Technology in seminary: Is it enhancing or distracting the experience?

Published: Thursday, March 28 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

When Kelly Shepherd started out as a seminary teacher for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 30 years ago, state-of-the art classroom technology included chalkboards, dial telephones and slide projectors. Later, VHS tapes, televisions and VCRs were a big deal.

Three decades later, LDS religious education has witnessed a major upgrade.

Many teachers prepare their lessons on Apple iPads and project professional presentations on large screens. They play hymns or show video clips with the click of a button. Some students can choose between traditional paper scriptures or the electronic version via a mobile device. Outside the classroom, students can use apps to memorize scripture mastery verses or use church websites to access additional resources. New types of technology have especially benefited students with special needs.

Shepherd, now the director of training services for seminaries and institutes at LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, marvels at how technology has enhanced religious education.

“It’s exciting. We’ve made a lot of progress, huge strides in many areas,” Shepherd said. “We’re exploring things that could be more far reaching. As a worldwide church, we’re going to use every opportunity to reach every student.”

Despite the development of seminary 2.0, technology has been a distraction for some students, according to several teachers. The church is also proceeding cautiously with technology in order to safeguard the traditional fundamentals of a classroom setting, which amplifies the seminary experience, Shepherd said.

“We value the interaction between students and teachers and students themselves. We value the daily experience. We value hearing and sharing the word. It’s also important to feel safe and secure and know someone can help,” Shepherd said. “We’ve tried not to eliminate those things.”

Status quo

In an average seminary classroom with students ages 14-18, it’s common to see teachers use the Internet for lesson preparation and delivery. They display images, show videos (online and DVDs produced by the church or otherwise approved), play music and access church websites such as SI.LDS.org or LDS.org to review talks by general authorities or do scripture mastery activities. Some teachers allow their students the option of using electronic scriptures from a mobile device while others require them to bring a print version of the standard works.

“Seminary has been a hard copy environment … but it’s a matter of choice,” Shepherd said. “Until we have the structure to support it (electronic scriptures), we have to be careful.”

Some teachers have received permission to create a seminary class Facebook/Twitter page to share information or provide a place for students to interact online.

“It’s been an interesting way for students to share feelings with other students,” Shepherd said. “Of course, someone has to monitor that.”

For the last five or six years the church has also experimented with an online seminary course that Shepherd said has been very successful. The course is designed so students go online each day, complete assignments and activities, watch videos and post comments for the entire class.

“There are a few drawbacks, such as every student must have high speed Internet. Getting them together virtually is still a challenge. We also think students have questions that go unanswered. In a traditional classroom, they might go to a teacher or friend, and those relationships are built in time. We value that and want to preserve it,” Shepherd said. “But we have been very pleased with it.”

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