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.”
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.”
In the institute program, students are also allowed Internet access, Shepherd said, in an effort to encourage them to do their homework, socialize and participate in activities.
Video conferencing has also been utilized for training and communication purposes among teachers and administrators, Shepherd said.
Enhancing the experience
Several full-time seminary/institute teachers were asked how technology is helping to enhance their students’ experience in the classroom. There were many positive responses.
When a student shares an insightful comment that resonates with the class, Joshua Casperson, a teacher in the Seattle area, immediately posts it on the class Facebook/Twitter page.
Ryan Webb, a teacher in Colorado Springs, Colo., said a gospel principle is more impactful when students hear it taught directly from a general authority.
“Instead of me saying it, if I can have a 30-second clip of an apostle saying it, it’s more powerful,” Webb said. “It’s not ‘wow’ technology, but it’s powerful.”
Ryan Olsen, a teacher at the Bear River High seminary in Garland, Utah, agrees with Webb.
“Resources like this engage the learner by allowing them to watch and listen to general authorities teach, tell stories and feel the spirit of their message. The youth today respond to this in wonderful ways,” Olsen said. “For the most part, they are eager to learn and apply doctrine. Seeing and hearing our church leaders also brings a spirit of truth and gratitude that I cannot get by just reading it to them.”
With the vast image library, along with Mormon Messages and similar media, scenes only previous described can suddenly be shown. The classroom can become the Sea of Galilee, a temple or Liberty Jail, Olsen said.
George Slaughter, a seminary teacher at Clearfield High, thinks media is most effective when a teacher wants to illustrate a principle or doctrine that has been discussed. Occasionally he allows students to use their cellphones to search for a quote from a church leader that goes along with the lesson, then share it with the class.
“That’s sometimes where we get students to a feeling level,” Slaughter said. “Sometimes it can spark a spiritual memory. As we share those experiences, we’re opening the door for the Holy Ghost to testify to them that what they are talking about is true, then they are more likely to act on those feelings.”
Technology has shown a significant impact for students with special needs. Sally Hanna has taught special needs seminary and institute in the Salt Lake Valley for more than 30 years. Tablet technology has unlocked doors that were previously closed for students who are visually impaired or who have intellectual or physical disabilities, Hanna said.
“It gives them a voice,” she said. “They have never had anything that was as easy for them to use. Class is more visual, interactive and fun. They can enjoy the same technology as their peers.”
Tablet technology enables students to find scriptures and read them more easily. Teachers can control what programs are accessed. For those students who can’t speak, now it’s possible to type out a short prayer, stand in front of the class and hit the speaker button.
“We’ve come a long, long way,” Hanna said. “I used to go around and find scriptures for everyone. I rarely have to help them now. It gives them a feeling of confidence.”
One major downside to technology, particularly with electronic scriptures, is how easily students can be distracted.
“There can be so much available that they can easily lose focus and wander aimlessly during scripture study,” Olsen said. “For many it’s just too much to have ‘Angry Birds,’ text messaging and the scriptures available during class. Not knowing what your students are looking at or doing during class can also be a distraction for a teacher.”
Slaughter agreed. It’s too easy for students to swipe to Facebook or Twitter, he said.
“Most kids are good about it, but there are always three or four in each class that are trying to get away with it. You want to trust kids to use electronics in class because there are great advantages to it, but I haven’t gotten to that point yet,” Slaughter said. “I’ve invited them to put it away. The reality is it requires self-discipline, just like everything else.”
Casperson requires students using a mobile device to place it flat on the desk, like a paper copy, so it is treated more like a book.
“This allows me to see exactly what’s on their screen,” Casperson said.
A priesthood leader in Colorado Springs handled it this way:
“In the Colorado Springs East Stake, electronic scriptures are not allowed in seminary,” Webb said. “That’s the stake president’s policy. That doesn’t mean we don’t have students who still try to use them.”
Morgan Allred, a junior at Syracuse High, has relished her seminary experience but has strong feelings about using traditional scriptures.
“I’m not too fond of scriptures on our phones; it’s too much of a distraction,” she said. “I prefer my print scriptures.”
Zack Willard, a junior at Clearfield High, said he also prefers “old school” scriptures.
“Honestly, it’s another temptation to not pay attention. You need a hard copy of the scriptures until you can learn to be mature,” he said. “I’m going to have my kids use a hard copy.”
Keeping traditional methods
All the teachers agreed that “old school” methods still work.
“There is nothing more powerful than the word of God,” Webb said. “Any technology should be used for the purpose of helping students feel the power of the word. Open the scriptures, read them, discuss them, testify of them and invite to act — that works whether I have a PowerPoint to assist me or a video to emphasize a principle.”
Asking the students to write their thoughts, feelings and impressions in a journal is another traditional method that doesn’t involve technology.
“We invite them to ponder and write because the Holy Ghost is a better teacher than any of us,” Slaughter said.
Helping the students understand their role and the role of the Holy Ghost in the learning process also makes a difference, Olsen said.
“I try to commit my students to making this hour in seminary an hour where they can find God through reverence, meditation and the whisperings of the still small voice,” Olsen said. “This can only be done by eliminating as many distractions as we possibly can.”
Brian Mickelson, another teacher at the Bear River Seminary, emphasized the social interaction.
“Electronics often distance us from other humans, and a traditional classroom setting offers opportunities to maintain human relationships and interaction,” Mickelson said. “Yahoo recently instructed employees to come into the office to increase collaboration and synergy. When it comes to the gospel, collaboration and synergy are so important. Face-to-face communication enhances that.”
When asked to speculate on future trends involving technology in seminary, Shepherd chuckled. He said seminaries and institutes would continue to teach the scriptures sequentially, helping students to understand the content and context as well as doctrines and principles.
“We’re a fairly cautious group. We’re cautious not to jump too far ahead,” Shepherd said. “When something is considered, we will ask, 'How does it enhance the experience that we value?'”
Some teachers see the day coming when most if not all students are using electronic scriptures. They also predict more out-of-class learning as young people access online resources and study activities.
“I see a student going home and having a very personalized experience online that parallels the classroom experience they had that morning in seminary,” Mickelson said.
Within 10 years, missionaries could be teaching investigators with iPads, Webb said.
“If that happens, then it will happen in seminary as well,” Webb said. “And they will have the maturity to stay off the Internet and use apps appropriate for class. I believe most of the teaching in the church will be done using technology. No one will have to spend five minutes looking for Thessalonians.”
Thousands more will have access to the gospel and the words of living prophets, Olsen said.
“Technology will be a tool for increasing personal testimony and conversion, resulting in more and more young people taking seminary,” Olsen said.
It wasn’t too long ago that getting projectors in each room was a big deal, Slaughter said, and now some are asking when they will get Apple TV. Regardless of the changes that might come, Slaughter said the core fundamentals will remain the same.
“Seminary still works, kids still come, they still share awesome personal experiences and feel the Holy Ghost. They will continue to build and strengthen each other,” Slaughter said. “It will always be a good place to be.”
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