Technology and Time: Educational Challenges and Opportunities

HIllel OmerBy Laura Tomes and Amanda K. Weiss

With the launch of the Apple watch last month, there’s been a lot of musing about the way that time functions in a technological universe. Apple argues that if we’re going to strap something to our wrists all day, it might as well have some multi-functionality. Why just tell the time, when it could answer text messages, alert us to our next meeting, and answer a phone call as well? Counting time, for time’s sake, Apple tells us, is not enough.

As a classroom educator, I have found that technology can indeed help students, but can also hinder the experience of learning. I have always included a no-technology statement in my syllabi banning the use of computers from the classroom, except in cases of special educational need. Why? For the simple reason that students don’t focus when there is a screen in front of them. Millennials use technology in ways that routinely promote over-reliance: distractedly checking emails and apps whenever a moment falls below total stimulation. In my classroom, I wanted to harness the power of non-stimulated moments to entice my students to engage with each other and to wrestle with the material. It’s in these moments that learning happens.

In my work for Hillel International, however, where education takes place through channels which are entirely informal, and in which we, as educators, compete with a million other tempting opportunities for a student’s leisure time, the millennial use of technology offers an enticing way in to their iCals. For if your average college student is spending half of the day distractedly scanning Facebook content, emails, and social media feeds, this has to be one of the most opportune channels for integrating Jewish content into their everyday lives.

We’ve tried to harness this at Hillel this year by taking the practice of counting the Omer online. The Omer is the original Jewish technology for marking time. And if the average millennial keeps time via technology, and if Apple is right that counting time for time’s sake is not enough, then technology and social media offer enticing opportunities for counting the Omer in enhanced ways. At the University of Oregon, Amanda Weiss created #BlogBOmer, a new way of specifically enumerating the days of the Omer by concentrating on a specific daily theme based off the 49 permutations of sefirot created by the Kabbalists for each day and week of the Omer: Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malchut. For each day of the Omer, there’s a specific combination, listed in an accompanying Facebook event, with prompt questions posted every morning/afternoon. Amanda’s personal blog gives a daily tribute to a person (or people) who she believes embodies that particular day’s sefirot combination. At the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience at Hillel International, we have produced a share square for every day of the Omer that is sent out by email and social media. Taking inspiration from the popular Instaquote site, each square shares a piece of Jewish wisdom contributed by a Hillel professional from one of our 550 campuses, accompanied by the traditional text for counting the Omer. In our decision to take the Omer online, we’ve taken Apple seriously. Maybe counting time for time’s sake is not enough to reach the Millennial generation. But by integrating technology and time through the Omer, this ancient Jewish technology for marking time has allowed us to bring Jewish wisdom into the rhythms of the everyday. If Apple is correct, the way to Millennials’ hearts may just be through their inbox.

Laura Tomes, Ph.D. is the Director of Educational Research and Innovation at the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience at Hillel International

Amanda K. Weiss is the Director of Jewish Leadership and Learning at Oregon Hillel and a participant in Hillel International’s Ezra Fellowship for Junior Jewish Educators.