We live in a world fascinated — one might even say obsessed — with technology. In an age of smartphones and even “smart” kitchen appliances, it is no surprise that the allure of technology has touched the field of education as well. Some of the new initiatives in using technology in schools have been driven by large charitable foundations, most notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But the Gates Foundation is only one among many to look toward “digital learning” as the wave of the future — or perhaps even the salvation of education.
Jewish education too has come to embrace the promise, or at least the potential, of these new modalities. For example, I was struck by how many of the new “signature” grants announced by the Covenant Foundation (one of the leading education-oriented Jewish foundations) at the beginning of 2012 were focused on technology: Among other projects, the foundation awarded funding for a Jewish history mobile game app, a grant to distribute short films on digital platforms and an “initiative to create and activate technological tools and platforms to reach and engage Hebrew language educators.” Much of this is extraordinary, but I want to offer my own reservations about some of the enthusiasm and to step back to consider what all this means for us as a Jewish community committed to education.
What is the argument behind the interest in technology and education? Amidst a great deal of rhetoric we can identify at least three recurring themes which we might call “economics,” “excitement” and “effectiveness.” First, economics: The economic argument for technology in education is one heard most regularly in discussions of higher education, and it has garnered a good deal of attention in the press in the past year. In particular, the creation of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has raised a number of challenging questions about the future of university education. Sebastian Thrun, a professor at Stanford, taught an online course on artificial intelligence that was said to have enrolled 160,000 students worldwide. “Massive” in this case is perhaps an understatement!
The economic appeal — at least on the surface — is obvious. If one professor can teach huge numbers of students, think of the business model that this might suggest. Why do we need large numbers of professors when an economically more “efficient” prototype is there for the asking, with one person teaching many students? These ideas about economic efficiencies have even trickled down to the education of younger children. A recent commercial during the Olympics showed how students in a district could all study simultaneously with one teacher who was projected into the classroom on a large screen through digital technology. In Jewish education this argument has obvious appeal, given the constant difficulty in finding well-prepared and knowledgeable teachers in all settings for Jewish learning.
Beyond the potential of economies of scale, a second factor in the appeal of technology is what I am calling “excitement” — stirring the enthusiasm of students through using media that speak directly to them. According to this argument, the students whom we teach are already deeply enmeshed in the digital age: They are more comfortable with visuals than with words, more attuned to the Web than to books, and therefore our conventional pedagogic methods are completely out of step with the learners in our classrooms. Given the well-known challenges of engaging students, this disconnect between the culture of the child and methods of the teachers is exacerbated further in Jewish education.