By Eli Kannai
[This post is part of 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, was released in conjunction with the recent Jewish Funders Network conference. The series shares multiple perspectives on the findings and questions raised in The Future of Jewish Learning.]
A few months ago, my friend and colleague Josh Miller from the Jim Joseph Foundation asked me to share my thoughts about a new research report, now titled The Future of Jewish Learning Is Here: How Digital Media Are Reshaping Jewish Education, by Prof Ari Kelman et al. As I read through this interesting paper, writing notes and comments to myself, I suddenly understood: engaging in Jewish learning online is now “a thing!” Just as one can engage with sports, obtain financial information, get updated on current events and prepare oneself with regard to traffic and weather all by surfing the internet – one can study Jewish topics. What this research demonstrates, in multiple ways, following different personal stories and use cases, is the very fact that many people find content relevant to their Jewish life online. It is no longer one anecdote, and it is not just to look up candle lighting times or prayer service hours. You can learn Torah online.
Let me explain why this is a significant finding:
I have been engaged with websites that contain a large amount of content since the early days of the web, back in the 90’s. I was first involved with developing general education websites; then I focused on Jewish and Israel-related content. Now, after almost 18 years with The AVI CHAI Foundation, I have seen Jewish content-focused sites reach many tens of millions of visits. I follow the sites AVI CHAI supports via Google Analytics and have access to the data. Some sites enjoy over a million visits a year; others are in the many hundreds of thousands. These are not Wikipedia (estimated over 400 million monthly visitors), but these tens of millions of visits are a very large number, each representing a single individual seeking Jewish content to enrich their spiritual life.
But numbers alone do not tell the story. This new research provides us with a view from the users’ side: what do people look for? What sites are they using, and in what way are they engaging with the content provided by this site? At AVI CHAI Israel, we were always aware that the big numbers of visitors are made of individual people. We wanted to understand our users, what they do on our site and what they are looking to achieve from their visit. For example, the Piyyut website was evaluated twice, teaching us about our users and the way they connect with Piyyutim: are they interested in learning the text, what value do they find in articles about Piyyut? Do they come for the love of the music, or is it more about remembering their communities of origin? Mikranet, a site dedicated to Bible study in Israeli state schools, was also evaluated, letting us learn about the large extent to which the use of this resource is integrated into educators and students’ school work. It is only by such research, asking users why they come, what they do and what they would like to see, that we can focus our efforts and build usable sites that provide information and are also a joy to use.
Kelman’s research tells us that, similar to how users consume other information on the web, Jewish content is used because people do not always want to go through the “traditional.” In this instance, that means avoiding asking rabbis, going to Jewish institutions, etc. They want “self-service,” just as people now buy a plane ticket online without using a travel agent. Cutting out the middleman is part of this generation, like it or not. This in turn means that the community, developers, funders, and Jewish communal personnel, should not feel insulted for not being approached personally. Rather, they should build excellent Jewish experiences online that at some point may lead to deeper connections and actual real–life meetings face to face.
Thankfully, more and more focus is on the content itself and the way it should be consumed. Search engines and social networks now allow us to find what we need in a single click, without spending our “precious” web-surfing time on home pages and different navigation menus. Friends now send us direct links to a page within a website; Google responds with the correct information within the search resources without us needing to visit the sites ourselves. The user interface, the navigation aides (those menus – top, side or bottom) have become less crucial. The once very important task of designing a user interface (UI), the way users would seek content and find it on the website, is now complemented (or replaced) by the new artistic task focusing on the way users engage with the content, called UX ( user experience).
It is therefore no surprise that we also learn from this research that users appreciate a smooth, slick and inspiring experience on the web. This is not unique to those seeking Jewish content. For many, “design” may seem more important than the content itself. Some people care how things look almost as much, if not more than, what’s inside. People use pictures to send messages both privately (for example: instead of sending a text to your friend saying you found their car keys under the sofa you just send them a picture) and publicly (Instagram). A picture is worth a thousand words not because it conveys more information but rather because it also carries some emotional weight.
After reading the research, I see a need to develop more digital opportunities for Jewish experiences and learning, as well as to broaden the existing ones. People find the platforms that fit their needs, so we better provide excellent platforms. When they feel it is appropriate, they find the way to share what they learn and experience, digitally or IRL (in real life). People select platforms, not the other way. So platform creators need to set their priorities, deeply considering what they want the user to get out of the digital product as they design the project so that it fits the desired experiences. UX is crucial. When designing or revamping a website, it should not only be about the content; presentation and the way the content can be used – mobile, desktop or midsized screens – matters greatly. Both creators and funders should focus on the emotional engagement – the design – as it is not only a feature, it may be just as significant as the content.
Finally, Jewish learning online should not only be understood in the context of “connection and collaboration,” as important as those opportunities are and as the report makes clear is an integral component of online learning. However, some people choose to learn from the web specifically because they do not have to connect in order to do so. Learning can be social, but it is not only social. Leaders and developers of digital Jewish learning experiences should have in mind both types of learning when creating new content.
In this research, users of a group of ten diverse websites were interviewed. I hope that in a few years, such research will be done with many more sites, because there will be many more Jewish experiences online that would provide information and connect future generations, helping users engage with Jewish content.
Eli Kannai is the Chief Educational Technology Officer for the AVI CHAI Foundation. The complete report, The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: How Digital Media Are Reshaping Jewish Education, is available for download here.