Thursday, July 11, 2013

Finding Torah in Technology at ISTE

A favorite joke of mine depicts a congregant approaching the rabbi before Kol Nidre.  “I can’t make it to services; it’s the World Series, and I have to watch the game.”  The rabbi nods sympathetically, but suggests there might be some middle ground. “Isn’t that what a DVR is for?” The congregant pauses as the wheels turn, then exclaims:  “Great—so you’re saying I can record Kol Nidre!”

It’s a classic, but still resonates today.  The tensions it highlights (Jewish observance versus American pastime, emergent technology versus established religious norms) are very much at the heart of contemporary discussions regarding technology in Jewish religious/educational contexts.

It was this dichotomy that I was, on a certain level, most interested in exploring at the ISTE conference, which I attended thanks to a generous grant from AVI CHAI.  As a school administrator, I was committed to gathering new resources for bringing educational technology to our Jewish Studies classrooms back at KBA.  As a teacher, I was seeking practical information and tools to aid in my own ongoing project of “flipping” my Mishnah classroom.  But beyond all the tachlis, I was hoping to gain a greater insight into the relationship between using new tech resources and teaching Jewish values.

It is not merely a theoretical concern.  As our tools and technologies change ever-more rapidly—and with them our established cultural norms and values—the tension inherent in the “DVR vs. Kol Nidre” paradigm continues to grow.  I have heard some skeptics speak in dire tones about the evils that can result from technology, and I have been advised by others about the merits of simply taking it slow, so as to ensure adequate reflection and evaluation before racing onward to a brave new world.  

Some of these points are well taken.  Indeed, to what extent does technology itself challenge the values that we hold dear?  To what extent does the use and culture of the Internet increase the “borrowing” of words for assignments, provide a platform for bullying or slandering, or simply dissolve the authentic discourse of personal encounters?  

More and more, the value of modern technology for the classroom is becoming a given in day schools (as it should be!), and KBA is no exception.  To that end, we currently have iPads for all 5th-8th graders, flipped video archives, and a host of apps and software programs for math, science, and languages (to name just a few things).  We also utilize the Gemara Berura software program to build skills for decoding rabbinic texts. 

But while the benefit of educational technology for both students and teachers is becoming more widely accepted, it is still met with some skepticism.  Some in the religious world recognize the value of things like databases that hyperlink texts and commentaries, yet continue to see the technology itself as a sort of necessary evil, one that may help students learn but ultimately threatens more traditional methods.  And for their part, many students see new technological innovations as existing in a separate sphere, divorced from Jewish Studies rather than an integral part of it.  As we continue to integrate technology into our curricula, Jewish educators have a responsibility not only to help students navigate the questions posed above, but to proactively inject Jewish values—as they relate to technology itself—into the curriculum.  

It was with this in mind that I approached my first day of ISTE sessions—and was delighted by what I encountered.  The presenter in my afternoon class (named Philip Vinogradov) had sent all the attendees a Google Doc ahead of time, so that if anyone learned a new insight or resource about the topic from an earlier session they could share it with the group.  By the time the class began we already had a dozen new tools and ideas to use as jumping off points.  From there, it only got better. The instructor had us sign into TodaysMeet, where we could post questions and comments on a back-channel throughout the session.  Mr. Vinogradov would respond to posts every so often, but essentially the back-channel served as a way for attendees to bounce ideas off each other as the session went on.  I was so impressed by the collaborative nature of the session that I was fully prepared to write an eval at the end of the week extolling Mr. Vinogradov as a stand-out instructor—until it turned out that this was essentially the norm in all the sessions!  Whether by using TodaysMeet or creating unique Twitter hashtags, almost every presenter encouraged and enabled participants to connect and work together en masse in a way I had never experienced, sharing insights in real time and ultimately heightening the learning experience for all involved.  

I knew I'd seen this concept somewhere before… The Gemara discusses the notion of scholars sharpening each other’s minds in matters of law (“mehadedin zeh at zeh”). This Talmudic passage expressing the idea that two heads are better than one exemplifies the traditional havrutah method of partner-based learning, and has its application in contemporary cooperative learning models. At ISTE, I truly felt as though I was participating in a digital display of mehadedin zeh at zeh at the highest level, with all the learners sharpening each other’s thinking and ideasHow powerful it would be to introduce students to the expanded uses of Twitter—with all of its ability to connect, collaborate and communicate ideas—in the context of this sugiyah, or of  Pirkei Avot’s teaching of kneh l’cha haver,” finding a partner for study.  

This theme of collaboration—which is truly a hallmark of technology today—continued through the closing keynote address by Adam Bellow.  “I love to share!” he declared.  Mr. Bellow displayed a model very different from the proprietary, ego-driven model that is characteristic of many disciplines.  In stressing the benefits of technology for collaboration, Mr. Bellow also displayed modesty about his personal accomplishments.  Near the start of his speech, he gave a “shout-out” to those in the tech world who preceded him, specifically referring to a woman who, as he put it, “was Edutecher before Edutecher was invented.”  (Edutecher is an online resource Mr. Bellow created.)  Here was an individual being honored as the keynote speaker at ISTE, with an impressive resume of innovations and inventions, who chose to lead off by recognizing the work of others—others whose shoulders he acknowledged he stood upon.  What a wonderful model.  Pirkei Avot teaches, “One who says something in the name of its source (b’shem omro) brings redemption to the world.”  Perhaps it was no coincidence, then, that his speech was entitled, “An Invitation to Change the World.”  

If we can use technology to enable students to connect and collaborate on a greater scale, and do it through the lens of hevruta; if we can guide students through the process of gathering and curating material from among the vast store-houses of information on the web, and do it in the context of“b’shem omro;” if we can encourage creativity and innovation tempered by anivut (humility); then we truly meet our goals both as educators and Jewish role models.  
Armed with technological know-how informed by Torah principles, perhaps our students truly will change the world…or at the very least, they’ll both be tech-savvy and also attend Kol Nidre!  

Micah Liben is Rabbi in Residence at Kellman Brown Academy 

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