Introducing the Future of Jewish Learning

[This blog is the first in a series on the new report, The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: How Digital Media are Reshaping Jewish Education, by Stanford University’s Ari Y. Kelman. The report, commissioned by the Jim Joseph Foundation, will be featured in a session Monday morning at the upcoming Jewish Funders Network conference. Following the conference, additional blogs will run in eJP sharing multiple perspectives on the findings and questions raised in The Future of Jewish learning.]

By Ari Y. Kelman

For all that we know about Jewish education, we should know more about learning than we do. I don’t mean “learning” as it is sometimes used to mean studying text, but rather, in the broader educational or existential sense: How do people learn to be Jewish?

This question is even more urgent in the rapidly-changing educational landscape of the 21st century, where learning does not look like we imagine that it used to. Classrooms are “flipped,” where maker labs are becoming commonplace, where students and DIY-ers turn to YouTube for instruction and inspiration, and where Google can answer any question you might have about just about anything.

How do people learn to be Jewish now, amidst a flow of media and online platforms, of text and video and audio that is mostly free and on-demand, and that competes with more traditional sites, sources, and structures of Jewish education?

With support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, my research team at Stanford’s Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies, including Professor Antero Garcia, Dr. Molly Zielezinski, and Dr. Mia Bruch, tried to answer this question.

The findings from our research appear in a new report, The Future of Jewish Learning Is Here: How Digital Media are Reshaping Jewish Education. In it, we focus on how people learn from a set of online Jewish content providers, and how they search for, engage with, share, create, and construct their own learning both on and offline.

Drawing on interviews with learners, general research on online learning, and emerging data about Jewish online media, we found that learning online is largely self-motivated and self-directed. Learners do not sit (only) in classrooms and listen to educators. Instead, we found online learners actively pursuing their own learning – whether through sharing content with family or friends, looking online for answers to “In Real Life” (IRL) questions, or selecting different platforms for different ends (Wikipedia serves one purpose, podcasts serve another). Online, learners drive learning as active agents in seeking sources, evaluating the reliability of those sources, triaging information, sharing knowledge, and figuring out how this applies to their lives both on and off line.

Learning online, therefore, does not happen in a vacuum. Typically, it is driven by “real-life” concerns or needs, which means that online learners are already poised to integrate new knowledge or insights into their lives. Online learning is rarely “academic” study for which tests can be dispatched to measure “literacy,” but the kinds of necessary, contextual, situated learning to which many formal educators aspire. Learning is meaningful because it is embedded within the daily lives of learners.

What emerges from our research is a portrait of a robust, flexible, creative, non-traditional, readily accessible learning environment for people who cannot, for whatever reason, find time, resources, or inspiration in schools, synagogues, or immersive experiences. Or, alternatively, they do not have access to more formal modes of Jewish education. Embedded in their daily lives, learning online appears to have a great deal of traction, as learners are driven by their need to know, rather than the structured demands of a curriculum or a class schedule.

All of this tracks with what we know about online learning more generally, even if it does not resemble more familiar models of Jewish education found in or funded by federations, congregations, JCCs, day schools, or seminaries. Schools and synagogues, camps and heritage tours will undoubtedly continue to deliver high-quality and intensive educational experiences, but the Jewish educational world would do well to begin to take more seriously the realities of online learning as a thriving venue for Jewish learning. Sooner than we expect, virtual reality, augmented reality, bots, artificial intelligence, smart appliances and the “internet of things” will begin having an even more profound effect on the ways we live our lives, and on the future forms that Jewish life and learning will assume. These new technological realities might make some in the Jewish educational world uncomfortable, but this is likely the future, and it is just the beginning.

This study of learning still left us with more questions than answers, so we embedded some of our questions into the report for practitioners and professionals to consider: What kinds of learning fosters which kinds of connections? How might learners be encouraged to contribute more to online communities of learning and draw on their own specialized expertise? How else might technology tools and online learning be utilized to enhance Shabbat and holiday observances in real time, as they are happening? What new platforms or learning experiences might be necessary to engage a broader diversity of learning communities? How are these developments going to change our schools, congregations, rituals, and/or gatherings?

We offer this combination of questions and discoveries in order to initiate a substantive conversation about the future of Jewish education and to help us all learn what Jewish education might be in this new environment. We hope this report sparks curiosity and adventure among those committed to fostering a vibrant future for Jewish learning.

Ari Y. Kelman is the Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

The complete report, The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: How Digital Media are Reshaping Jewish Education, is available for download here.