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05 April 2013

A Call for Revolutionary Change

By Sarah B. Steinberg, EdD
CEO, ShalomLearning

As my favorite holiday, Passover, winds down, and we slowly return to our normal routines, I continue to think about the relevance of the Exodus stories…about how we, as a Jewish nation, are constantly changing, while holding true to our core values and traditions.

In particular, from generation to generation, we have done a tremendous job emphasizing to our children the importance of education, both secular and religious. But, as I sat at the seder table surrounded by our growing family, I couldn’t help but wonder how successfully, how quickly, and how responsively we have pushed the envelope to our advantage when it comes to religious education – and specifically to the marriage of technology and education.

Over the past decade, technology has seismically shifted the educational landscape. As the former Executive Vice Provost of Johns Hopkins University, I witnessed first-hand the way different technologies, such as online registration, course management systems, and ePortofolios, transitioned from being competitive advantages to necessities. Seemingly overnight MOOCs (massively open and online courses) have completely changed the conversation in the educational world – from university presidents to students – about the cost of and access to an elite education.

If secular education is being transformed and disrupted so significantly and so quickly, and if technology, the formidable force behind these changes, is now a necessity rather than a luxury, shouldn’t we be seeing these same revolutionary changes implemented at the same speed in Jewish study?

In truth, we are beginning to see some very positive signs of a technological transformation in Jewish education – and many of these exciting programs have been showcased at the JESNA Convenings.

But, in my view, the transformation is simply moving too slowly.

The advocates in our community are few and far between and the impact investors have only just begun to jump on this technology bandwagon. Granted, Jewish education programs are not in the same league as major universities; the target audiences are smaller and the resources are even fewer, but the goals are the same – access, flexibility, lower costs, literacy, and above all, the ability to flatten the world with the benefits of lifelong, intergenerational learning.

With each passing day, we are missing opportunities to use technology to spark each generation to engage in Jewish education programs that are exciting and innovative. We are missing opportunities to leverage the benefits of technology in the best possible ways to promote relevant and meaningful Jewish education programs and take advantage of a technology movement that is already sweeping the globe.

We have plenty of proof in secular education that technology, along with curricular enhancements and teacher training, can provide the stickiness and excitement to motivate, excite and engage. We certainly shouldn’t need to prove to ourselves again, in the Jewish community, that we could use similar methods to create a richer and more inclusive desire and love of lifelong learning.

Why are we hanging back? What are we waiting for? Why aren’t we leading the educational revolution - instead of taking cautious baby steps?

In February I began a new chapter as CEO of ShalomLearning, charged with growing the company as it meets the challenges of enhancing complementary Jewish education with technology. For those who aren’t familiar with ShalomLearning, (we are still relatively new in the market, approaching our third anniversary next month), here’s our mission in a nutshell: We seek lifetime partnerships with Jewish families and organizations, and to enrich, inspire, and strengthen Jewish knowledge and literacy for learners of all ages with best-of-class technology and technological tools that enhance teaching and learning.

In the spirit of my words in this blog, I am charging my team to be proponents of revolutionary change. In our planning process we are working our way through the time-tested, overarching framework of core purpose, core values, and creating a BHAG (a Big Hairy Audacious Goal), best described by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their seminal work published in the September-October, 1996, Harvard Business Review.

As many have written, disruption, transformation and revolutionary change are best applied to problems that a collective population wants to solve – such as the future of Jewish education.

As I plan for this future, my focus is on how ShalomLearning’s three pillars – online and virtual classroom technology, relevant and values-based curriculum, and teacher support and resources – will provide the foundation for our organizational partners to dramatically enhance the great work they are already undertaking across the country. ShalomLearning is not a silver bullet or magic potion. It is not a replacement. We have done nothing other than to infuse technology, accessibility, and flexibility into the existing educational mix in ways that we believe will enhance current methods of teaching and learning and remove the barriers of space and time.

The change that I envision through our work at ShalomLearning, and through the work of many others I know are in this same space, is one that has the potential to impact positively the delivery of Jewish education.

To transform Jewish education in the way that secular education is changing, will take all of us working the problem and sharing best practices. It will also take a willingness to jump ahead of the curve. And this will require a full appreciation of what has been contributed to date and a collective anticipation of what can be contributed tomorrow. It will take a process in which all voices are heard and respected (such as the JESNA Convenings). Above all, it will take acceptance of the problem statement: We have a Jewish education disconnect. With acknowledged beachheads, we are generally disconnected from the educational technology changes happening all around us.

Clearly we have our work cut out for us. In reality, our children have already set the timetable and the expectations. Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel – that has been done by others. We simply have to encourage a broader willingness to implement change. Where were the grandparents at the Convening? Where were the unaffiliated populations? Who represents families living overseas because of work, travel, and military service? Who will force us to face the elephant in the room: Does Jewish learning and active engagement in Jewish life stop at age 12, 13, 18, 25, or 120?

As these complicated questions have been percolating in my mind, I also have begun preparing a D’var Torah about Parashat Bamidbar that I will deliver at my synagogue, Kol Shalom, in early May in Rockville, MD.

I leave you with some parting thoughts that I believe connect the Parasha to these weighty issues. Why was the Torah delivered to us in the harsh and barren wilderness? Why weren’t we relaxing in comfort and safety? It seems to me that we would have been far more receptive to the messages of the Torah if we weren’t worried about our health and welfare. But the Rabbis have taught us differently. They have said that we are more receptive to change and more willing to be a community when we face a common threat.

Today, our community faces many common threats, but the one I am urging you to think about is the one that JESNA is urging us to think about: How can we work quickly and constructively, as a community, to use the best practices in education today to foster the love of Jewish learning for a lifetime and instill in our entire community the joyous, intergenerational engagement in our history, values, and traditions.

To learn more about ShalomLearning (www.shalomlearning.com), I encourage you to check out our website and to read recent articles about our company:

Click here to visit ShalomLearning's program page on this site.

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