Jewish Education Goes High Tech
A new start-up uses 21st-century technologies to make ancient values relatable and dynamic
Educational technology—the application of advanced digital tools to enhance and upend traditional modes of learning—is to our era what gold was to the 1840s: a still largely unearthed resource that promises not only to generate great wealth for a lucky few but also to foster the sort of material growth that would improve the lives of many. With growing excitement, experts are noting that educating the children of the 21st century according to practices perfected in the 19th—20 or 30 students in a class, listening to a teacher speak, chalk being the sole means of conveying information visually—may not be the most effective way to go about it. Now, to the glut of products and solutions comes a promising one geared specifically to Jewish educators: ShalomLearning.
Started by two veterans of the educational technology industry—Andrew Rosen, a co-founder of the massively popular educational software company Blackboard, and educational technology entrepreneur Devin Schain—the company has created a platform for integrating the various technologies, content, and support needed to create an engaging Jewish education. In addition to providing neatly crafted lesson units, complete with reading materials, discussion questions, and other pedagogical necessities, the platform, still in its infancy, will eventually allow teachers to upload their own materials and share them with the community at large. Students, too, are treated to a host of hi-tech tools, like an interactive quiz designed to measure their grasp of the material as the semester unfurls and allowing teachers to track the progress of each individual student.
The company’s goal, then, isn’t so much to change what’s being taught, but rather how it is taught. And to teach anything effectively to the hyper-mediated, overscheduled, tech-savvy kids of today, Rosen and Schain believed, you’d have to flip the classroom.
It’s a trendy notion among educational technology professionals: Rather than waste precious time by delivering droning lectures, teachers should provide their students with tools to do much of the acquisition of information on their own time and use the classroom to hold discussions, complete projects, or otherwise interact with students in a more dynamic way. Using ShalomLearning, teachers are able to upload videos, slideshows, worksheets, texts, and others aids for students to peruse.
But these thoroughly modern ideas were designed to amplify, not overshadow, Judaism’s ancient core values. To focus the discussion accordingly, ShalomLearning has created an intricate curriculum focused on seven concepts they felt best embodied Judaism’s teachings: Teshuvah, or taking responsibility for one’s actions; B’Tzelem Elohim, or honoring the image of God in ourselves and in others; Gevurah, or being strong enough to do the right thing; Achrayut, recognizing our responsibility to heal the world; HaKarat HaTov, stressing the importance of joy and gratitude; Koach HaDibbur, focusing on the power of our words; and Shalom, the striving to create a more peaceful world. Each of these units offer tiered lessons, with each age group approaching the subject from a different perspective. Up-to-the-moment examples, from Spider-Man to online bullying, are frequently used.
Believing that real education is not only intellectual but also emotional and practical, ShalomLearning’s curriculum ends each unit by determining what students who have completed it must know, feel, and do. The Gevurah part of the curriculum, for example, includes a link to the now-famous YouTube video showing an elderly bus attendant being mercilessly mocked by a group of her students, and then asks students to role play and try to ascertain what they might have done to intervene before going into the biblical story of Reuven’s failed attempt to save his brother, Joseph, from being sold into slavery. Combining the textual and the visual, the old and the new, makes for a lesson that feels simultaneously timely and timeless. And as education is an ongoing endeavor, occurring more at home than in school or in the synagogue, each unit includes a parental guide with ideas for ways to further explore the ideas covered in class.
And then there are the prayers: Streamlining the often intimidating experience of chanting liturgy in a foreign language, the platform offers PDFs of prayers, as well as overviews of their meanings and origins and a guide on how to teach them to students. This month, ShalomLearning also launched the Prayer Player application for the iPad, which allows students to learn individual Hebrew phrases by playing interactive mini-games before progressing to teaching entire prayers in sequence.
As the platform steps out of its nascent phases and into use, its creators hope to continue and partner with Jewish educators and institutions and offer more content and more applications. For now, they’re holding monthly virtual office hours, remote video chats inviting Jewish teachers to ask questions and exchange opinions. Eventually, they hope, the people of the book, for millennia in the vanguard of all things educational, could catch up with the technology, too.
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