I recently returned from the Virtual School Symposium Conference in Indianapolis. AVI CHAI sponsored the conference and accommodations for a number of key players who occupy space in the area of technology within the day school movement in North America . Since we are planning for the next version of Gemara Berura to be web-based, this was a great opportunity to learn what else is happening out there in the on-line and blended learning school environments.
One of the more valuable benefits of participating in the conference was the fact that the sponsored invitees had the opportunity to network and schmooze. Using the (catered) report-back sessions (that were scheduled and sponsored by AVI CHAI) as a springboard, the discussions invariably lead to how Jewish day schools could/would/should adopt some of the learning modalities discussed at the conference.
At one of these sessions I raised the idea that it is time to organize a conference dedicated to servicing and furthering the cause Jewish Educational Technology (JET). For the sake of full disclosure I need to reveal my bias. I have been involved in JET for a long time . I believe passionately that we as a community need to ensure the provision of quality JET, and I directed and organized the First International JET conference in Israel back in 1999.
The Gemara Berura related work I do in dozens of schools across N. America allows me a unique insight into how school utilize technology for the furthering of Jewish education. This includes hardware, software, depth of use, teacher readiness, administration readiness, etc. Some of the issues that keep coming up include: the MAC vs. PC debate, especially as it relates to Hebrew and Hebrew software support, should there be computers in every classroom? should student be allowed/encouraged to bring laptops/tablets to school? are interactive whiteboards a necessity for every classroom? what are considered minimal levels of computer competence that teachers (and principals) should be expected to demonstrate in their work in the classroom and administration? etc. And as we move into the online/blended environment models raised at the VSS conference, the issue of how Jewish schools could benefit from these models is also a serious topic that needs to be addressed.
At the network session in which I raised this idea, one of the other participants objected quite strongly, suggesting that in the current economic environment, other venues could be utilized for such JET-related topics to be addressed, such as the National Jewish Day School Conference. We as a small niche community, it was suggested, could not afford or support a separate conference just for JET.
Notwithstanding my learned colleague's opinion, here is why I think we urgently do need a dedicated JET Conference. Technology is not simply a tool. It represents a cultural transformation with its own language, a language that today’s students speak. The level of success regarding the adoption of technology in our schools has overarching implications on the image our schools portray to the community it wishes to serve. Our ability to successfully adapt to these new cultural norms and language will impact on our ability to: recruit and retain our students, teach them effectively, and harness the new opportunities that technology affords to make Jewish schools more sustainable. We need get this one right. I believe that today we aren’t. An annual national Jewish day school conference needs to cater to all issues on the Jewish Education agenda. Attempting to peg on a kind of sub-conference to the main one will not do sufficient justice to the cause. A dedicated JET conference will be held once in a few years, with on-going, online initiatives in-between. We urgently need to begin a collaborative process with a view to develop shared dynamic protocols for many of the types of issues mentioned above. We need to get technology heads together, we to bring school principals together to understand the options, to have educated discussions with the technology department. We need Jewish Studies teachers to adapt to the emerging technologies and learn how to integrate them into their teaching practice. Most importantly we need schools to develop a coherent strategic approach to technology as opposed to the somewhat cumbersome and haphazard approach so many schools still unwittingly adopt.
The question of who should organize and fund such a conference still needs to be addressed.
Thanks again to AVI CHAI for providing us with the opportunity to attend this conference, and to network with such a high quality group of like-minded colleagues.
Rabbi Meir Fachler
Gemara Berura (www.gemaraberura.com )
Phone (US and Israel) (917) 779 8056
Israel cell ++ (972) 52 385 8455