Guest Blog

Questions for Funders – Nurturing an Ecosystem to Embrace Technological Advances for Jewish Education

By Jarred Myers and Nicky Newfield on July 12th, 2017

This is part 6 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.

Educational Technology (EdTech) is a burgeoning field that has made significant progress in recent years. Our Jewish Education systems are slowly and steadily adapting to this and we are witnessing the emergence of a nascent Jewish EdTech ecosystem. The Jewish EdTech ecosystem can leverage much of what already exists in the broader sector; however, there are niche requirements specific to Jewish learning that are required to successfully harness the full potential EdTech has to offer. This requires strategic investment – and given the limited funds available, we, as funders need to ask ourselves – how best can we utilize our resources?

While there are many useful frameworks for building an ecosystem, we have employed a framework consisting of the four components detailed below:

There are many different contexts in which learning happens. From parent-child learning at home, day schools, supplementary schools and summer camps, to college, post-college and lifelong learning – that is why a one-size-fits-all approach is not relevant. The challenge in building an ecosystem is making sure the individual parts function as part of an educational continuum. We believe that a learning agenda is required to coordinate this ecosystem development.

We need to ask questions that, when answered, enable us to work more effectively. We need to embed collaboration, coordination, learning, and adaptation sector-wide to maximize results through evidence-based decision-making. Through our learning agenda we can articulate our hypotheses, prioritize the questions we seek to answer and develop a funding pipeline accordingly.

Below are some of the questions we’ve raised. We’d really appreciate feedback about the questions your organizations are asking, and how you’ve addressed these issues.

Content

What questions do you and your teams ask when considering ‘content’?

We’ve been asking a lot of questions about content coverage such as: Is there a single content repository? Is there a content landscape map? Do we know what content has been developed? What content is sorely needed? What content has been duplicated and over funded, and what areas are neglected and underfunded?

We’ve been asking questions about content quality: What is good content? Is there a content quality standard? How important is quality control? How do we develop high quality products within existing budgets? Some questions about the types of content: How do we create a self-generating content ecosystem? How do we centralize content? What content is relevant and engaging and for which target groups?

We’ve also asked broader questions like: How can content be created that adapts easily to emerging technologies? How do you keep content current? Which technologies should be employed for what content? How do we leverage current tools like virtual reality, augmented reality, etc.?

Access

Content alone, no matter how good, is of no use if it languishes inaccessible to its intended audience. Which is why we’re asking questions about how we make all sorts of content accessible like: How do users (i.e. every Jewish child, family or person) access the content? Do users access content on their mobile devices or PCs, in school, at home or somewhere else?

Questions for those of us developing content: How do we build now for the next generation of technologies? How do we prioritize which operating systems to focus on? How do we leverage the hardware devices manufactured by the likes of Oculus, Samsung, Sony, HTC and Google? Should we invest in data standards? What’s our approach to data interoperability?

Distribution

The Jewish market is relatively small which makes optimizing the efficiency of distribution channels a priority. How do we reach users? Which distribution channels work and for whom? How do we as a sector create a clear and easy distribution channel to all educators and schools and Jewish homes? How do we get content directly to families? Which existing channel participants, like PJ library or Birthright, could provide leverage for distribution? How can we reach the unaffiliated? How do we use social media channels to support distribution?

Implementation

Implementation is key. As part of effective implementation, we are asking questions about quality assurance, channel partnerships, stakeholder engagement, teacher training, support, maintenance and program management, learning management systems, hardware requirements etc. What local, regional and national partnerships are needed to for successful implementation?

Quality assurance is a knotty topic, we are asking questions like: Does it work? Which measurements actually matter? How do you keep quality of content high? How do you measure impact of learning qualitatively and quantitatively? How do you implement monitoring and evaluation? How do you ensure continued research and development? What are the proxies for real impact? How do we measure that which can’t be measured? How do we feed best practice back into the ecosystem? What actionable insights could be achieved with great data?

Theory of change

Questions are important, and as strategic funders we need to embrace curiosity as part of a larger theory of change. Our learning agenda needs to be embedded into our theory of change to ensure that every question we seek to answer is addressing our intended impact.

Below are several examples of how we are ingesting our ‘questions’ and turning them into a tangible hypothesis:

Let’s explore:

How do we ensure coverage of high quality engaging Jewish content?

  • Hypothesis: IF WE create an ecosystem that can centralize and evaluate all available content THEN the sector can prioritize content creation based on need and impact.
  • THEREFOREWE WILL fund several initiatives aligned with supporting a content mapping and evaluation ecosystem.
  • SUCH AS (1) creating and maintaining a product index and heat map (2) commissioning established service providers to produce high quality, professional content. (3) funding a crowdsourcing initiative to generate content.

How do we build now for the next generation of technologies?

  • Hypothesis: IF WE regularly adjust educational efforts to accommodate technological advances THEN the sector will have ongoing access to quality content via optimal technologies.
  • THEREFOREWE WILL fund initiatives which focus on continuously experimenting with emerging technologies and generating pathways and support for channel partners seeking to adopt these new technologies.

How do you maximize reach?

  • Hypothesis: IF WE create a mass digital distribution channel to every Jewish family
  • THEN we will enable continued access and usage of upstream content.
  • THEREFOREWE WILL fund initiatives (1) that will map and develop the optimal distribution channels required at different life-cycle stages. (2) partner regionally with distribution partners with maximum reach. (3) create a centralized information repository.
  • SUCH AS: (1) fund the mapping of regional distribution channels. (2) engage with existing regional, national and international partners such as PJ Library and Birthright on leveraging their current distribution channels. (3) establish a Jewish EdTech centralized repository, including a website that collects blogs, data reports, recent news, etc. to leverage existing resources and to share best practices with the field.

What actionable insights could be achieved with great data?

  • Hypothesis: IF WE continuously collect high quality data
  • THEN enhanced products and services can be provided to the sector.
  • THEREFOREWE WILL fund several initiatives.
  • SUCH AS: (1) creating data interoperability standards and tools. (2) engage data scientists to build a suite of action-oriented analytics tools. (3) create a new, or leverage an existing forum for sharing data analytics insights. (4) fund a forum or convening for sharing best practices

Practical call to action: As individual funders or foundations, when you make an EdTech grant or Program Related Investment (PRI), we encourage you to use this framework for two purposes, firstly, to assess how your funding contributes to your learning agenda, and potentially to the ecosystem learning agenda. And secondly, as a diligence tool to strengthen the investee or grantee proposal by asking questions like: What are you hoping to achieve with this new content? How will users access and engage with the content? What’s your distribution plan? How robust is your implementation plan? And our favorite question of all; How will we know if we should double down or shut down, i.e. increase our funding and crowd in other funders or exit?

Strategic call to action: In order to foster an ecosystem that will continue to embrace technological advances in the service of Jewish education, we need to collect the depth and breadth of knowledge amongst funders, educators, parents and students. Let’s create the conversation space and unpack our efforts and ambitions. Join us to maximize the deployment of resources – to chart a pragmatic way forward, and to proactively build the Jewish educational opportunities that we envisage for our generation.

Jarred Myers manages an Innovation Portfolio for a Private Family Foundation, using venture philanthropy and mission investing tools, he focusses on technology driven solutions for education and employment. Nicky Newfield is the Founder and Executive Director of Jewish Interactive and is a trustee of the Glatt Charitable Foundation.

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