The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them. ~Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand, and Stars, 1939
What has new technology brought into our world, into our lives, and into the experiences of learning and teaching? What can we do now that we could not do before? What can we do more easily or with greater effect? And, how do we make use of our new capabilities in ways that genuinely enhance education and do not merely distract us with technological wizardry?
It is by now obvious that technology can be used in many ways to facilitate the process of teaching and learning. But, as we have emphasized, this understates its potential impact. Technology is certainly not a magic bullet for learning, but neither is it just another useful addition to the educational landscape. Rather, technology has the potential to transform education – including Jewish education –because it changes our world in three fundamental ways:
- it empowers learners;
- it expands the boundaries of time and space; and
- it enables us to engage in learning in multiple and diverse ways.
The greatest threat to all authoritarian regimes today comes not from armed uprisings, external enemies, or alternative ideologies. It comes from the internet and from the radical opening up and democratization of communication that the internet has made possible. In journalism, those with something to say no longer have to wait for an editor to give the OK to write an article. Thanks to blogs, Youtube and even Twitter, everyone can become a journalist if they so choose. For writers, this means having the opportunity to reach an audience without layers of “gatekeepers” standing in the way. For readers, it means access to a much wider range of ideas and information, and the ability to choose which to attend to and which to ignore. For publishers of traditional newspapers and other forms of conventional journalism, it means needing to develop new business models -- a quest that is proving challenging indeed!
Some of this same power is now available to every learner, and will almost surely have the same impact on our "business models" for education. Learners need no longer depend on a single authoritative source of information (“the teacher” or “the curriculum”) to tell them what is available to know and what they ought to know. Whether they choose to exercise this power or not, they are aware that they have options, that there are vast stores of ideas and information available to them literally at the touch of a button. They are also aware that they have the power to be not just absorbers of knowledge, but creators and transmitters. They can express their thoughts and opinions and share them with anyone who cares to read or listen to them – even while they’re sitting in class.
To be sure, this is not the reality of education today. We are still living between two eras: the era of “top-down” education and the era of learner empowerment. It is also true that as far as formalized educational structures and systems are concerned, the latter may never, and perhaps should never, fully displace the former. But, it is clear which way momentum is carrying us. Both the tools and the culture of contemporary technology are inevitably and inexorably making learning more horizontal, more participatory, more discretionary. Schools and other educational settings will either adapt to, incorporate, and take advantage of learner empowerment or their role in the overall process of education will diminish. In a recent blog post, Seth Grodin noted that there are two potential business models for education today: Business model #1: Education is scarce, expensive, and school-based; Business model #2: Education is abundant, free, and learning-based. While the first model may still be viable in some circumstances, for some audiences, and for some purposes (think Ivy League universities), the second is already placing pressure on traditional institutions, and there is every likelihood that it will continue to grow in prominence.
This shift of power to the learner may create a sense of insecurity among teachers who feel their authority under siege and worry that they cannot live up to the expectations of their learners to be both engaging and effective. (It will almost surely frighten educational institutions and their leaders as well.) It can certainly be intimidating. But, looked at from another perspective, learner empowerment is exactly what every good teacher should seek. Imagine settings where learners are empowered enough to create curriculum along with educators; to take the initiative to seek out new sources of knowledge; to produce videos, websites, or podcasts that share what they have learned with others; to become “auto-didacts” and perhaps conclude that having learned how to learn and how to teach, they might as well become educators themselves. What teacher, what institution, would not celebrate students such as these? The value of technology is that it makes this kind of teaching and learning easier, more engaging, and more likely to be effective, certainly for today’s students already living in our technology-infused culture. The risks – a devaluation of quality and judgment, a confusion of education and entertainment – are outweighed by the potential for making learning come alive as something that is both personal and shared.
Learner empowerment is also part of the Jewish vision of education. The great revolution effected by the rabbis of the Talmudic era was to transform Torah from something that one heard, to something that one studied, wrestled with, and reshaped – and to do this not only for an elite caste, but, at least in principle, for everyone. The Jewish ideal of learning is a democratic one. Yes, great teachers are respected and their opinions given great weight. But, anyone with the requisite intellect and sufficient motivation can bring his, and today, her, insights to bear as well and become part of the chain of learning and teaching that continues across the generations.
Technology has the power to bring this vision closer to realization. By facilitating learning in a way that also gives the learner a greater sense of control and a greater capacity to contribute her or his own ideas, technology subtly changes the relationship of the learner to the material being learned. The content is now “ours,” in our hearts, on our lips, in our minds. We own it, and we are responsible for it. Isn’t this what we seek in Jewish education – to have our students feel that they are learning something that is part of their own identity, not facts they are obligated to know, but ideas that express who they are, what they believe, and what they can do as much as their Facebook profile does?
For certain, this is an idealized picture of what technology can bring to Jewish education by empowering learners in new ways. But, it is not a farfetched one – if we grasp this potential and work to fulfill it.
Technology’s ability to empower learners is not limited to students. We know the importance of continuing learning from the classroom to the home and having parents engage in meaningful conversations with their children about what they are learning. But, especially with respect to Jewish education, many parents are and feel disempowered. Their own knowledge may be minimal, and they are not privy to what their children are being exposed to. Their role in supporting their children’s Jewish learning is undercut, which in turn diminishes the likelihood that their children will feel motivated and empowered to invest in their own learning.
Technology can help to overcome both of these barriers. Conventional adult and family education are valuable ways of engaging parents in Jewish learning. But, the constraints on parents’ time and the way in which much adult and family programming is delivered limit its success in truly empowering parents as Jewish learners. If our goal is to make Jewish learning an integral and organic part of a family’s life, then parents must have the ability to access Jewish ideas and information when it is most immediately relevant – in response to real questions, in real time. This is what technology make possible. The very fact that there is a wealth of Jewish information readily accessible on the internet encourages parents to ask and to have their children ask Jewish questions in the course of their daily lives that they might never have thought or been confident enough to raise before.
Technology can also help parents participate far more directly and readily in their children’s formal learning. Some schools have established online forums where educators inform parents of the day’s curriculum and provide key questions to discuss with their children. Enabling parents to be educators outside the classroom changes their children’s relationship to the material being studied as well as their own. It is a critical step toward overcoming what is probably the single greatest impediment to Jewish education’s success: the gap between school and life that segregates the former into a position of perceived irrelevancy beyond its own boundaries.
Empowering Adult Learners
What applies to parents applies to adults more generally. There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence that suggests that many adults feel less than competent as Jews and that this alienates them from Jewish life. Adults may be understandably reluctant to ask simple questions to which they feel they ought to know the answer. It can be both humbling and embarrassing to be an adult learner, especially in an environment where those around us have much more knowledge.
Technology not only makes the process of seeking knowledge as an adult easier and more private; it validates the search itself. Today, when Google has become a verb more ubiquitous than Xerox, no one would expect individuals to have all the relevant knowledge they need in their heads – instead, it’s (literally) at their fingertips! By empowering adults not to know and simultaneously providing them with accessible pathways to overcome their lack of knowledge, contemporary technology removes one of the most potent barriers to adult engagement (or re-engagement) with Jewish life and institutions.
Happily, Jewish institutions are beginning to recognize this. Several synagogues have created online forums where people can anonymously ask their questions, rather than approaching a rabbi or teacher. Websites such as MyJewishLearning.com and JewFaq101.com allow people to search for and find information to answer a wide range of questions at multiple levels of detail. These tools may allow learners to feel confident enough to enter learning environments where they can experience Jewish study in more traditional and social forms.
Technology makes learning easier and more enjoyable. But, even more important, it gives nearly every the learner the ability to shape his or her experience in ways that only a handful could do in the past.
In our digital world, where students’ ears are plugged into an iPod, their eyes are locked onto a computer screen, and their hands are busy texting on their mobile phones, it’s easy to focus on the devices and conclude, often disapprovingly, that they are shutting themselves off from “the real world.” There’s an element of truth to this accusation if by “real world” we mean what is going on in their immediate surroundings. But, in another sense, what they are doing is connecting to a wider world, a world in which conventional boundaries of time and space are transcended. They may be listening to an Israeli pop song or a university lecture. The picture on their screen may be a diagram of the Temple in Jerusalem or a video made by friends at a Jewish camp. The text they’re typing may be a shout out to an advisor they met at a youth group convention.
Technology’s power to expand the boundaries of time and space is both practical and existential. It is a truism that education is not confined to the classroom. Technology means that even the classroom is not confined to the classroom! In one 45 minute time slot, teachers have the ability to take their students to multiple worlds, through films, videoconferencing, the web, or podcasts. And, if that time period is not enough, there are no restrictions to prevent the journey from moving beyond the classroom. With technology becoming increasingly portable, time and space fade as constraints on when and where we learn.
Didn’t finish debating the brief video clip in class? Have students post their reactions on a blog overnight. Want to prevent students from falling off the face of the earth during summer vacation? Send them periodic messages with links to Youtube or podcasts. Not enough books or computers in the classroom? The full Tanakh, in Hebrew and English is available as an iPhone application, which students then carry with the outside of the classroom walls. Even Twitter, with its 140 character limit per message, can be harnessed by the creative educator or student to be a tool for learning.
Students need constant stimulation and immersion in a subject matter to fully engage. They may need help on a project after school or on the weekend. They may need the motivation of seeing what their peers are working on. Classroom blogs, online chats and Skype tele- and videoconferencing make it possible for all of these to take place. Is a class a community only in the classroom, or should students and teachers be there for one another when needed at any time as well? With technology, they can be.
The capacity of technology to connect us immediately and transparently to both people and content means that the constraints of the physical world need no longer limit our pedagogic imaginations. The ability to represent digitally virtually anything that can be seen or heard makes it possible for learners to experience images and sounds they once could only read or hear about second-hand. Thanks to technology, the old notion of the world as our classroom has now become a practical possibility. And, we can experience not just today’s world, but the world of medieval knights and primeval dinosaurs. Is there reason to doubt that as technology evolves, these experiences will be increasingly vivid, increasingly “real”?
This kind of intimate access to people, objects and events far away and long ago inevitably changes our sense of self. Our perception of the world and thus of ourselves is no longer constrained by our immediate physical surroundings. Observers have noted how individuals feel freer to assume alternate identities in cyberspace. Indeed, as we know, there are entire virtual worlds where our avatars live lives like or unlike our own (including attending or not attending synagogue). But, even short of assuming alternate identities, by creating new sets of relationships and expanding the boundaries of our experience, technology changes our perception of others and of our own place in the world. It is no accident that the generation of technology users is also the one most tolerant of diversity, most global in its concerns, and most multi-dimensional and fluid in its own identity.
This change in how we see ourselves and others is both the product of and a further spur to technology-infused learning. It is hard to imagine that young people brought up to believe that the world is just a mouse click away will be satisfied with education that asks them to narrow their field of vision and the tools they use to learn. This is another reason why Jewish education cannot thrive if it is narrow either in its content or its methods. A very old song asked, “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” We might ask a similar question: “How will we keep Jews learning facts from worksheets and textbooks after they’ve seen the world?” They won’t, and they need not if we press harder to make the use of technology normative in our practice.
For us as Jews, a global people with a long history, technology’s ability to help us expand the boundaries of time and space is precious. Used wisely and creatively, technology enables us to give flesh to the bones of concepts like “Peoplehood” and “homeland” that may otherwise seem abstract and distant. Technology allows us to experience the diversity and plenitude of Jewish creativity over milennia, and also to feel an intimate connection with another Jew who may be living half a world away. Technology is our greatest ally in de-parochializing Jewish education; it shows us that what happens in one synagogue or one community is a microcosm of a much grander collective endeavor that spans continents and centuries.
Facilitating Customized, Multi-dimensional, Multi-sensory Learning
No two people learn in the same way. No two people are stimulated in their learning by the same content, teachers and experiences. Even a single individual may learn differently from subject to subject, day to day. Good educational practice today recognizes the need to incorporate multiple approaches to teaching in order to accommodate multiple intelligences and multiple learning styles. Differentiated instruction and individualized learning are hallmarks of contemporary pedagogy.
Individuals have come to expect customized, personalized experiences in many arenas of their lives (see Don Tapscott, The Net Generation) -- often made possible through technology. Customization is the flip side of empowerment. If I can choose my own music playlist to reflect my taste and mood, why shouldn't I also be able to learn in the ways best suited to my interests and aptitudes? The ideal of a fully customized, personalized learning process for each student may be difficult to attain, given the structural and resource constraints within which education (including Jewish education) typically operates. And, there are many approaches to providing more diverse and customized learning being practiced today that do not depend on technology. But, technology can enable us to approach this ideal far more closely that we otherwise might. Using some of the sophisticated hardware and software available today, learners can not only work at their own pace on materials geared to their individual learning needs and interests, but also have their learning trajectories adjusted in real time to reflect how they are progressing.
But, there is more involved than simply fine tuning teaching to reach different students. When planning a big event, a smart planner looks at more than just the program. She thinks about food, music, appropriate lighting, comfortable seating and atmosphere, even good aromas. Why? Because the human body is most engaged when all five senses are involved. This is true for learning as well. Even for verbally oriented students, putting a page of text in front of them, or reading it out loud, may not be enough to capture their full attention or stimulate their most enthusiastic engagement. Especially in a media-saturated world, education is most powerful when it is a multi-sensory experience.
Because of the ways it expands boundaries of time and space, technology provides students with access to a rich array of experiences, visual, auditory, as well as experiences of collaborative problem solving and collective creative work, that can engage diverse learners and deepen the engagement of an individual student. Technology can even be used to create virtual worlds – the world of the Talmud, perhaps – in which students can pursue a wide range of activities and encounters and immerse themselves in multi-sensory environments that could never be replicated in the classroom. The most intricate example of this today is Second Life, where students can create their own identity, and a virtual world replete with friends, hobbies, commerce, and learning opportunities.
Jewish education, perhaps even more than education generally, needs to be customized, multi-dimensional, and multi-sensory. There is no better prototype for this than the Passover Seder, perhaps the quintessential Jewish educational experience and one that is clearly all of these things. It is difficult to imagine a virtual Seder that can equal the real thing (at least not until our computers are able to dispense a bowl of chicken soup like a Star Trek replicator). But, technology certainly can and is giving people the opportunity to encounter Passover, the Seder, and Haggadot in ways and from perspectives that would be difficult to imagine without it. Technology allows us to experience the beauty of dozens of illustrated Haggadot, to hear numerous melodies for our favorite Passover songs, and even to find recipes for varieties of haroseth we might not have known existed. Technology alone will not ensure that Jewish education is attuned to the diverse capabilities and sensibilities represented in all and in each of us. But, it can help us make Jewish learning the diverse, multi-dimensional, multi-sensory experience it needs to be.
Next: Technology in Action