in Time” video saga could be considered religious education by almost any definition. (Yes, it would be considered rank heresy by many, but it’s still education on a blatantly religious topic.) The Aesop’s Fables series could certainly be considered moral education. But I think both showing kids how to make things, and reading aloud to kids, help us achieve some of the larger educational goals of Unitarian Universalist religious education.

Update, July 24: I’ve now added posts with links to the “Back in Time” series of videos on Youtube, as well as to subsequent video “Stories for All Ages.” The posts are backdated to the release date of the video, and include the full script for each video. You can see the entire series of posts here.

Critical Zoom update

If you’re one of those using Zoom to carry out online programs and ministries for our congregations, you’ll want to update to the latest version of the Zoom app (a.k.a. the Zoom client). The latest version is 4.6.10, and I got notification about it an hour ago.

This update has one absolutely critical security feature that you must have: you can prevent participants from changing their screen name. The previous version gave participants the ability to change their screen name to anything, including something obscene, and the host couldn’t do anything except boot that person off the call.

There are other security enhancements, too. Update now.

Adventures in creating online content

My younger sister the children’s librarian has inspired me. Her library is closed, or course, so she’s creating online content by uploading an average of a new video every day to the Harvard (Mass.) Public Library Children’s Room Youtube channel. So far, she’s got a simple craft project, story time that parents can do with young children, and she’s reading aloud the entire Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

I like several things about Abby’s videos. First, they’re a great supplement to Zoom calls — some of us are getting Zoom burnout, and it’s nice to be able to watch a video when YOU want to watch it. Second, they’re Goldilocks videos — not too long, not too short, but just the right length. Third, they don’t put a big burden on parents — the crafts project can be done by kids on their own without parental supervision, kids can watch the installments of Alice on their own, and the story time for young children has them doing what they’re going to be doing anyway which is sitting in a parental lap.

So I repurposed this Youtube channel, where I already had some religious education videos. I added a video we used in last Sunday’s service. I created a couple of playlists, one for crafts (Abby’s craft video is included there), and another for story time (Abby’s Alice stories are going there, because Alice in Wonderland is a sacred text). I’ve got a children’s librarian from our congregation half convinced to do a story time, I’m planning a story time (I think I’ll read aloud from an old edition of the Jataka Tales), there will be more crafts projects.

Blog readers, if you know of some videos that you think would be appropriate to share on this Youtube channel, please send me the links. I can’t promise to put everything up, but I’d really like to see your suggestions — send them to danharper then the little “at” sign then uucpa then a dot then org.

National Emergency Library

The Internet Archive has opened up their collection of 1.4 million books with no waiting list during the COVID-19 crisis.

They’re trying to support schools which are doing online learning, and trying to support everyone who has been shut out of their local library.

Their collection consists of mostly 20th century materials, mostly still in copyright, that are out of print and not easily accessible as ebooks. I’ve used some of their books in the past, when you had to “check out” books for a specific period of time (and if the book was in use, you had to wait for it). It’s a small but excellent collection. Best of all, their online reader is excellent — their reader makes Google Books look absolutely sick in comparison.

So if you’ve been suffering from book deprivation, access the National Emergency Library here.

Adventures in online learning

Nadine offered to do a virtual Sunday school session today for our gr. 2-3 group (which we call “Green class”). Her plan was simple: light a chalice, have time for check-in, read a story, everyone say our unison benediction together. I haven’t yet hear from her how it went.

Nadine’s idea inspired Carol and Ed, two of the teachers of the middle school “Ecojustice Class,” who put together an online session for that group. Carol and Ed planned a half hour session including lighting the chalice, a check-in where kids could talk about what’s going on in their lives, and a virtual tour of the Ecojustice Class garden, rain barrels, and composter.

Three middle schoolers logged in, and two siblings tagged along, for a total of five kids. Here’s a screen shot of Carol lighting the chalice:

Though Carol and Ed expected the session to last only half an hour, the kids were having fun, and ultimately the session went on for about an hour. (Carol has the free version of Zoom with a 40-minute limit on videoconference calls, but at 40 minutes she got a message saying Zoom would extend the videoconference for free; thank you Zoom!) They talked about how coronavirus shows that the non-human world still has a lot of power over humans, and they also talked about how people who are poor or otherwise vulnerable get hit hardest by natural disasters like this pandemic. One of the kids drew boba bunnies (don’t ask me what they are, I’m just telling you what Carol told me), and that led to a discussion of how boba tea tastes good but uses a lot of single-use plastic, and where tapioca comes from, and so on.

From what Carol said, it sounds to me as though there was the typical Sunday school ratio of social interaction to learning — more than half social interaction, plus some learning — and since our primary educational goal is to have fun and build community, this class definitely helped us reach that goal.

REA: Teaching and learning in online spaces

In the afternoon pre-conference session of the Religious Education Association 2014 conference, Eileen Daily of Boston Univeristy and Daniella Zsupan-Jerome of Loyla University presented a workshop titled “Teaching and Learning in Online Spaces: An Experiential Engagement with Digital Creativity.”

While online media are new, Daily reminded us that religions have always used mediated forms of communication. “What did Paul do? He wrote letters!” she said. “Email is just another form of letter,” she added. “These are just new names for things we’ve been doing for a long time. There’s a difference of form, but there’s not necessarily a difference of message.”

Daily told us that when she teaches religious education online, she emphasizes nonlinearity. Whereas face-to-face learning environments lend themselves to a linear path through a subject, online environments lend themselves to a nonlinear approach. However, you still have to pay careful attention to course structure; there is a “Skinnerian side of education,” so there’s always a sense in which you have to “keep students in the rat maze” to produce behavioral outcomes. And Daily reminded us that the goal of any religious education is to “integrate religion into people’s messy lives.”

Daily and Zsupan-Jerome then led us in “a mini non-linear learning event that will appear on a curated platform at the end of the session.” As a subject for this experience in non-linear online learning, Daily and Zsupan-Jerome had us investigate the Salt Creek watershed; Salt Creek runs immediately behind the conference hotel. They split us into six groups, each group charged with investigating the environmental challenges facing Salt Creek through different approaches. Thus one group conducted Skype interviews with people who knew about Salt Creek; one group investigated sacred texts on the subject of the environment; another group researched specific environmental challenges facing Salt Creek today; etc.

Continue reading “REA: Teaching and learning in online spaces”

Developing online curriculum

Over the past few years, I’ve slowly been developing UU religious education curriculum that are meant to be published online. This past week, I finally put together a new Web site to publish them: Yet Another UU Curriculum Site.

At present, three curriculum are published on this site: “Beginnings,” an 8-session course for upper elementary grades; “Coming of Age,” a 9 month, 17 session, program for gr. 8-9; and “Greek Myths,” an 8-week course for upper elementary grades that’s still in development. In addition, I’ve included a selection of games that are appropriate for Sunday school classes and youth groups.

Why publish curriculum online?

First and foremost, I wanted to have the complete curriculum available in a format so that a teacher can access it with their smartphone or tablet.

This is good for teachers because all lesson plans and associated resources are easily accessible, and teachers don’t have to worry about leaving their curriculum book or binder at home. Long term, I will convert at least some of the curricula to epub format, and/or to printed books available as print-on-demand copies, so teachers can use whatever format they prefer.

View: Smartphone

Above: The site as it would be seen on a smartphone.

This is also good for parents, because parents can ask which lesson their child did on a given Sunday, and then look up that lesson online. Then they will can go over the material with their child if they want to. Some of the curricula I’m developing have a story associated with each lesson, and long term I’m planning to create storybooks in both epub and affordable print-on-demand print editions.

View: Laptop

Above: The site as it would be seen on a laptop or home computer.

Second, I wanted to have curricula online side-by-side with supporting resources. Thus, one of the first resources I’ve put up on this site are lots of games. That way, if a lesson plan fails, a teacher will have immediate access to back-up activities. Long term, I’m working on an online how-to-teach resource, with tips and techniques for adapting printed lesson plans for your own needs.

Finally, I want to see where this leads me, and I suspect I’ll start thinking differently about curriculum development. With cheap, easily accessible online publishing, it won’t just be teachers who are accessing curricula — parents and even kids will be able to do so as well. I’m going to start allowing people to add comments (which I will carefully curate), and that will enrich the curriculum. Finally, I’m contemplating adding some sort of assessment section to some of the curriculum, by developing fun ways for learners to show what they’ve learned.

This is very much a project that’s in development. I would value your thoughts and comments. To view “Yet Another UU Curriculum Site,” click here.