By Eran Vaisben, Ed.D
In 2008 I served as the Education Director at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, California. It was my first year in this position and I was curious to know how my religious school students were learning at their elementary and middle schools in the morning, before attending my program in the afternoon. I called one of the local public school vice principals and asked to observe one or two lessons for a few hours. He invited me to sit in the 4th and 5th grade lessons. I left the school inspired, but also concerned.
I realized that there was a huge gap between my students’ learning experience in the morning and the program that was designed for them in the afternoons and on Sundays. At public school the use of educational tech tools was an integral and natural part of their teachers practice and methodology. Each child had a laptop which was connected (wirelessly) to the class SmartBoard and the school’s server. The students conducted research, created presentations, communicated with their teacher, and were extremely engaged in learning the subject matter. Students demonstrated high motivation to complete their assignments. On the flip side was my tech-“primitive” school with a single projector, a few old laptops and many, many textbooks.
I was lucky to have a supportive Board of Trustees (including a few Hi-Tech and startup executives) that provided the funds to not only purchase the technology, but also to develop and revise the school curricula and train teachers how to use the new instructional tools. The latter was a difficult task which required many hours and much patience. But even with all the challenges, we were successful in integrating new educational technology in the school. The following year, the religious school students were engaged in learning by utilizing the same tech tools that they were using on a daily basis in their public or private schools.
At that time, some parents and community members were skeptical and argued that by integrating technology we might compromise the content. This was a false presumption. On the contrary, the use of computers, websites and software helped us to better achieve our curricula goals and elevate the quality of learning. Technology gave our teachers the opportunity to empower their students to investigate, explore and create. Teachers had the autonomy to try new tech tools that could best serve their academic goals. Moreover, classes didn’t lose a sense of community. It was important to maintain student social interactions, chevrutah work, group discussions and debates as part of the learning. We found creative ways of using the new tech tools to connect students with each other and work in teams. In 2009, I wanted to share my success, and so I wrote an article about integration of technology in supplementary schools that was published in the Spring addition of “Torah at the Center” (URJ’s Lifelong Learning Journal). Considering today’s fast development of educational technology, it seems as if I wrote that article a century ago.
Over the past seven years, I have had the opportunity to visit and consult with numerous religious schools. The majority of the schools are so outdated in their teaching methodologies, and seem to be stuck somewhere in the 1980s or 1990s. I was amazed to see, for example, that at some schools, teachers still used chalkboards. Students were disengaged while learning from obsolete curriculum and textbooks. It felt depressing visiting some of these schools, and I kept thinking, Jewish education can do much better than this.
Now, having worked for a year in a Jewish day school, my views regarding the value of educational technology have been reaffirmed. At my current school, students create amazing projects and inspiring presentations on almost any topic by using innovative computer programs. In Bible studies, students create their own midrash by using storyboardthat.com. They raise tzedakah funds for their team’s selected organization via creative websites. Eighth graders prepare their arguments for a debate about modern anti-Semitism using various websites. Students film short videos in Hebrew using acquired grammar rules and vocabulary, then share them online. Middle school students are connected with their Skype “pen pals” in Israel and learn about Israeli culture. First graders can easily learn Hebrew decoding and writing in script by using simple apps on their iPads. The list of daily utilization of educational technological tools is much longer. And the best part is that students are engaged in learning while developing their critical thinking and public speaking skills, expanding their knowledge and becoming young, educated Jews.
I believe that in integration of educational technology is possible for every Jewish supplementary or day school in America. With the help of leading foundations in the field of Jewish education, local philanthropists, schools and congregational boards and Jewish agencies, such as local branches of federation and BJE, schools do have the potential to revolutionize their mode of teaching and curriculum. To do so, schools need funding for new technological tools that can better serve their curricula goals and pedagogical needs. Moreover, support in the form of professional development and ongoing training is essential. Funders who truly believe in the future of Jewish education must make this investment their top priority, while schools and community leaders must act with the conviction that although the Ed Tech revolution started years ago, it is not too late to become a part of it.
Eran Vaisben holds a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership from University of California Davis. He has been a Jewish educator for 15 years.