Hey everybody, it’s Catholic Schools Week, that magical time of year when Catholic theology teachers such as myself come out of the woodwork to share 1) reflections on our craft or 2) the next big thing.
This year: the next big thing.
I know, I know. You were all looking forward to some reflection on what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century or some Catholic Identity vs. Common Core grudge match. I get it. You really never can have enough case studies or long-winded drivel about stuff you already know. Yeah. If you want to continue to be bored with the likes of that, just stop reading the post right now, because I’ve got something SUPER exciting to share with you all.
Behold, the Mass Explained app.
As regular readers know, Andrew (T&C’s editor) and I are theology teachers at Loyola College Prep, a leading 1:1 iPad school. Like other theology departments across the country, we use a classroom set of textbooks our students are unable to take home with them, limiting their ability to do effective, meaningful homework. The iPad promised a solution to that problem, but we’ve been left waiting as textbook after textbook on math, science, and history filled iTunes’ shelves, but Catholic companies failed to deliver. At one desperate point, we even considered writing our own textbooks, but hit roadblocks with the USCCB’s highly restrictive copyrights. Well, my dear educators, the textbook industry has kept us waiting long enough. No more.
Developed by Dan Gonzalez, a Catholic revert moved by his passion for liturgy, Mass Explained meets the needs of teachers with the kind of abundant information, engaging interactivity, and cultural immersion we’ve come to expect from the vast resources of the information age. The best part? It’s all at your fingertips.
There are TONS of pros.
Within the first few minutes of
playing around exploring the app, I’d discovered not only a sound, orthodox description of the Liturgy of the Word, but a highly functional, beautifully designed format that features all the familiarity of a textbook without the static flatness teachers and students are so accustomed to. The informational content is rich: a quick survey will reveal quotes from conciliar documents, the Catechism, Scripture, and a plethora of Early Church Fathers and saints. The content sequence is well-ordered (it follows the Mass) and the scope is deep. The Mass Explained outperforms many traditional textbooks on the same topic.
Quite the opposite of a traditional book, however, these pages come alive; from tabbed windows and sliders featuring different sidebar factoids, to chronological samplers of different liturgical music, to Renaissance paintings and high-quality panoramas that allow the user to scroll and zoom for a greater appreciation of the real-world art they represent, to 3-dimensional objects you can turn with the flick of a finger or get audio descriptions of with a simple tap, to embedded videos explaining ancient customs that find their fulfillment in the Mass, this app surpasses its aim to stimulate minds young and old with holy learning. Don’t believe me? Check out some of my favorite screenshots below.
Speaking as a teacher, the book could be used as an extremely thorough introduction to the Mass, although most high school curricula simply wouldn’t allow enough time (this is what we call “a good problem to have” – the book is just that stuffed with great content). What might be a more useful approach is for teachers within a single theology department to use the app as a supplement. Basic overviews could be done in freshman theology during the unit on the Mass. A scripture teacher, such as myself, could utilize references to the scriptural foreshadowing of the Mass when studying the Passover. A Church history teacher could go over the development of the Mass and liturgical music. There are perhaps far more options here than in using the book straight through in a single series of lessons. (See my note at the bottom of the post.**)
I found only a small handful of downsides, the first two of which could be/will be resolved easily enough.
- It’s only Volume One. This app covers the Introductory Rites and the Liturgy of the Word. The app covering the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Concluding Rites is still in production. That’s not a huge negative, but incomplete materials do make it difficult to use the book in an educational setting for the time being.
- It’s not on the USCCB textbook conformity list. While I suppose it’s not technically a textbook, that’s hairsplitting. The fact is that many bishops require textbooks in their schools to be on this list. Dan Gonzalez, the developer, has expressed to me that he intends to work out a curriculum.
- Cost. At the stand-alone cost of $25 – a price tag justified by licensing for all the great features and the exclusion of in-app ads – it’s a bit steep for some school budgets. Never fear! Schools can utilize Apple’s 50% bulk purchase discount for a more reasonably priced product. The bulk price runs just under Apple’s price cap at $14.99/book. On the one hand, $12.50 is very affordable for what is an AWESOME text. If it were a traditional book, folks would understand a text of this quality being much higher priced. On the other hand, apps tend to run at a lower cost than “real life” books, and purchasing this whole app for what amounts to a single unit in the typical freshman theology course – not that I like that fact – makes it perhaps a bit on the cost-prohibitive side for many schools. That’s a shame, too, because it really is brilliantly made. (Catholic app developers: see one solution I found to this problem at the bottom of this post.**)
Overall, the Mass Explained app is an impressive endeavor featuring info-packed digital pages chock full of embedded media to capture the attention of any reader. I was struck several times by how the app reminded me of the fun and informative DK encyclopedias I used to get lost in as a child. I’m very familiar with the Mass. I have a degree in theology. I teach religion for a living. The app was still very engaging and informative. I learned from it. So can you. So can your students.
Now, if we can just convince them to make apps for other sections of high school theology curriculum.
Happy Catholic Schools Week!
*The Mass Explained app is exempt from Apple’s price cap because it is sold as an app through the App Store rather than as a book through the Book app.