Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Thursday, May 06, 2010

What I learned from the Berman Jewish Policy Archive and JESNA's Conference on Technology and Jewish Education

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a conference entitled, "Technology and Jewish Education: A Revolution in the Making?"Sponsored by The Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner and JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute. JESNA is known for their Jewish Education 3.0 project which is what intrigued me enough to be a part of this conference.

This was my first experience with this rather diverse group of Jewish educators, Jewish communal workers, and lay leaders all interested in educational technology. I found the presenters and discussion to be stimulating. You can read highlights of it on Twitter using the hashtag #je3conf.

Here are my initial thoughts about what I learned.
  1. There is a strong interest in creating rich online resources for Jewish textual learning. This is not just true of the Orthodox Jewish population as many participants from various religious backgrounds expressed this same desire. They don't just want to read articles about Jewish learning. We have enough of these online on various websites like or They want resources to learn text. For example, they desire Hebrew text which can be hyperlinked to translations, cross references, video, and audio files when clicked and the ability to use this text in real time chavruta learning using annotations on the page and skype. 
    • The presenter who best illustrated this was Daniel Sieradski . His examples are featured on It seems that many others shared Daniel's sentiments. This would obviously assist many different types of learners both formal learners in Jewish day schools and Yeshivot, as well as independent learners for whom the Internet might be their primary source for Jewish information. 
    • One challenge that was expressed in connection with this was the need to create free open source platforms for Jewish digital text to build these rich applications. Even ancient text like Tanakh and Talmud becomes copyrighted when digitized on websites like Mechon Mamre. The Jewish community needs to invest in a database of free digital text created in the latest formats like XML (I don't know what this is but it was Daniel's format of choice) so that developers can work on this.   
  2. Technology is no longer a separate subject but needs to be seamlessly integrated into everything we do. Nobody says today we will be learning with a whiteboard or a pencil. We just use them as needed for the lesson. Technology needs to be the same way. For our students this is already the case. Technology is a natural part of their everyday life. If we forbid their use of these technologies in class (like forbidding Smart Phones or laptops) this is unnatural for them.  We need to find ways to integrate the technologies students already use into their learning rather than ban them. Here are two examples from the past few days, the first a positive one and the other a case where I missed the opportunity to let a student use technology to further his religious growth.
    • One of my English teachers was learning a poem with her class that used the words "host" and "bliss". In the context of the work, these obviously were (Christian) religious references that were designed to elicit very specific imagery in the minds of the readers which our students would not know. Rather than teaching these references frontally, the teacher asked her students many of whom had laptops in class what they thought they symbolized. They quickly looked up these words online and were able to share with the class their significance. This was faster, more efficient, and more student-centered than the traditional instructor method for presenting the significance of these references.
    • Just today, I took away a cell phone from a student who was texting during morning prayers. I asked the student after davening was over how he could be texting others at a time he should be focused on talking to God. He told me that he was texting his mother to get the names of some cholim (sick people) that he wanted to daven for during his Shemoneh Esray. Because I had quickly confiscated his phone rather than first investigate the reason for its use, I deprived him of helping others through his prayers.  
  3. Technology can help create new and dynamic communities of learners. Just my presence at this conference was one example. I barely knew anyone in the room personally coming in. When I asked how I was invited, I was told that I was recommended by people who follow me on Twitter. I soon realized that many of these total "strangers" were actually my friends and confidants from my virtual world. Technology was able to create a community for me with like minded people to learn and discuss new ideas. This is something that we can encourage amongst our students as well, either to enhance a traditional school community through "blending" classroom learning with online interaction, or by creating interactions with students who could not otherwise join us in class because of geographic distance.
    • For example, in our school we have created wikis to serve as virtual communities where students can work together on educational projects and communicate using asynchronous online discussion forums. We find that these interactions outside of class allow for students in different classes to connect with each other, something impossible in the typical high school day. They also help students, who might have much to say but who are afraid to speak, to express their thoughts in writing through the online discussions.
    • Our wiki has also allowed us to collaborate on projects with sister schools in Nahariya and Gush Eztion. In this case, the wiki technology allows for students in different parts of the world with different time zones to work together in the same "classroom" even if they are not working at the same place or time.
These are just a few of my observations about what JESNA's conference says about the future of Technology and Jewish Education. You can read another account of the conference here. Thank you to all of the people at The Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner and JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute for putting together this stimulating conference and inviting me to participate. Hopefully we can continue this discussion in the future.


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  2. The story about the student with the cell phone is powerful. One of the lessons I think we need to embrace is that all the rules and assumptions are changing. We need to keep our eyes on the goal - learning, not the technology or rigid structures of teaching and learning and institutions that were developed in a prior era. What exact will change is still yet to be seen, but clearly the opportunities are enormous. Great post, and great to finally meet you face to face at this event.