Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Thoughts on Mercava

The following post appeared as the Dean's Message for the MHA / FYOS school newsletter last week.  Previous newsletters and messages can be accessed here.

The future of Jewish education is here.  Without it, we will lose at least an entire generation of Jewish children.  With it, we’ll unify the Jewish people and change the world.
These are some of the lofty promises made in a promotional video that has been viewed some 19,000 times since it was posted on YouTube six weeks ago.  Its creators are an Israel-based group called Mercava who, according the video, include “Executives who brought you Facebook, creative minds behind Disney, and pioneers of 21st century education from Pearson Education.” They believe that the Digital Age, with its barrage of high-speed, high-definition, interactive and immersive media experiences - coupled with the seductive allure of social media - have created a challenge for Jewish educators unlike any we’ve ever seen before.  Jewish children today, they say, need their information delivered on demand, in hyperlinked text, with stunning graphics, integrated video, and digital animation.  Jewish children today, they say, need our Torah texts instantly translated and brilliantly brought to life by the creative minds that brought us Toy Story, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph.    Without it, our children will be distracted, uninterested, and unengaged.  With it, we’ll save a generation.  This is “the cutting edge.” This is what Mercava has set out to do.
Readers of this column, readers of my blog, and those generally familiar with our school, know that over the past five years our faculty and administrators have spent countless hours reading about, thinking about, and discussing the unique set of challenges posed to our children by our rapidly changing world.  You also know that technology integration is something we have embraced across all grade levels and disciplines.  Yet, when watching this video from Mercava I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.  Disappointed not in the quality of their proposed content or in the elegance of the tools they are building to disseminate it.  Disappointed, rather, by a sense that their truly laudable efforts on behalf of Jewish education hardly scratch the surface in addressing the most significant challenges facing our children and their future.  
As part of our efforts to adjust our curriculum so as to best prepare students for their future rather than our past, our faculty adopted a set of “C21 Standards” a year ago which list the capacities we believe our students need to succeed in the 21st Century.  These standards are broken down into five categories: Analytical and Creative Thinking, Digital and Quantitative Literacy, Global Perspective, Adaptability Initiative and Risk Taking, and Religion and Modernity.  In all, there are fifty standards which our PreK-12 faculty felt accurately portrayed the additional skill set which our students will need in order to effectively navigate this brave new world academically, professionally, socially, emotionally, and religiously.  Sadly, I count only five of those fifty - and only one in the category of Religion and Modernity -  which this new platform heralded by Mercava as the future of Jewish education, will help our students to address.  
Perhaps more significant, though, is the fact that this platform, if overused, may make some of our other standards more difficult to achieve.  For instance, standard 5c, under Religion and Modernity, calls for our students to “Distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of religious information on the web.”  Mercava’s tools, with its crowd-sourcing approach and its use of digital animation to reimagine stories in Tanakh, may well blur the line between fact and fiction rather than help our students to delineate it.  Standard 5j reminds us that in this world of sound bytes, video clips, and tweets of a 140 characters or less, one of our objectives as Torah educators must be to help our students “Demonstrate the capacity for sustained textual analysis.”  While Mercava’s model of making 1,000 classical Jewish texts available for free in fully searchable and fully hyperlinked format may certainly help to encourage Torah learning be-iyyun, its promotional video clearly suggests that we ought to give in to contemporary society’s propensity for quick, instantly accessible, and therefore often shallow, messaging rather than fighting it by helping our students to taste the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment that comes with struggling through a thorny text and ultimately arriving at its true meaning.  Perhaps most glaring is the potential impact which Mercava’s project may have on standard 5i which calls for students to “Understand and appreciate the value in ‘powering down’ on regular occasions.”  If even Torah learning can’t be done without high-def and surround sound, I fear what will become of Shabbat and Yom Tov in the world of children and our children’s children.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve already registered for an account on Mercava’s site and I’ve taken their Daf Yomi app for a spin.  If the rest of their “product line” develops as they describe it, I certainly see myself using it and encouraging its use, under the right circumstances, in some of our classrooms.  What is critical, though, is that the world of Jewish education not see in this exciting tool a panacea for all of the very real challenges which we face in the years ahead.  Far more important than creating digital tools for the classroom, will be cultivating teachers with the skills to effectively use them and the flexibility to replace them when the next new thing comes our way.  And just as Rav Chaim of Volozhin did in his day, Rav Hirsch did in his, and Sarah Schenirer did in hers, it will be up to the educators of our day to constantly find new ways of bringing Torah to life, of demonstrating its continued relevance, of modeling its unrivaled beauty, and of inspiring its continued study even in the face of the monumental challenges posed by the Digital Age. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Perl makes an extremely important argument about the use of new delivery platforms for education. These cannot replace master educators as no matter how much they advance they cannot capture the complexity or texture of students and their learning needs, nor can it teach some of the higher order skills that the current labor force requires. The educator's responsibility is to learn how to best leverage these new technologies within the larger instructional models that we use.