It's the Content, Stupid!

World ORT Naomi Prawer International Seminar for Digital Technology in Jewish Education,
Johannesburg, South Africa
One of the most important things to realize about educational technology is that the education must always drive the technology and not the technology driving the education. I love bells and whistles as much as the next guy but technology in the classroom cannot be about bells and whistles. The first question that one must always ask is what are our educational goals. Then one can ask how technology can meet some of the goals.

I contemplate this as I am currently in South Africa presenting for World ORT at their Naomi Prawer International Seminar for Digital Technology in Jewish Education. A theme that keeps being repeated is that content must come first and then technology to support it. For example, Google Earth is a really cool tool, especially when it's coupled with a touch screen device like a Smart Board or iPad. However, what makes it so powerful is when one uses it teach content in Tanach or Mishna that CANNOT BE EFFECTIVELY TAUGHT ANY OTHER WAY.

For example, most elementary school teachers skip the second half of the book of Joshua when teaching their class because it's boring. Who wants to learn about the division of the tribes into different geographic locations in Israel for 10 chapters straight. However, when coupled with Google Earth and the book of Joshua layer from Bible Geocoding, these lessons can become interactive and compelling. These chapters were put in Tanach for a reason so shouldn't we teach them? Similarly, Amos' prophecies to the nations only make sense when one studies their locations using Google Earth and realizes the use of geographic chiastic structure. One can only appreciate the tremendous engineering accomplishment of Nehemiah's rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in less than 2 months when one traces his building project using a Google Earth ancient Jerusalem map overlay. Finally, as my friend Rabbi Aaron Ross illustrated in his Flipped Classroom video, one can only understand the limitations to eating Kadshim Kalim in Mishkan Shiloh based on the Mishna in Zevachim when one takes a street view of the topography of Shiloh. In each of these examples, the "Wow Factor" of Google Earth is so compelling because it is coupled with a well thought out curriculum as all good educational technology is. 

In my stay in Johannesburg, I have been privileged to see a new Jewish educational technology startup that understands this fundamental idea well, Jewish Interactive. This passionate team is creating web-based and tablet compatible curriculum for elementary grades that is not only visually stunning, rivaling any app the exponentially larger general education market can produce, but is based on sound curriculum. It's the content, stupid! 

For example, their Shabbos interactive unit which is already completed, features activities for students in Grade 3 to compare and contrast the 10 commandments by reading, hearing, and manipulating the text. The activity for kindergarten asks kids to decorate a Shabbos table using interactive art tools that kids love but also requires them to know all of the elements that belong on a Shabbos table and distinguish them from other non-Shabbos items in the room. 

I was able to see the schematics for their next project which will focus on the Chagim. Before they have even started the graphic design, script writing, and advanced programming, they created a spiral curricular map for every piece of information and ideas studied in the elementary grades connected to the Chagim. This map not only includes all of the basic halachot but sophisticated understandings of calendar concepts like the rotation of the moon and how it affects the Jewish calendar, a perfect integration unit for science and Torah. I was floored by the planning and strong curricular focus that was being put into this highly engaging app. The content was truly driving the technology. 

It is my hope that we, both as individual mechanchim and members of a greater community in our schools and beyond, can help to grow this curricular focus for technology integration. The fast changing pace of new technologies have unlocked a great potential for compelling, interactive, and student driven content. However, never let the technology lead the way. It's always first about developing important content and then asking how technology and other tools in a teacher's repertoire can best support this.