Overcoming the Challenges of Jewish Educational Technology

by Tamar Wisemon

This is the year of New Media Technology in Jewish education. All of the major Jewish educational conferences over the past few weeks, including NATE Seattle, the Jewish Educators Assembly, the North American Jewish Day Schools Conference and, in Israel, Leadel’s Digital Jewish Education Forum, focused on how to bring technology into our classrooms in a way that engages students. An underlying question was how to bring teachers on board.

At Sviva Israel, we are excited about the discussions and ideas flowing through these conferences, tweets, blogs, forums and webinars, which form an essential conversation in the growth of Jewish technology innovation. Now is the time to move on to practical implementation of Jewish educational technology.

The Eco Campus, our school platform and social network for elementary and middle schools, has just been certified with the TRUSTe Child Safety Seal, making it the first ever Jewish educational platform to achieve the gold standard of compliance with US Federal COPPA Laws.

TRUSTe Child Safety certification is not a simple process. It is a relatively new field even in the mainstream web world, and it is mainly the major commercial sites that have spent the considerable time and resources to meet certification requirements, in fact, nonprofits are generally understood to be legally exempt from COPPA compliance. Yet we felt a responsibility, as an organization that has worked with over 60 schools across the USA and Israel, to not only give our students the social networking tools that we need to engage them, but at the same time, to make the maximum effort to ensure that our students are as safe online, as they should be in real life.

When Sviva Israel won the Microsoft Israel R&D Community VC contest in 2009 and began, under their mentorship, to develop the Eco Campus, we took upon ourselves the challenge of developing a safe, sustainable school platform and social network. Here are some of the questions that we asked ourselves, and that educators should think about, when bringing technology into Jewish classrooms:

  1. Is it interactive? Today’s digital natives live in a global, online, interconnected world. They don’t want to type information into a void or play in isolation. The Eco Campus platform, with its goal of connecting Jewish students to their peers in Israel and across North America, has been designed with social networking in mind; our users can blog and comment on one another’s posts, LIKE their videos and will soon have the ability to chat and message one another in a moderated framework.
  2. Is it useable by all students and teachers? Many technological novices are hesitant of wandering alone in cyberspace, and a short guidebook will not allay their fears. Sites such as WordPress are excellent for medium to advanced bloggers, but for novices, the sheer array of options can be daunting and confusing. As was succinctly tweeted recently by Atlanta educator @nohartman, “If teachers aren’t trained and comfortable with it, tech’s only impact is on the budget #missedopportunity #jed21”. The Eco Campus provides a simple Teacher Content Management System (CMS), and teachers receive in-school and online training and support to ensure their confidence, and the success of the program. They can monitor their students’ basic progress on the site, upload pictures, videos and documents to their school gallery, and set blogging privileges in a collaborative school blog that has been designed from scratch to be as simple and intuitive as possible by children and teachers of all ages. Our support staff are always available to make the learning curve even faster.
  3. Is it Jewish? The Eco Campus was created to facilitate Peoplehood amongst Jewish North American and Israeli students. The central themes of the platform are Jewish global environmental values and Israel. It is fully bi-lingual in English and Hebrew and together with our upcoming Ulpan department can be used as a Hebrew language learning tool. Though our graphics aren’t overwhelmingly Jewish, where else can your Avatar wear an Israeli Flag T-Shirt?
  4. Is it educational? The Eco Campus is the online home of the Eco Connection, winner of last year’s Jewish Agency Partnership 2000 Award of Excellence. Our proven curricula materials have helped to make real changes in students’ attitudes to Israel, the environment and there Jewish Heritage.
  5. Is it fun? Many educational sites are clearly just that – educational, but not much fun. To truly engage our students, we want to see them continuing to engage when they leave school, on their laptops, mobiles and iPads. During our 18-month development of the Eco Campus, we incorporated feedback from our junior advisors, adding avatars and a Farmville-type personal garden for each student. Our goal is to continue to add new games and apps that are both educational and fun.
  6. Is it Web 3.0? Does the virtual activity flow over into real life? One of the most successful features of the Eco Campus is that we can see and measure the changes in students’ attitudes to the subjects taught. We continue to be inspired by the creativity and determination of our students, teachers and administrators in creating meaningful projects in their schools to lessen their own environmental impact.
  7. Is it safe? We created the Eco Campus, with a certain sense of trepidation in providing educators with a training ground to impact on how their students use social networking sites. We moderate the students’ postings based on their educational value, and their postings can only be viewed by other registered students. Most free commercial sites have a salient goal of advertising or email harvesting, neither of which we want to expose our children to. Even more dangerous are mainstream social networking sites (which are actually illegal for children to belong to under the age of 13), which have minimal moderation and a goal of maximum exposure.
  8. Can we rely on the free technologies that exist? If we wish to accomplish all of the above in a safe fashion than the answer is no. Developing educational social networks for young people requires constant development, moderation and technical support for parents and teachers. The Eco Campus provides schools with their own virtual school building on the Eco Campus map, which includes the curriculum, collaborative school blog, teacher CMS, school gallery, student avatars and gardens, classroom ecological footprint tools, all of our other games and features and ongoing support in with both the practical teaching and the technology.

There remains one major challenge to Jewish Educational Technology – Investment. Developing successful technology requires more than innovation, it requires serious investment. The Jewish community is just beginning to take the ball and run with it, as we have seen with the launch of the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund and a new openness to New Media grants being expressed by other funders.

Our students and their parents are thirsty for creative Jewish Educational Technology. Our teachers are beginning to understand that, in today’s classroom, media literacy is a must-have skill. Our philanthropists and innovators need to consider the challenges we encountered when investing in platforms that will engage our Jewish digital natives.

Tamar Wisemon is Director of Media and Technology at Sviva Israel, and leads development of the Eco Campus. She will be participating in the US State Department International Visitors Leadership Program entitled, “Media Literacy: Promoting Civil Society through New Media Technology.”