Klal Perspectives: Technology and the 21st Century Orthodox Community
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Exploring New Possibilities in Online Torah Learning
Today’s technology has become so intimately intrusive in our lives that it is often impossible to assess whether we are consumers of technology or whether technology is consuming us. While, “smart” technology allegedly makes our lives easier, more productive and less stressful, the question is, does it make us smarter? In any event, one thing appears all but certain – technology is here to stay.
The unavoidable and increasingly pervasive and powerful impact of technology implores us to confront the unprecedented opportunities and avenues it can facilitate for Jewish growth, education and learning, despite the many imposing challenges it presents. Below is a brief exploration of some of these opportunities and challenges as they concern several of Torah Judaism’s most cherished values and practices.
A fundamental dimension of sustaining the Mesorah is the central role of the rebbe/student relationship. Historically, an individual would develop this relationship relatively early in life, and naturally sustain it thereafter to one degree or another. Technology, however, has revolutionized access to communication as well as transportation, altering many of the dynamics underlying the rebbe/student relationship, both negatively and positively. For example, ease of travel has introduced the common practice of talmidim studying in a variety of yeshivas in both Israel and the U.S. rather than maintaining roots in one environment. This practice impacts the stability that is needed for students to build and sustain a meaningful and lasting relationship with a particular rebbe.
On the positive side, these same dynamics afford greater opportunities for students to encounter new rebbeim who may be more appropriate for their particular intellectual and temperamental needs, and with whom they are more likely to maintain a long-term relationship. Moreover, ease of travel and communications allows this relationship to be sustained and nurtured long after the rebbe and student have parted ways.
The Internet and its myriad learning opportunities introduce a similar dichotomy regarding the rebbe/student relationship. On one hand, enormous breadth of access increases the chances that a seeking individual will find a teacher who “speaks their language.” On the other hand, an individual’s tilt towards online learning can seriously threaten the unique and invaluable impact of the personal energy that accompanies a rebbe teaching students sitting before him. I recently saw a teshuva discussing whether one can make a siyum after listening to the recording of a mesechta being taught, though not actively involving oneself in engaged study.
Unfortunately, online Torah study introduces even more blatant and noxious challenges. Many online platforms deliver rich and profound media but at the same time may also inadvertently serve as the conduit for severely inappropriate material. A most beautiful and impactful shiur watched on YouTube may be followed by a YouTube pop-up introducing a variety of images linking to other wholly inappropriate videos on their site.
Increasingly popular alternatives for dissemination of Torah are video streaming services such as LiveStream or Ustream. These services allow the user to broadcast a live video feed, and they are wonderful for delivering a live shiur to which students and friends can be invited. In fact, one blog recently posted an article entitled “Could Live Streaming Be the Key to Kiruv?”, which presented two mobile streaming services – Periscope and Meerkat. Sites like these, however, generate revenue from ads, and retain exclusive control over ad placement. The most unholy and inappropriate content can, therefore, follow the holiest of classes. Educators and their administrators must therefore be mindful and evermore diligent about anticipating these kinds of issues.
Another challenge heightened by technology is the degree of stimulation and “razzle-dazzle” that is now necessary to capture someone’s attention. Age-old wisdom about how to reach people with meaningful Jewish ideas seems increasingly outdated in this rapidly changing, fast-paced, technological age. In a YouTube and Instagram world, attention spans have been shortened and people are accustomed to information being seamlessly and painlessly delivered to the palm of their hands. Moreover, even when a student can be convinced to venture out of his or her immediate surroundings to embark on a search of Judaism – whether on Birthright or even for a stint in a yeshiva or seminary, maintaining follow-up presents the same challenge.
One solution that addresses these very challenges is ProjectSinai.org, which I created with my brother Gary under the auspices of the Afikim Foundation. It provides a clean and protected platform for online deliverables of Jewish content, such as live classes, videos and other media, and allows technology to be used to reach current and potential students around the world. A wide variety of organizations and individuals have utilized the platform to create and teach their own interactive, online classes. With the assistance of the Afikim Foundation, Project Sinai continues to grow and flourish, with thousands of registered users around the world participating in classes regularly.
Online Torah learning is just beginning to become normative, and will likely continue to flourish. In the secular world, online classes have become commonplace, and these developments are allowing the Torah community to learn from others how to most effectively utilize this mode of study. About 5.3 million students took at least one online course in Fall 2013 – up 3.7 percent from the previous fall, according to “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States,” an annual report by the Babson Survey Research Group. The Babson study also reports that in 2014, an unprecedented 70.8% of academic leaders reporting that e-learning is critical to their long-term strategy.
The next obvious query regarding online study is its effectiveness. Among the same Babson cohort of academic leaders, about 74% reported that online study produced results equal or superior to face-to-face instruction. In fact, a growing majority of chief academic officers rate the learning outcomes for online education “as good as or better” than those for face-to-face instruction. While the 2013 results show a small decrease in the percentage of academic leaders who view the learning outcomes for online instruction as the same or better than face-to-face, they attribute this to the fact that leaders at institutions without online offerings are generally more negative regarding the impact of online learning.
These results reflect the trend toward more immersive and experiential online learning experiences. Experiential online learning environments include a range of online experiences, such as purposeful games, thought-provoking scenarios and consequential simulations. They may even include 3-D worlds, which tend to significantly increase student engagement.
The Financial Times recently published an article addressing the future of online learning. In the article, Anant Agarwal, chief executive of edX – an online learning platform created jointly by Harvard and MIT – suggests that students worldwide will soon have free access to virtually any course subject in just about any language, adding up to tens of thousands of free, open courses, offering everything from fine arts to engineering. Learning will likely become even more personalized , offering multiple pathways to navigate courses that fit specific learning styles and speeds.
The blended model incorporating a combination of online and in-class, live learning will become more commonplace. It is projected that by 2020, 50% of all college campus coursework will combine in-person and online learning – a shift driven by student demand. MIT’s recent task force report on the future of MIT education, for example, was unequivocal in its support of the blended model.
An article appearing in the US News & World Report, by Kelsey Sheehy noted that high schools nationwide include at least one online course as a prerequisite to matriculation. Many states have enacted laws making online learning a mandatory prerequisite for graduation. The article quotes Kathleen Airhart, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Education, in a discussion with Education Week, “The reality is, when a student leaves us, whether they’re going to a four-year college, a technical college, or going into the world of work, they’re going to have to do an online course. This helps prepare the students.”
How do these trends impact Jewish learning? Jewish education has traditionally lagged far behind its secular counterpart with regard to innovation. Perhaps we feel that “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” and that may be true. For example, even the staunchest frum advocate of online study would be hard pressed to argue that online study is superior to the chavrusah model of one-on-one study. On a full-class basis, however, online study often generates an energy that has no equal, even in a live face-to-face event. When participants observe others logging into a shiur from across the globe, a feeling is generated that is quite exciting. One recognizes that one is part of something special.
Through programs run on ProjectSinai.org, I see firsthand how this technology is impacting secular students. The online classroom allows them to connect with like-minded students throughout the country in a way that could not happen otherwise. For the most part, these are students who would find a face to face interaction with a rabbi far too intimidating.
Online learning is having an impact on Jewish day school education as well. Many forward-thinking schools have integrated some form of online learning into their curricula, This is commonly referred to as “blended learning,” referranced above. It incorporates computer or online based learning that takes place in school or at home as part of the live teacher/classroom experience. Secular institutions are proving this model as very effective at raising the level of education while at the same time reducing costs.
While many yeshivas and day schools are not inclined to use such technology, newer startups and tuition paying parents are taking note. They are exploring this model as a way to lower tuition costs while at the same time improving the quality of education. While we have traditionally been slow adopters when it comes to new models of education, I believe online learning can and will revolutionize Jewish education in a way that makes it more affordable.
Faced with the reality of the tuition crisis, and in many cases substandard secular education, our educational institutions need to take note. With today’s technology, these types of needs tend to pave the way for “disruptive innovation.” If you are unfamiliar with the term, just think of Uber, the user-driven taxi service that spawned a whole new industry in transportation. Uber is a classic example of how a new opportunity provided by technology upended an age-old and well-established industry worldwide, literally overnight and without warning. It caused people to change their expectations about travel, and the worldwide taxi industry had no choice but to respond. Perhaps online learning will become our version of disruptive technology, demanding a rethinking of the age-old model of yeshivas and day schools.
Without question, technology comes with a price. When it is harnessed for good, it can be the most effective tool we have in our arsenal that combats ignorance, apathy and assimilation. The Malbim (Tehillim 85) explains that for tov (goodness) to be achieved, it must be led and mentored by tzedek (righteousness). A gift of tov left unrestrained will never achieve its purpose. When evaluating the good and the bad of the Internet, and by extension all its portals and applications, we must acknowledge how destructive and empty they can be when used improperly. At the same time, there is goodness beyond what could ever have been imagined decades ago that is being shared every day, everywhere, through the growing benefits of these technologies.
It is therefore vital that we approach our engagement with technology with great care and foresight. Clearly, we cannot look the other way and pretend that it doesn’t exist. Nor can we hide it from our children or simply prohibit everything and expect that all will be well. Such an approach is an irresponsible recipe for failure. So how can we take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities and avoid the dangers of online technology? A few suggestions:
1. If it’s free, beware. Before adopting tech just because everyone else is using it, you must do your homework. There is a good chance that somewhere along the line, you and/or your users will see something you don’t want to see. While it’s very enticing that sites like YouTube offer you access to tens of millions of potential viewers, weigh the pros and cons. As an educator, you know that what makes you relevant is your content, not the platform on which it is delivered. Of course, there may be advantages to using YouTube to showcase video content rather than posting it on your own website. Examine if and how that impacts your bottom line. You may have more success by controlling where and how your content is presented, and there are platforms that have been designed to accomplish that. Platforms that are “closed” (i.e., that do not allow anyone anywhere to post content) offer a level of control that promises to make sure content is appropriate and there will be no surprises during the user experience. These services provide more of a “safe” environment, but it is nevertheless unlikely that any service using the public Internet is 100% foolproof.
2. If you are actively and successfully connecting with students online, you are probably using at least some social media tools and services. Research which platforms your constituents deem relevant. Regularly review their policies and make sure you are comfortable with them. These policies can change without you knowing. For example, many people will tell you that FaceBook is safe. Last year, Facebook announced changes to its privacy and advertising policies, extending Facebook’s ability to track users outside of Facebook. This counters their 2011 position that they “do not track users across the web.” Facebook said it will begin to disregard its users’ choice of using their in-browser “Do Not Track” setting: Soon, anyone who clicks “ask websites not to track me” in their browser will be completely ignored by Facebook. Google and Yahoo already ignore people’s “Do Not Track” settings, though Twitter, Microsoft and Pinterest still respect them.
3. Many social platforms “mine” user data and can lure users away from your content. YouTube, for example, is a very sophisticated social media platform. If they see that people are interested in “Jewish” content, they can automatically comment on your page, suggesting other Jewish content that you may not approve of. Obviously regular viewers can do this as well. Again, monitor this regularly.
4, If you use video conferencing, streaming video services or website development platforms such as Wix or WordPress, make sure that they can provide a custom interface or integration that limits their ability to post other content on your page.
5. Invest time to understand how these platforms engage users. Everyone wants to be active on “social media.” Many people spend significant dollars doing so with little or no success. The more educated you become, the more successful you will be online.
While there is much more to discuss, it is clear that the Internet has revolutionized education, and its ability to reach Jews across the spectrum of Jewish life is unprecedented and unrivaled. From the unaffiliated to the most learned, everyone in our community can benefit and grow.
While our community prides itself on institutions such as family, school and our spiritual leaders as the most important providers of information, tradition and moral orientation, these institutions are now sharing this valuable space with technology. While no one can classify technology as simply good or bad, many have said that it has become the most important storyteller and that the Internet in particular has impacted Western civilization in a way that hasn’t happened since Gutenberg’s printing press.
Let’s embrace it, use it wisely and continue to transform the world.
Rick Magder has been developing media and marketing initiatives for corporations and Jewish organizations for over 25 years. He is the Founder and Director of projectsinai.org, a project of the Afikim Foundation.