Vayyomer Adonay el Avram, “Lekh lekha meartsekha umimmoladtekha umibbet avikha el harets asher areka.” God said to Abram (not yet called Abraham), “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from the house of your father to a land which I shall show you” (Genesis 12:1). In other words, leave everything you know behind and follow Me. In a response that to me seems counterintuitive, Abram obeys and follows God into strange and unfamiliar territory with the promise of land, wealth, and progeny as rewards for his actions. We can learn a great deal from Abram’s bravery, trust, and willingness to try something new.
This summer, as part of my fellowship at Wise Temple, I received a challenge that, while not anywhere near as formidable as God’s to Abram, also required trust, openness, and innovation. The religious school recently received a grant from the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati to create an online learning program, to purchase a smart board, and to incorporate more educational technology into the school in general. My job was to research the educational technologies that would best enhance students’ learning and to help design the online learning program.
In order to find out more about online learning, I participated in a conference hosted by Shalom Learning, a nonprofit organization that helps Jewish communities create and execute online learning programs; I learned about a variety of congregational models for online learning as well as various educational technology resources that can be used in Jewish education. I met with Jewish educators from around North America, and together we participated in workshops led by experts in Jewish education, online instruction, and community building. After only 48 hours, I became convinced that educational technology could indeed be the path to a land of Jewish education that is meaningful, engaging, and relevant to our students. This promised land of Jewish educational technology is different from the traditional, classroom based Haran of Jewish education we need to leave behind. As the image from Apple Educator Sean Junkins illustrates, more conventional methods of instruction, which may or may not have been effective in previous generations, no longer excite and compel our students to learn.
I firmly believe that the problem lies not in what we are trying to teach but how we are trying to teach it. Judaism continues to be a source of educational narratives, a teacher of essential values, and a constructor of purposeful communities. Unless we present Judaism in an engaging way, we lose our audience, and they lose the opportunity to form genuine Jewish identities. One way to engage our students is via the technology in which they already immerse themselves. As we teach digital natives, we automatically capture their attention when we present material using their native language. Finding the technology, learning to use it, and using it as a teaching tool also requires effort, openness, and innovation, but it is easier with the help of what Lev Vygotsky would call a “more knowledgeable other.”
One of the most compelling presentations at the Shalom Learning conference was “Yes You Can: User Friendly Technology that Enhances Student Learning.” Presenters Smadar Goldstein and Rabbi Stanley Peerless—our more knowledgeable others—guided us through an interactive workshop about the benefits of educational technology and its applications for Jewish education. Their presentation was so engaging that, following this conference, I signed up for series of webinars taught by Smadar through JETS—Jewish EdTech Solutions, an organization that she and Rabbi Peerless cofounded. These webinars focused on acquainting us with free online resources that have the potential to enhance Jewish education as well as encouraging us to think and collaborate creatively to bring technology into our teaching. I came away from these webinars equipped with new ideas and technological tools that may benefit Wise Temple’s religious school: Checkthis is a tool for creating online social posters to share information. Zaption lets you annotate videos to make them interactive. And you can use Coggle to generate interactive mind maps. Creating, compiling, and teaching with these tools has helped me learn that whether we use interactive games, creative platforms, or collaboration tools, when we use technology strategically, the content becomes just as exciting as the medium itself.
Prior to this summer, I had minimal experience with education technology and certainly did not consider myself to be tech-savvy. I felt a little like Abram, following my supervisor’s instructions because I trusted her and recognized the potential educational benefits of such an enterprise, but unsure of what was to come. As I learned more, what really piqued my interest was the potential that this technology has to engage and excite our students and to generate new kinds of learning. As a millennial and a digital native, I can be just as motivated by this technology as my students. As a Jewish educator, I am motivated by this technology because of its capacity to teach Judaism, the material about which I am passionate, using media about which my students are passionate.