Brave New Tech World Awaits Jewish Education

Brave New Tech World Awaits Jewish Education

This year I attended a Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebration. There were hundreds of kids from Israel, San Francisco, New York and Turkey eating falafel and dancing to Hadag Nachash, Israel’s premier hip-hop band.

I happened to be in my living room, and this dance party was taking place on computer screens against the backdrop of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The dancing students were avatars created by Jewish students from across the world. The context was a course being taught in several Jewish day schools and supplemental programs about Jewish peoplehood — and it was all taking place within a virtual world.

Technology has always impacted classrooms. In the 19th century it was the introduction of the chalkboard, in the 20th century it was the radio, followed by television and the VCR. But despite these additions, instruction in most schools remained largely unchanged. The teacher, invariably positioned at the front of the classroom, imparted her (let’s be honest — it was typically a her) wisdom to students, albeit with the addition of some chalk, or an audio-visual broadcast.

In the virtual Yom Ha’Atzmaut dance party, however, we are witnessing something very different.

Already many of our classrooms are filled with computers, smart boards, wireless routers, iPods and iPads. However, the power of today’s technology is fundamentally not an issue of hardware. Technology in the 21st century has radically changed the way people live, and in doing so education has had no choice but to adapt accordingly. These changes are also reflected in the Jewish world, with Jews “doing Jewish” in very different ways. Some Jewish educators are beginning to modify their practices. And despite taking place in cyberspace, for many of these learners, the experiences are very real.

There are three emerging trends that give us a glimpse into the future of Jewish education. I predict that mobile-, facilitated- and producer-based learning will become even more commonplace in Jewish educational settings in the years to come.

Mobile: When people want to know something today they increasingly reach for their handheld device. But when you walk into many classrooms today you will still hear teachers asking students to put away their cell phones. Imagine a classroom where the initial instruction is not “turn off your cell phones” but rather “take your cell phones out of your bags” — where students are encouraged to harness the power of a device that’s become part of their very existence.

In one congregational high school program a teacher conducts a weekly Jewish quiz with students using their phones to find information and texting their responses to a central response system. In a community-wide supplementary school in the Northeast there are discussions about creating and conducting scavenger hunts of their local Jewish community utilizing the GPS capabilities of their cell phones.

Students in these schools are engaged learners, largely because what they are being asked to do fits into the context of the rest of their lives.

Facilitated: This reliance on technology for information can be seen as threatening because at its core it challenges the role of authority in Jewish life. The role of the educator, the rabbi and the text all take on very different roles when students are motivated to search the Internet rather than rely on a single source of information. The educator is transformed from the source of all wisdom, to the facilitator of meaningful interactions between people, organizations and information. But this is ultimately a far more extensive, powerful and enduring role in the lives of our learners.

No more has this been apparent in classrooms where contemporary Israel is being discussed. Students who treat with disdain textbooks that espouse a black-and-white view of Israel prefer to be guided through thousands of websites that provide a multiplicity of views. Together, with their peers and facilitated by their educators, students are empowered to reach their own conclusions on what we all know is a very complex and nuanced topic.

Producers: In some congregational schools elementary-age students are encouraged to create projects utilizing animated PowerPoint presentations, podcasts, YouTube videos — and some are even considering having students develop the early stages of online video games. In doing so, today’s youth are being transformed from consumers of information to producers of knowledge.

Recently I attended a conference where we were shown a humorous animated Torah portion from the G-dCast series. While most of the crowd was inspired by what they had seen, one older audience member remarked, “but that isn’t true to the text.” This comment hits at the very essence of one of the major transformations taking place in the world. Today, in a democratic, free and open-sourced society, every person’s voice is of value, and from that, we must choose what is valuable to us.

Technology enables everyone’s words to be heard and shared by the masses. By becoming active producers rather than passive recipients, G-dCast and the literally thousands of Jewish YouTube videos, Jewish Facebook pages and Jewish tweets are creating relevant and meaningful Jewish life for thousands of Jews today.

Any discussion about technology and education inevitably faces some of the pitfalls associated with social media. Critics are quick to point to incidents of cyber-bullying, privacy, lashon hara (gossip) and stalkers, as examples of the negative impact that social media is having on today’s society. Most of our fears can be alleviated once educators understand that in many cases technology is often just a contemporary manifestation of age-old phenomena: texting is the modern equivalent of passing a note, and surfing the Internet instead of being on the “right website” reminds us of the student who placed a comic book inside his or her textbook. These fears cannot be enough to scare us from utilizing this technology.

Whereas once these negative associations were deterrents, many organizations are beginning to realize the technology deserves considered attention. As Lisa Colton, director of DarimOnline says, “The risk of not utilizing social media today far outweighs the risks associated with using social media.”

In 1962 “The Jetsons” first appeared on television. Hovercrafts, video screens, computers and robots all represented the futuristic utopia of 2062. Although off the mark by 50-plus years, it was imagination grounded in 1960s technology that allowed the world of “The Jetsons” to be created. What will the world of Jewish education look like in 50 years time? Look at what you, your friends and colleagues are currently using in terms of technology — and then let our imaginations run wild with endless possibilities.

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