Friday, November 01, 2013

Reflections from attending iNACOL

Sweetly Mixing Torah Learning with Computer Technology[1]

In his commentary on this weeks’ Torah portion, Toldot, the holy Piaczesno, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, in his book Derekh Hamelekh, talks about the connection between body and soul:

In the upper worlds there is a lot of holiness; the essential glory and kedusha of the soul is also revealed there. But there is a need to reveal this holiness also in this world, in the earthly body. Not simply putting the body and soul together… but rather, that through the connection of the body and the soul there will be revealed a type of holiness that is not present even in the upper worlds: the soul and the body transformed together into a united holiness.
Consider the metaphor of a burning candle. There is, in the fire, oil and wick. However, do we call the fire 'oil and wick?' In the beginning there was 'oil' and 'wick' but now they have transformed to light, one united illumination.

I’d like to extend the Rabbi’s teaching about the importance of truly uniting body and soul – and not just having them be put together, side by side – in order to explore how to combine Torah learning and technology. Indeed, we are encouraged in the morning blessings to engage in Torah in ways that create a sweet mixture - Ve’ha’erav na Hashem Elokeinu et Divrei Toratekha Be’finu, G-d please sweeten/combine the words of Torah [emanating from] our mouths. The word “Ve’ha’erav” from the root e.r.v means both “sweeten” and “combine.” I read this as guidance to create sweet combinations – of tradition with contemporary life, of text and self, of ancient content and contemporary technologies, and of wicks and oil that transform into innovative illumination.

To be sure, some approaches to combining Torah learning and computer technology - are merely doing what the Rabbi has called ‘simply putting them together.’ But I’d like to think there could be more than that.  Much more.  Indeed, what would be the equivalent of “transforming body and soul into a united illumination,” an approach that unites Torah learning and technology to deliver 21st Century learning befitting Jewish day schools?

The term “blended learning” perhaps reflects a hope of combining the best of what the teacher has to bring, with the best of what online learning can offer – a synergistic illumination. For synergy to happen it is important not to lose the real-time nature of learning. Teachers selecting a pre-packaged course - “off the shelf,” so to speak – even if the teacher is in the room interacting with students, still may not be coming close to what’s possible. It is important to allow learning to emanate from the creativity of the teacher. Indeed, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches that there is a real – hiluk – difference between learning from a book and learning from a teacher.[2]

On one hand, learning benefits from having top quality presenters delivering excellent content – and the prospect of bringing world-class presenters into every class is exciting.  On the other hand, quality learning is not only about the presenters, it is also about the students.  Learning is most engaging and dynamic when it resonates with what is happening in students’ lives, with other subjects they are studying, with current events in the community and the world, with students’ interests and challenges. 

Teachers in the room may not be serving as the main presenters, but they need to play an essential and creative role in connecting learning to the uniqueness of students in the room.  Teachers also need to bring in their own presence to enable direct human encounters between students and teacher – and as Martin Buber has described, this encounter also brings in the presence of the transcendent. This may be why Rabbi Nachman stresses the difference of learning from a teacher.

At the iNACOL symposium, my most exciting take-away is something that seems to begin addressing this need, and may lead toward creating a “sweet mixture” of Torah learning computer technology. Here’s what I learned:  Raymond McNulty, the Chief Learning Officer at Pennfoster, told me they have  a large selection of vocational high school stackable modules of content that educators can select from and use to creatively customize learning for their students.

A learning module is a succinct block of on-line content available for teachers to use in building their course or for self-directed learning. An educator could stack learning modules – that is assemble them - for students to experience them sequentially or could allow students to explore a set of modules in an order of their own choosing. The relatively short duration of modules can allow an educator to respond to real-time needs and to appropriately select and assemble modules to meet emergent learning needs. 

Platforms that make it easy for teachers to select and use “stackable modules” can enable them to customize learning to fit each student and the teaching moment.  Done well, it could combine teachers’ own creativity and sense for what will uniquely resonate with students, with top quality pre-packaged content, and foster real-time context-rich learning. 

For example, at The Binah School, middle and high school students are currently engaged in a learning expedition that builds on Torah teaching about areyvut (mutual responsibility) and engages students in creating something in the area of assistive technology that can help people with disabilities. I can imagine using stackable online learning modules to get students up to speed on engineering basics and tools they will be using (such as computer aided design). Getting the new content from a honed online resources and then brining in an expert to work with the students on their projects may exemplify “a sweet mixture.”

My colleague, Nomi Feinberg, pointed me to how the Gates Foundation is creating a resource for such modular units with PowerMyLearning – a free digital learning platform for K-12 students and educators with learning activities selected from across the web. Their educators vet games, videos, and interactive simulations from publishers like PBS, Discovery, National Geographic, Khan Academy, Scholastic, and tag them by subject, grade, Common Core standards, and other criteria.

I believe we have an important opportunity: to develop a user-friendly platform of quality online Jewish content in stackable modules. There are beginnings of this already happening, for example with Aleph Beta and other resources. These will support teachers to blend more quality Torah wisdom, not only into Jewish studies classes, but also into general studies and even into supplementary learning, where time is even more limited. 

I would appreciate learning from you about new resources that are becoming available in this rapidly evolving field. Please share what you know, either as a comment to this blog or send me an email at:

Stackable Torah modules may be one in a set of the tools, that taken together, will enable teachers to play creative roles in connecting learning to the uniqueness of students, and to foster direct encounters between students and teachers. Part of the work will always include the teacher's inner-journey. Parker Palmer puts it this way: "The transformation of teaching must begin in the transformed heart of the teacher." Indeed, Torah teaching benefits greatly from a teacher's connection with G-d. 

The word in Aramaic for Torah is Oraita, which means light. I'm excited to continue to be in the conversation with remarkable educators on how we can most synergistically use technology to spread the light of Torah. 

Dr. Ronit Ziv-Kreger combines her passion for Jewish learning and life with her MIT training in management science to train and coach educators and to offer school and learning design consulting for The Binah School, other day schools, and for CJP’s initiative to reinvent supplementary education in the Boston area. She is a graduate of the Pardes Educators Program and received her PhD from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. 

[1] I’m grateful to the AVI CHAI foundation, and to Program Officer, Rachel Abrahams, for generously supporting me to attend the iNACOL symposium to represent educators from The Binah School, in Sharon, Massachusetts, together with the school’s director of humanities, Nomi Feinberg.

[2] Likutei Moharan, Torah 20:4

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think it would be valuable to create interactive textbooks designed to combine Jewish and secular topics. Such an online text would include podcasts,videos primary texts, commentary, photos and illustrations, and the opportunity for students and teachers to annotate.