Open is a Winning Strategy for Technology Investment

If we want to elevate the field of Jewish educational technology as a whole, we need to make certain that as many paths as possible are open for exploration.

[This article is part 7 of the series Continuing Conversations on Leveraging Educational Technology to Advance Jewish Learning. The series is a project of Jewish Funders Network, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the William Davidson Foundation. For an in-depth look at opportunities in Jewish Ed Tech and digital engagement, read Smart Money: Recommendations for an Educational Technology and Digital Engagement Investment Strategy. Later this year, Jewish Funders Network will launch a new website to help advance the field of Jewish educational technology.]

By Brett Lockspeiser

I have been very excited to see the Jim Joseph and William Davidson Foundations devoting serious time and energy to researching the field of educational technology and sharing their findings publicly. Their report offers substantial knowledge about projects and resources currently available and substantiates the importance of philanthropic investment in educational technology.

When I received a digital copy of the report, the technologist in me couldn’t help but immediately hit “command+f” to find keys terms: “Open Source,” “Creative Commons,” “Free Culture.” I was genuinely surprised and disappointed to find zero results. (To be fair there is one recommendation to “guarantee Open Education Resource Access.”)

When I started to build Sefaria the two most important resources available to me were: (1) Open Source software and (2) freely reusable content. The only software I needed to build Sefaria – the programming languages, the database, the web server – were available to me for free and allowed me to build new software on top of them. The first text I added to the Sefaria database was the 1917 JPS translation of Tanakh, which is in the public domain, followed by texts of Mishnah, Talmud and others copied from Wikisource, a project of the Wikimedia Foundation that releases all their content with Creative Commons licenses. These licenses provide a legal framework for authors to effectively donate their work to the public domain, while offering a few options for restrictions such as a requirement to provide attribution.

Sefaria’s mission is to make the Jewish textual tradition available to the world for free for use and re-use. But if it were not for other organizations first offering their creative work for us to re-use, Sefaria would not exist. When my co-founder Joshua Foer and I first started pitching Sefaria to potential donors, we were met with a lot of skepticism, and we were rejected from our first grant applications. It took building a prototype and attracting an initial group of enthusiastic users to break through that skepticism to secure our first grant. If we had needed the grant money up front to license or commission content and software for our prototype, we would have been stuck.

The best and most successful ideas in technology come from people who are curious and passionate about making something new through a process of exploration and experimentation. Makers poke their heads in many directions, looking for something that clicks. If a certain direction has high barriers to entry, many will simply turn away and look for a path where experimentation is easier. If we want to elevate the field of Jewish educational technology as a whole, we need to make certain that as many paths as possible are open for exploration.

Philanthropists can play a major role in advancing the field of educational technology by requiring grantees to make the work they fund as open as possible. Practically this means requiring in grant agreements that texts, images and data produced be released with Creative Commons licenses and that software carry an Open Source licence. If you fund the creation of open content, your dollars not only support the organization and its immediate audience, but also anyone who seeks to use or build upon the original project, magnifying the impact of your investment.

Philanthropic leaders like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation already make this a requirement of research they fund. I know from the generous support Sefaria has received from both the William Davidson and Jim Joseph Foundations that both organizations share these values, and I look forward to seeing these concerns translated into policies across the field of Jewish philanthropy.

Brett Lockspeiser is co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Sefaria.