While no one will mistake the nearby day school or synagogue for the Google headquarters anytime soon, the Jewish educational world is starting to accelerate from the digital superhighway’s on- ramp to the middle lane.
As we report this week, Behrman House — the almost-100-year-old publishing company best known for its workbooks and other printed materials for Hebrew schools — is partnering with Israel’s Center for Educational Technology to launch jLearningLabs, an incubator for creating Jewish educational games, apps and other high-tech products.
It’s hardly the publisher’s first foray into digital: last year Behrman launched an “online learning center,” which includes classroom-management and assessment software, along with online access to lesson plans, texts, educational games and other materials. Some 300 congregational schools are starting to incorporate the materials into their programs. But jLearningLabs could dramatically expedite the development of sophisticated, engaging Jewish educational tools — something many skeptics have long said was too expensive to develop for such a small niche market.
Meanwhile, another ambitious company — the Washington, D.C.-based ShalomLearning — recently entered the scene, offering a modular Hebrew school curriculum that blends online, family education and in-person encounters, with the goal of catering to busy families.
Technology is even more of a presence in day schools, a growing number of which are experimenting with iPads, blended learning, online portfolios, collaborative projects and “flipped classrooms.”
Then there’s the recent debut of Jewish Time Jump, a mobile GPS game that aims to teach Jewish immigrant history. There are now mobile apps for everything from practicing Torah chanting to teaching the aleph-bet to toddlers, and several ambitious and potentially groundbreaking efforts are underway to make the Jewish canon easily accessible to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection. All of these developments herald a tipping point.
While we welcome the promise of leveraging technology to bring Judaism to more people, we must not allow ourselves to become so seduced by technology that we allow Jewish life to fall victim to the often soulless, consumer-focused and alienating pace of modern-day life, in which screens and 2.0 social networking replace real-life face-to-face connections.
Jewish educators may do well to recall the tradition marking a child’s first day of formal learning, in which the new student’s first encounter with the Hebrew alphabet is sweetened with a dollop of honey.
While games and gadgetry may sweeten learning, we must also make sure to leave room for the real-world sensory experiences from which we learn most deeply: the taste of gooey honey on the tongue, the heavy feel of a Torah scroll in one’s arms, the warmth of a handshake or hug and the serendipity of a spontaneous teacher-student conversation during an encounter in the hallway or lunchroom.