The Covid Content Revolution: A Response

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

By Russel Neiss

I read with concern Andrés Spokoiny’s recent piece, “The Covid Content Revolution,” which is the latest in a series of articles and initiatives that seek to use the COVID-19 crisis to rehash old mythologies about the power and ability of technology to transform education.

In the article, Andrés suggests that the forced move to online learning initiated by COVID-19 has has created a “democratization of quality,” where folks from anywhere can learn from “the best,” instead of from their “mediocre” local educators and institutions, who Andrés compares to a cheap $10 bottle of wine.

Admittedly I’m not an oenophilia. If you’re ever at my Shabbos table you’re more likely to be served a $7 bottle of Italian Sara Bee Moscato or a cheap craft beer from one of St. Louis’s fine breweries. But I am an expert on Jewish educational technology, and a parent of three elementary school children who suffered through Zoom-school this past Spring.

Andrés’s rosy talk of virtual activities being a “godsend for the Jewish world” bares no resemblance to the massive educational experiment I see unfolding before us. But his vision is further problematic because it repackages an old and onerous myth that we can “fix” Jewish education by simply packaging and delivering “the right” content from “the best” educators through the power of new technologies. Even after a hundred years this vision remains unrealized, not due to lack of funder investment, nor to poor program design, but rather because of the same bad assumptions that Andrés articulates in his piece.

Creative Jewish educators and funders have been facilitating the experimentation with these technologies since they’ve been around. From educational filmstrips and phonographs in the first half of the 20th century, to the educational VHS craze and cassette tape shiurim of the 70’s and 80’s that brought us Shalom Sesame and Rashi – a Light After the Dark Ages, to the earliest Jewish video games from Davka and interactive CD-ROM’s like Heritage Civilization and the Jews in the 90’s, to the Flash websites produced by Jewish Media and Family Life or Bimbam (née G-dcast) in the 2000’s, to the first Jewish mobile apps in the 2010’s, Jewish educators have always been there, doing what they always do, trying to make ancient wisdom meaningful and relevant. 

The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough content produced by experts, nor that we lack a single centralized platform to deliver it, but rather we have a culture that is more interested in flitting from one shiny new idea to the next instead of doing the harder work of investing in Jewish educators and the local communities in which they work, to get the training, experiences and resources they need to excel.

And this is the real problem I have with Andrés’s vision. 

Producing quality content and an effective distribution system and merely training educators to “motivate the children… to interact with the content and with one another” is not sufficient. Yes, transferring knowledge from one generation to the next and fostering experiences where Jews can interact with other Jews is an important side effect of Jewish education, but it cannot be the main goal. We need to empower our teachers and learners with the skills and permission to reinvision, remix and renew our tradition for themselves. Broadcasting a singular, sanitized version of that tradition from a centralized glossy entity undermines that goal.

That’s not to say resources shouldn’t be made freely available and accessible to all. (I for one have advocated that position for going on ten years now.) But in a world in which philanthropic dollars remain limited, and communal priorities are being reconsidered in response to the pandemic, if you want to really demonstrate courageous and visionary leadership in Jewish education, you should be investing your communal dollars in strengthening the work of local Jewish educators to help them craft constructivist learning experiences where and when they are most needed, not in a new centralized educational platform that will be a historical footnote a decade from now when the next shiny technology comes around.

Equally fluent in Yiddish and Javascript, Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist and activist who builds critically acclaimed educational apps and experiences used by thousands of people each day. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Atlantic, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the Jewish Telegraph Agency, and other media outlets. He is a 2020 recipient of the Covenant Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.