Guest Blog

A History of the “Future of Jewish Education”

By Russel Neiss on June 13th, 2017

This is part 2 of the series in eJewishPhilanthropy, Continuing Conversations on Leveraging Educational Technology to Advance Jewish Learning. The series is a project of Jewish Funders Network, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the William Davidson Foundation. For an in-depth look at opportunities in Jewish Ed Tech and digital engagement, read Smart Money: Recommendations for an Educational Technology and Digital Engagement Investment Strategy. Later this year, Jewish Funders Network will launch a new website to help advance the field of Jewish educational technology.

In 1911, William Inglis, writing for Harper’s Weekly profiled Thomas Edison’s latest invention that he guaranteed would, “make school so attractive that a big army with swords and guns couldn’t keep boys and girls out of it.” The technology was Edison’s filmstrips, and the promise was that it would reduce costs and create a more engaging and effective educational experience for students.

Anyone who has sat through an educational filmstrip knows of course that this claim was overstated. Yet, the fact remains for over a hundred years folks have sought to ascertain the potential impact of technology on education. Unsurprisingly, the same promises that were made with filmstrips, radio, television, CD-ROMS, laser-disks, and the internet, are the same being made for 1:1 laptop programs, blended/personalized learning, and a wide range of other technologies. Before attempting to ascertain the potential impact on educational technology for Jewish Education today, it behooves us to look to the history of these technologically driven future visions of Jewish education from the past. They offer us tremendous insight as we look forward in our current time and place.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Jewish educational world did not ignore Edison’s technological innovation. Gratz College, Yeshiva University, the NY Bureau of Jewish Education, the Reform & Conservative movements and others had active audiovisual departments producing content to “instruct students through the eye.” Thousands of filmstrips, and numerous curricular guides, catalogs “running more than 100 pages” and other materials were created “in great abundance, particularly on Jewish history, Israel, the American Jewish community, customs and ceremonies, and current events.”

The problem was, folks were so concerned with ensuring that they were keeping up with the latest and greatest technologies that these efforts were designed without much forethought, were fragmented, scattered, and often had significant problems of quantity and quality.

In 1976, (just before the new educational VHS craze was to come onto the scene) the Second Jewish Catalogue summed up the problem succinctly:

“There is a lack of quality media resources for fostering the Jewish knowledge and identity needed to ensure the spiritual survival of Diaspora Jewry… Visual images in living color have become the language of the day. Unfortunately, however, the majority of Jewish institutions in this country are still in the Dark Ages. While the world at large has moved on to multidimensional modes of transmitting oral tradition, the Jewish world remains bound to the page.”

But we persisted. Five years later in 1981, JESNA was launched with the explicit goal to make engaging, inspiring, high quality Jewish education available to every Jew in North America. One of their key focus areas was “Innovative Solutions: Developing creative new approaches to expand the impact of Jewish education.”

Just a few months later, they devoted their entire quarterly magazine, The Pedagogic Reporter to focus on how Jewish education can be enriched through the use of technology. This included articles exploring the advances in computer hardware and software, uses for multimedia (television and film) in Jewish education, and integration of computers into schools and libraries.

My personal favorite insight from that 1981 magazine on the potential impact of technology on education is from Ira Jaskoll’s article:

“The computer can introduce a new dimension into Jewish education, one that is extraordinarily geared to the reality of the students’ future lives. As the information explosion continues, a shift must inevitably occur from the old style of education that stressed the acquisition of facts: what will be necessary in the world of tomorrow to increased skill in sorting and analyzing the vast quantities of available information. As the computer has been widely employed at this task in the realm of industry, so it can be liberating in education and in the student’s personal life.”

Which I’m sure many of you readers have heard articulated in an almost verbatim way to justify educational technological integration today some twenty-five years later.

This growth of technology, paired with the desire of content-driven education paved the way for publishers to respond as well. By 1983 Torah Aura had produced Torah Tunes, a Thirty-six week parashat hashavuah curriculum, and Davka had produced two acclaimed educational video games for the newly released ultra-light 20lb Apple IIe computer. By 1986 there were over 100 Jewish educational software titles.

Foundations like the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture hired experts to research the phenomenon, others like the Revson Foundation made huge investments to produce and distribute content from the non-Jewish world like with Shalom Sesame, and the The Jewish Heritage Video Collection, and others like the Covenant Foundation sought to provide resources and knowledge sharing to innovative local communities trying to harness this brand new thing called the internet.

And so on…

We have extremely short-term memories and a lack of institutional knowledge of the history of these Jewish educational endeavors, and as a result instead of building on our knowledge, we often end up starting all over again as if these ideas (not to mention the educational philosophers who laid the groundwork for them) have never existed.

I believe strongly in the ability of technology to help positively transform the Jewish educational field, but only if we commit ourselves to first understanding what it is we hope to achieve from harnessing these tools, developing a coherent educational vision for our institutions, and then to stop pretending that every discussion we have today about educational technology begins assuming that this is all brand new, and that we have no historical use, educational philosophy or evidence of efficacy of any of this stuff.

I wish to conclude with a series of recommendations moving forward, which admittedly I have basically plagiarized verbatim from Jacob Ukeles who wrote them for the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture thirty years ago:

  1. Investment in technology for Jewish education should incorporate older technologies as well as the latest and greatest stuff. In the appropriate excitement over the latest shiny stuff older proven tech should not be ignored.
  2. The design, production, and distribution of the new technology to schools must place teachers at the heart of the effort. Attempts to produce “teacher-proof” curricula for Jewish schools have been a dismal failure. Technology can only be seen as a tool for teachers not as a replacement for teachers.
  3. We should leverage our resources by cooperating with others on specific projects. Others might be individual philanthropists, existing media or computer-oriented institutions, other Foundations or other communal organizations.
  4. A concerted effort should be made to reach out and involve new sources of creative talent, particularly the kind of talent involved in the nonprofit world of independent technology. Many of the young developers and content creators are Jews who are not connected to the Jewish community. Involving them in experimental programs, whether through competitions or commissioned works, is a way to reinvolve them in the community as well as attaining lower cost, high quality products.

These recommendations, along with several others available at the link above, were written when I was three – ample time to put them into action to ensure that by at least my bar mitzvah they were implemented. Yet, they’re just as applicable to us today as my children start their day school experiences.

But the truth of the matter is that focusing on the impact of technology on education is the wrong frame. Frankly, electrification of schools and our ability to heat them in the winter and cool them in the summer is the single greatest technological advancement that has impacted education in the past century, but because it’s basically invisible to us, we take it for granted. And that’s ok, because instead of focusing on the stuff, we need to focus on outcomes. We need to teach how to be adaptive and resilient. We need to be agnostic about specific technology. Unless we do so, no matter how shiny the next ed tech innovation will be, it will end up as nothing more than another historical footnote in a history of the future a quarter century from now unless we are able to put it into practice.

Equally fluent in Yiddish and Javascript, Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist and activist who builds critically acclaimed educational apps and experiences used by thousands of people each day. His work has been featured in the Washington Post, NPR, the Atlantic, CNN, Teen Vogue, the Jewish Telegraph Agency, and other media outlets. Russel began his career as an itinerant Jewish educator traveling across the deep south and has worked in a variety of Jewish educational settings including day schools, supplemental schools, museums and archives. Russel lives in St. Louis with his wife Maharat Rori Picker Neiss and his kids Daria, Susanna & Shmaya.

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