In the previous sections we have tried to make the case that technology is more than an educational frill or gimmick, that it can profoundly enhance and transform Jewish learning and learning in general. We have noted as well that this is a revolution already underway. Each day more examples appear of ways in which creative educators are using technology to turn concepts like “empowering learners,” “expanding boundaries,” and “diversifying learning” into realities. Some of these examples have already been cited; others are elaborated on in the dozen plus essays that are part of this document, and still others can be accessed through the resources and links we have included [link to resource page].
No list of examples is or can be definitive; the field is simply too vast and moving too fast. But what these examples demonstrate is that the promise of technology is real. The future, indeed, as William Gibson remarked, is already here.
So, if we look around us today, what can we find? Here are a few examples, but first a word of caution:
Give a student a ream of paper and a pen and they can turn these into a Pulitzer prize-winning play, a novel worthy of Bellow or Roth, or a portfolio of Picasso-like drawings. The odds are good that something far more modest will emerge, but the tools to produce an exceptional work will be there – it’s all a question of how they will be used. New technologies are no different than the pen and paper: they're tools. A blog, a wiki, or a video camera is only as valuable as the way it is employed. A wise quote sums it up perfectly: “It’s not until the technology becomes boring that the uses of it become really interesting.”
Consider blogging, and take a look at this slideshow presentation. Behind the humor is a critical point: If you don't have something worthwhile to say, a blog won't make it sound any better.
It’s not surprising that large numbers of youth educators are eager to make use of new technologies; that’s what their students are into. But, it’s only when the tool is connected to relevant and interesting goals in its use that the technology itself becomes interesting to the intended audience. A boring and irrelevant blog won’t engage students just because it’s a blog. But, if the blog has a solid, well thought through educational purpose -- empowering students to express their own views about issues and ideas that matter to them, keeping parents and other teachers up to date on what’s happening, providing easy access to valuable resources, continuing conversations outside of the classroom before students lose the excitement of their work – then the blog will be a natural and valued part of the total educational experience.
So it’s the use that counts, not the tool. But, the tools are there, and they invite a myriad of uses, some deceptively simple, others amazingly sophisticated. An example: News stories this summer reported on how online social networking tools are being used to encourage students to discuss their summer reading and to share their thoughts or questions in real time. Teachers don't need to wait till the class is physically together to ask, “What did you think of the book you read? Submit your thought in 140 characters or less, and see what everyone else has to say as well.” For Jewish education, often fighting the clock and the calendar to capture more time for learning, having students conversing electronically on their own time would be a welcome gift. Do you doubt that anything meaningful can be said in 140 characters or less? There are educators who don’t agree. (To see what you think, you might want to check out the Twitter conversation on innovation in Jewish education at #Jed21.)
Other examples of using social media creatively abound. We made mention of the professor who used Facebook to give each student a biblical identity online -- “you be Moses, you be Aaron” -- and encouraged them to use these identities to explore the relationships of the biblical figures to one another. Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, whose essay on Jewish cyber-ethics you can read here [link], offers his congregants an “Ask the Rabbi” forum through his blog, where questions about anything from kashrut to adultery can be asked anonymously, knowing they will receive an honest reply, online. Open source, collaborative technology provides us with new opportunities to encourage team-work among students. What began with wikis (still a valuable tool – this document “lived” on a wiki for many months to allow the collaborators to read and edit one another’s work), now includes an array of collaborative tools like Smart Table – much like a Smart Board – that allow students to do sophisticated work in groups from an early age.
Not only learners, but educators as well are benefiting from these technologies. A strong consensus is developing that collaboration among teachers is critical to elevating the quality of teaching. But, what do you do if you’re the only teacher in your school teaching advanced physics, or advanced Rabbinics? Online teacher communities have emerged as a vital complement and supplement to frameworks for exchange and collaboration within individual schools.
Teachers also benefit today from online access to an array of resources relating to both content and pedagogy that no individual school library is likely to be able to replicate. TeacherTube.com is one example which allows teachers to access videos provided by other teachers focused on subject matter and skill building. In the Jewish educational world, a new online community called MediaMidrash will do something similar for teachers in Jewish classrooms by offering curricular units geared to a wide variety of YouTube videos. The website JewishHistory.com provides lessons for teaching a range of Jewish historical topics that make use of an extraordinary archive of digitized texts and pictures. Technology allows teachers to borrow material from creative colleagues whom they may never meet, allows students to develop their own curriculum, and even allows for top educators and speakers to come into our classrooms via Skype or a host of videoconferencing packages at a cost that may be less than a subway ride, much less an airline ticket.
In their essays, Shai Gluskin and Yitzchak Schwartz delve more deeply into this world of collaboration and distance-learning. What is clear is that the images that many of us carry in our heads of what education looks like are increasingly outmoded. Virtual laboratories and digital projects dramatically expand the opportunities for students to explore phenomena in the world around them and to create their own learning tools and environments. Even the notion that education is “serious business” is being eroded as online gaming proves itself to be not only “fun,” but effective in increasing student engagement and achievement. The Jewish educational world is now beginning to benefit as well from these new modes of education with sites like Timeless Jerusalem, Babaganewz Games and JLand Online.
We began this section by noting that technology is only a tool. In each of the examples we have cited the use of technology is creative, perhaps even ingenious. But, it is the educational goals that drive that use, not merely a fascination with the technology itself. As technology becomes increasingly pervasive in educational settings and the educational process, it will recede into the background of our attention, as taken for granted as desks, chairs, and blackboards have been for decades in yesterday’s classrooms. However, before it becomes “boring,” or superseded by even newer technologies we can’t yet imagine, it is perhaps healthy to preserve some of the sense of wonder that many of us feel when we see these tools in action. Whether and how they will nurture the next Rashi, Agnon, or Bernstein is unclear. But, they are surely making it possible for us to do Jewish education in radically new and almost certainly more effective ways. For this, some awe, mixed with gratitude and a sense of obligation to use these tools effectively, remains in order.
Next: Concerns and Challenges