Ever-Reforming: Educational Technology and the Changing Rabbi

In the early 1800s, the blackboard was an innovative technology that forever changed the way in which students interacted with the teacher and material in the classroom. Now a blackboard or dry-erase board is a clue that you have walked into a classroom. This technology changed the physical space as well as teaching model in classrooms around the world. Of course, this sort of fundamental shift in any field does not happen over a short period of time. In Great Teaching in the One Computer Classroom, David A. Dockterman notes how blackboards were initially received: “These instruments are not uncommon but are little resorted to by the teacher. The teacher knows almost as little how to use it as his/her pupils.” We see similar phenomena in today’s classrooms. Smart boards and other education technologies are being used, but we do not fully understand the scope of their possibilities. Like the chalkboards, many teachers are hesitant to engage with new technologies that will undoubtedly shape the classrooms of the next generation. Others would like to use them but simply do not know how and must rely on the help of students to begin to understand the opportunities they present.

The internet, for example, presents both amazing advantages and a whole set of new problems for educators. As teachers and leaders in the Reform movement, we now have to consider the emergence of Jewish communities in online spaces. How do we use technology to engage with an ever-growing technological world? We have the ability to bring resources into the classroom that would have historically been impossible. A fifth-grade Hebrew class in Lafayette, Louisiana, can have a Skype session with a fifth-grade class in Modi’in, Israel, to help each other learn their respective languages. A group of thirty rabbinical students can sit in three different classrooms around the country and have an interactive lecture with a professor in her office anywhere in the world. A computer lab can be used to research and plan a class social-action initiative. One of the big advantages of educational technology is that it is a two-way street. Not only can we use technology to bring outside sources into the classroom, we can also bring what is happening in the classroom into homes or out to into the community. A SmartBoard can record every note that was taken during a session and be sent out to students and parents to discuss what they learned that day at home. Religious school classes can create video presentations about what they are learning and be used to inform the congregation what the youngsters are talking about on Sunday mornings. Students can start their initiatives in the classroom and, using technology, inform and engage the community in their class’s social-action projects.

The students have access to an essentially unlimited wealth of materials and information. But this does pose a few potential problems. Nearly universal accessibility to the internet means that every student, parent, and congregant is likely to encounter gross misinformation or fallacy. There is also the problem of too much information. If a student wanted to learn about Rambam, a simple Google search of the name “Maimonides” yields over two million results. Why would that student need to go to his or her rabbi for information about Rambam when the internet hosts more information than an single human could possibly have? There is the potential danger that students will take their education into their own hands and disregard the need for a teacher or a Moreh Derech. The voice of the rabbi can get lost in all of this information and potentially become superfluous.

I would argue that the rabbi has a very important role to play in this changing educational setting. No one will be able to sift through over two million articles and webpages and learn about Rambam in a reasonable amount of time. On the other end of the spectrum, if the one or two sources a student picks out happen to be academically questionable, he or she will have a misconstrued conception of the great thinker and lawgiver. The rabbi is no longer the best available depository of sources and wealth of knowledge. Rather, the internet has become the “depository” and the rabbi must learn to help students and congregants navigate the vast amount of information effectively. A colleague and friend, Jordy Cohen, developed a comparison of the use of the internet in the educational, religious, and medical fields. WebMD allows every medical patient to go online, type in symptoms, and self-diagnose his or her medical problem. Doctors then have to deal with patients who come to their offices convinced a scratchy throat is some life-threatening incurable disease. MyJewishLearning and Safari likewise mean that accessing Jewish teachings and texts has never been easier. Sefaria describes itself on its “About” page this way:

Sefaria is building the future of Jewish learning in an open and participatory way. We are building a free-living library of Jewish texts and their interconnections, in Hebrew and in translation. Our scope is Torah in the broadest sense, from Tanakh to Talmud to Zohar to modern texts and all the volumes of commentary in between…. Having digital texts enables us to create new, interactive interfaces for the Web, tablet and mobile which allow students and scholars around the world to freely learn and explore the interconnections among Torah texts.

Surely this is a noble cause. These texts belong to everyone and should be available to anyone who is interested in studying them. As is true in the medical field, though, a certain level of expertise is required to gain the best understanding and deepest meaning out of the scope of this literature. An untrained novice could easily take a text or ritual practice and wildly misinterpret a translation or the significance and meaning behind a rite.

Although — and perhaps especially because — the web provides a seemingly endless supply of information, the role of the rabbi is more necessary than ever. However, within this new age of technology, it is clear that the role of the rabbi must reform and shift as the educational and technological worlds change around us. In today’s rabbinate, one must be, at the very least, technologically literate. Rabbis must be aware of the sources and online communities that people are using to inform themselves. We must also learn to navigate these sources, pinpoint any shortcomings, and have educated and well thought-out responses and opinions in regard to these new resources. We are setting ourselves up for failure if we believe that we are entering into the same kind of rabbinate in which our rabbis served. We aspire to be excellent rabbis and educators, so it is crucial that we remodel today’s rabbinate for an ever growing technological world.

Zachary Goodman is a music and Hebrew educator at Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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