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Using information technologies in religious education
Internet and religious education
Computer classes in Orthodox schools
CD-ROM textbook on Russian History
Electronic reading-room

Using information technologies in religious education

Computers and information technologies have penetrated almost all the spheres of life today, without passing by religious education. Computer facilities and telecommunications have already been fairly widely adopted in it. They have helped not only to increase the efficiency of the religious education system but also make it more understandable and interesting for modern man, especially the youth. After all, the information processing and communication have become today part of any educational process as important as teaching to write.

Precisely how are information technologies used in religious education today? Just as in other areas, the most popular use here is preparation of various texts, such as compositions, abstracts and term and graduation theses. Even this relatively simple use requires mastering a whole technological line. It is necessary to learn to use a scanner, a character recognition routine, a word-processor, imaging programs, a printer, etc. Once these skills are acquired, the document preparation process becomes much faster and much more exciting than the old "scissors and glue" technique.

Aware of the importance of computer literacy, schoolmasters of some Orthodox gymnasiums have set up computer classes in their schools and included informatics in their curriculum. Their computers are also used to write abstracts and to access educational aids on CD-ROMs and sometimes in the Internet, though for Orthodox schools the access to the Internet has been an exception rather than a rule. Computer classes are also valuable because the families of many pupils in Orthodox schools have no computers, and the informatics lessons for them are the primary and even only way to get introduced to information technologies in practice.

Great opportunities for using computers in education, including religious education, have opened up with the recent development of multimedia. Computers can now be used to integrate text, audio and video aids in a single electronic manual. Multimedia has already been used to develop special educational programs for Orthodox schools. For instance, the Orthodox Gymnasium of St. Sergius of Radonezh at Akademgorodok in Novosibirsk has produced a CD-ROM on "Russian History".

In addition to multimedia electronic manuals, CD-ROMs are used to collect Orthodox libraries. Thus, the Synodal Library of the Moscow Patriarchate has produced a series called "A Library of the Russian Religious-Philosophical and Ecclesiastical-Historical Thought at the Turn of the Century". The Omega Web-Center has issued a CD-ROM on "Orthodox Projects in the Internet" with a Library of the Orthodox Christian section containing over 250 electronic books on various Orthodox subjects.

The Orthodox sites in the Internet have constantly grown in number. Many of them are concerned directly with religious education, providing libraries of religious literature, programs for educational courses, methodological studies, information about Orthodox educational institutions, electronic versions of Orthodox newspapers and magazines and many other things.

Unfortunately, only a handful of the Russian Orthodox public has an access to the Internet. An interesting way out of this problem has been found by the Orthodox Brotherhood of St. Alexander Nevsky in Nizhni Novgorod. It has opened a special Internet class in its library for any subscriber to use Orthodox and other resources in the Internet.

The electronic communication at its present level of development holds out a great promise for remote education (RE). A development of extramural education, the RE opens up unprecedented opportunities for downloading textbooks from universities' servers through the Internet, sending in homework by e-mail, communicating with teachers through e-mail and online conferences, taking exams online, adjusting to individual study pace, etc. At present many secular schools have adopted various forms of remote-education. Orthodox schools are likely to use the RE possibilities in the nearest future as well. The first steps in this direction have already been made. Thus, St. Tikhon's Theological Institute has made it a practice to send homework to extramural students and to receive their abstracts and compositions by e-mail. It also plans to use more advanced forms of the RE, such as making educational aids and other materials available on its site to ensure the educational process.

This issue of our Newsletter gives in more detail some examples of using information technologies in religious education.

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Internet and religious education

The number of Russian Orthodox sites has increased rather rapidly to reach nearly 200. Many of them have sections intended for those who wish to know more about the Church. They carry sermons, talks, spiritually beneficial instructions, articles, etc. True, in most cases this information is fragmentary, useful for general churching rather than for a systematic study on a subject. However, more informed sites have appeared, intended for a more serious audience. Though this process has just started, there is a reason to hope that the number and level of these sites will grow in the nearest future.

What does the Internet offer today to those who are not simply interested in church life but desire to obtain a more or less systematic education on religious disciplines, and to those who teach them?

First of all, these are informational sites giving data about Orthodox educational institutions, methodological aids, announcements, etc. Prominent among them is the site of the Department for Religious Education and Catechism of the Russian Orthodox Church, devoted wholly to education (www.rel.org.ru). It offers a wide range of information about Orthodox higher education institutions, lyceums, gymnasiums and Sunday schools, as well as methodological aids, curricula, legal basis of religious education and many other things. This site is certainly useful and is friendly-structured.

Some other Orthodox educational institutes also have informational sites of their own. Among them, the Moscow Theological Academy (www.seminary.newmail.ru), St. Tikhon's Theological Institute (www.pstbi.ccas.ru), the Yekaterinburg Orthodox Pre-seminary (www.seminary.newmail.ru) and the Yasenevo Orthodox Classic School (www.orthodoxy.ru/classicschool).

It is necessary in any serious education to have access to a good library. Of course, the Internet cannot yet compare to major book depositories. At the same time, there are several Russian sites created specifically as electronic libraries of Orthodox literature. The fullest and best organized of them is the Library of the Orthodox Christian (www.wco.ru/biblio/). There are over 20 sections on various Orthodox themes, beginning from theology and apologetics to the present-day temptations and the end of the world. Every book can be read online or downloaded to one's own computer as a zip-file. Another option is to obtain the so-called "zip-book" for temporary use. It is a CD-ROM containing all the library reserves which can be copied free of charge. Another electronic Orthodox library can be found on the Mrezh site (www.librarium.orthodoxy.ru/).

There are fairly large collections of theological books in English. One of the fullest libraries can be found at www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/reading/St.Pachomius/globalindex.html.

Orthodox books can be also found at some specialized sites. For instance, the Orthodox Medical Server has a library of Orthodox books on problems of medicine and bioethics so topical for the Orthodox public. These books can be useful also for students of nursing schools whose curriculum includes religious subjects along with medical training.

Finally, the Internet can be used as a communication media. Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia spoke about the importance of developing this area for the needs of the Church as a whole at the Jubilee Bishops' Council in August 2000. He said in particular "The time has come to consider creating a single system of inter-church communications with the use of modern technologies".

Communication means have certainly found their place in religious education. Nowadays e-mail is used intensively in the educational process. Various forms of teleconferences and the so-called chats have become increasingly popular. Already now they play a certain enlightening role as they promote the knowledge of the Church and help to attract to Orthodoxy people who are far from it, especially the youth. With the development of remote education these forms of communication will certainly find their place in the process of systematic education as well.

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Computer classes in Orthodox schools

When two years ago I came to teach informatics to the Pleskovo Orthodox boarding-school, most of the Orthodox teachers and parents there believed the computer to be firstly a toy and secondly a bad toy and thirdly a harmful toy. Plus the radiation, the temptations, etc. The Internet was believed to be even more abhorrent. The reason for such views was most probably a lack of general education and understanding of the role that information technologies play in the world today. On top of that, there were occasional articles by some "scholars from Orthodoxy" on the harmfulness of computer technologies. In this situation there was no point in trying to persuade them to the contrary. There was only one way: to teach children and through them to educate their parents and teachers. Among the arguments in favour of computer literacy was the fact that it was a general school standard and an employment requirement.

Now the situation has changed in general for the better. The Pleskovo school administration welcomes all kinds of computer initiatives. Moreover, the school officials themselves have come to use information technologies ever more widely in their everyday work. The technical equipment of the classes has considerably improved. Pentiums have replaced the morally outdated 386- and 486-computers. Now the school has laser and colour inkjet printers, an excellent scanner, and a modem.

In 1999, I began to teach also in St. Vladimir's Educational Center. It already had a computer class, and the popular opinion held that computers were useful and necessary in the present-day education and in everyday life.

The structure and technical equipment of the computer classes in these two gymnasiums are almost the same. Both have ten Pentium computers united in a network, as well as printers, a scanner and a modem.

In both gymnasiums my course is described as "Basic Informatics and Computer Engineering". It includes basic formal logics, scale of notation, algorithmics, programming, word-processing, graphics, electronic tables and databases, as well as a brief introduction to the computer set-up and principles of function. I use as a basis the program developed in St. Petersburg by a team led by Ms. N. Makarova and their excellent textbook.

Lessons are held two hours a week in grades 9, 10 and 11. It is very insufficient. If two hours are added as an extracurricular course, some things may be taught more confidently. Still, a pupil needs some time to work on his own. Without it you will never make him computer-literate.

Noteworthy are some peculiarities and problems of teaching computer. Nowadays there is a great variety of software, programs, instruments, programming languages, etc. Their study is important in itself, but children should also be shown the mainstream of information technologies, their movement towards more user-friendly information systems and global databases and as a result to their more effective use for the benefit of all.

It should also be remembered that the study of informatics should not be limited to the computer processing of information. Education in informatics should place in a person's hands real instruments of working with audio and video information so that he may increase his communication range and certainly become more efficient in work with printed matter and libraries.

The use of computer technology makes the whole education process more interesting and effective. At present, the use of information technologies in teaching a particular subject is limited not so much by the technical deficiency of a computer class, but by the general cultural inadequacy of subject teachers with regard to information technologies and modern class organization. And I mean not only computers here.

For a long-time teacher it is natural and convenient to give lessons in the old fashion. Such teachers dominate in school. They bring to school time-honoured traditions, experience and build-ups. And this is fine. School has always been based on tradition. But today's pupil, unlike such a teacher, is more adjusted to the modern communication means and ready to absorb knowledge more intensively using the tools which now fill his everyday life and which have become as customary as a book, a notebook and a blackboard. I mean such things as video, computer and networks. The conventional lesson is often boring for a modern pupil. Most of these pupils can see how the lesson can be made more interesting with the use of information technologies, whereas teachers cannot.

Still, there are examples of computers being used outside informatics lessons. For instance, my kids and I have created a computer album of ornaments and graphic primitives. We have had to scan, edit and lay out pictures. We have matched them in style, form, tradition, etc. The computer can be used in a similar way for patterns in woodcarving, embroidery and bead braiding. It is an excellent way for studying Russian crafts.

Computers have also been used to produce school newspapers. Children can make them up as well as professional publishers.

Now we are completing the preparation of Internet sites. We hope that they will not only help the kids to master the modern technologies of presenting and distributing information, but also add some more bright spots to offset the great amount of negative information filling the World Web today.

A.V. Vasilkov

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CD-ROM textbook on Russian History

The Orthodox Gymnasium of St. Sergius of Radonezh at Akademgorodok in Novosibirsk was opened in 1992. As a general school, the Orthodox gymnasium had to teach all disciplines, including mathematics, geography and physical culture, on a high level. But while the teaching of mathematics needed just a qualified and caring teacher and physics and other natural disciplines just the exclusion of no longer obligatory "achievements of scientific atheism", Russian literature and Russian history required a major research pedagogical effort to be made from the first days of the Orthodox gymnasium.

In the same year, a national three-stage contest was announced for new textbooks and educational aids under the Renewal of Humanitarian Education in Russia project. The contest was open for all and the jury was made up of experts selected by the Ministry of Education and the State Committee for Higher Education. The names of individual authors and teams were encoded. Over 1500 authors and authors' teams took part in the contest.

The new Orthodox gymnasium's teachers wrote hastily two textbooks. T. Borisova and S. Chernova-Smirnova wrote one on Russian Literature and N. Gorelova and B. Pivovarov wrote another on Russian History. Both textbooks passed successfully all the three stages of the national contest and were published in 1994-1995 among the winner textbooks to be tested in Russian schools.

The textbook on Russian History was intended for the secondary school fifth-graders. It has an introduction to the Russian history covering the long historical period from the first surviving references to the Slavs to the shaping of Moscovia under Ivan III. The concept of the textbook can be judged to some extent from the names of its chapters, namely, 1. How To Study the Russian History? 2. On the Dawn of the Russian History. 3. Enlightenment of Rus'. 4. Fratricidal Strife in Rus'. 5. Expansion of Rus'. 6. Shield and Glory of Rus'. 7. Trials of the Russian Land. 8. The Revived Rus' - Russia. Altogether there are 34 paragraphs in the textbook and several interesting supplements.

The Russian History textbook has been sold out in many regions of the country. It is used in various schools and has received most favourable reviews. As it was distributed the demand for it grew and its copies soon ran out. When the Orthodox gymnasium could no longer sent out copies on demand, an opportunity presented itself, thank God, to reproduce it, but in a completely new, electronic form for distribution on CD-ROMs.

The multimedia textbook on Russian History was prepared by the Orthodox Gymnasium Publishers together with the Multimedia Center of the Novosibirsk State University. This extensive and painstaking work was carried out within a short period of time, and before Easter the first copies of the Russian History were produced with the help of the up-to-date technology. The first to receive this new educational aid were the schools that had already taught history using the Russian History published in 1995.

Schoolchildren in the Orthodox gymnasium and other schools, which use this unique and universal manual, have an opportunity now not only to assimilate the text better but also use many new sections and supplements in which a vast and diverse educational, scholarly and methodological material is accumulated and systematized.

Debates on the use of computers continue… Of course, the computer may do damage to one's health and formation and, unfortunately, it does if used inappropriately. But the computer has already entered school and the teaching practice and become an integral part of the new educational technologies. Moreover, with the appropriate use of computers, new opportunities have opened up both for teachers and students. At present, the use of computers in teaching historical disciplines in school is very limited, while the necessary programs and educational aids for the primary and secondary graders are altogether absent. Meanwhile, programs with multimedia components are best suited precisely for teaching history in primary and secondary schools in which the diversity and vividness of training aids and the richness and accessibility of references are very important for the educational process.

The text of the multimedia manual on Russian History is not only arranged in a format comfortable for reading from a screen, but also voiced by specialists and children from the gymnasium. The texts are equipped with numerous blue hyperlinks leading to references, such as names of prominent people, designations of monuments of literature and art, outstanding historical events and important historical terms.

The very first section of the manual called "Lessons" offers various ways of studying the historical material as its hyperlinks take one to other sections, "Reference Book", "Museum of Old Russia" and "Library".

The Reference Book gives information about historical events, Russian princes and prominent persons in Russian history as well as historical monuments and renowned Russian historiographs.

The Museum of Old Rus' has several subsections on the Art of Old Rus', the Architecture of Old Rus', the Old Russian Book, the Material Culture of Old Rus' and the Historical Theme in Art. Students have an opportunity to make a tour through Old Russian cities, to see the magnificent churches of Old Rus' and the works of the greatest Russian icon-painters including St. Andrew Rublev, Theophanes the Greek and Dionysios, and to get in touch with the book art and other treasures of Old Rus'. The subsection on the Historical Theme in Art pictures paintings by renowned Russian artists on historical themes.

The Library of the multimedia manual contains the texts of a whole series of remarkable Old Russian manuscripts, such as chronicles, Lives of Saints, tales and epics. There are also articles by prominent scholars, historians and philologists, who offer a rich material for a teacher of Russian History and can help a student to make first steps in his own research. This subsection opens up unique opportunities for enriching the teaching with various reading-books. There is also a methodological material, such as questions and exercises, recommended practical training lessons and vivid examples of using new materials for teaching Russian history. Special attention is given to materials that can be used in preparations for the Day of Slavonic Literature and Culture celebrated every July.

Among the best features of this manual is the concluding section called "Tests". It gives tasks to test one's knowledge of every section of the manual. A self-test verifies both the quality of answers and the rate of correct answers. The tests are exciting and a self-test is always an enthralling task. The experience of using this manual has shown that historical material is assimilated better if a student has an opportunity to test his knowledge.

One can say a lot more about this remarkable manual. Both a teacher and a student will find in it striking book miniatures from chronicles, genealogical tables, portraits of Russian princes, original diagrams and "live" maps. After trying this manual one can feel the sincere love of its creators for Russian history and this love cannot but infect the user. It pictures the Russian history not only through vast and diverse historical information and names and dates. It animates it with shrines of the Russian land, striking chronicle lines, amazing feats of our ancestors, terrible but edifying pictures of the troubled times, and the faith, hope and Christian love of those with whom we are tied by the bonds of Russian history. At the same time, Russian history is not divided into secular and ecclesiastical histories, nor has it ever been divided into them.

The approach used to write the textbook on Russian History, which came out in 1995, was based on source studies. The manual gave answers not only to the questions: What? Where? When? First of all it sought to give answers to the question: From what do we know the events of ancients times? Who has preserved the surviving monuments of Russian literature and culture and how? Where are the traces of the historical past of our homeland visible today? What do the surviving historical sources tell us? Encounter with the sources and shrines of our native land brings us closer to the origins of our history and teaches us to cherish Russia's spiritual history. The CD-ROM version of the textbook on Russian History, which has came out in the jubilee year 2000, has preserved the same approach of source study. It remains only to wish that the creators of this remarkable textbook of the 21st century may continue this original and exciting academic and pedagogical work to cover further periods in the history of our homeland.

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Electronic reading-room of the Brotherhood of St. Alexander Nevsky in Nizhni Novgorod

The debate on weather the Internet global computer network can be used for the glory of God is going in full swing. Many are already over head and ears in it, maintaining their own sites, creating libraries, discussing and exchanging views at network conferences, reading news reports or feeding them in news lines. Others are still cautious, thinking over the apocalyptic prospects of total control over man through the world web and over the virtualization and disdeification of the computer man…

One can hardly disagree that the web information space can be dangerous for the human soul. But "you will recognize them by their deeds". Indeed, what is important is first of all how our free will uses this modern "stone axe". Is it used to procure our livelihood or to build a home or to smash our neighbour's head? The Internet can be used for both the benefit of the Church on earth and the corruption of a Christian soul.

The Brotherhood of St. Alexander Nevsky in Nizhni Novgorod has been fascinated with the idea of attracting youth to Orthodoxy through the Internet. On the analogy of a book reading-room, it has opened, with the help of benefactors, an electronic reading-room. Several computers can be used by any visitor, especially young subscribers of the Brotherhood's library, to access the Orthodox resources in the Internet.

Those "knowledgeable" among us have been quick to realize the usefulness of this initiative and have come to appreciate the opportunities it has offered. The students of the school of iconography have begun to look through the iconograpic libraries. The choir conductor, using special software, has recorded and duplicated the music of rare hymns so essential for the Brotherhood's church choir. Young priests from nearby churches and students have started coming one after another to make it easier for themselves to write theses and make studies at theological schools. A group of young people from the Brotherhood, who previously wondered in search for a place for themselves, have suddenly found a lot of new friends and interlocutors at "Kurayev's Forum". Orthodox libraries, recorded music, graphic collections - all this has become easily accessible. Without leaving the reading-room, it is now possible to make pilgrimages to many Orthodox monasteries in Russia and in the world, to see shrines, to read Lives of Saints, to make an in-depth theological analysis and to get an answer to the simplest questions about religious life. The searching soul of a young person, without getting an inferiority complex in the modern milieu, can thus open himself or herself towards God, while meeting the claims of the global realities on the threshold of a third millennium.

A.V. Starichenkov

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