Monday, January 6, 2014

Mercava - The Future of Jewish Education or merely a part of it?

For the past week or so, it has been hard to escape this video about a new internet portal for Jewish educational resources and material known as Mercava.  In a nutshell, the vision of Mercava is to make as much Jewish content available in as engaging a manner as possible, complete with all sorts of tools and bells and whistles that will make it "the future of Jewish education".

A number of educators have already chimed in to support or raise questioning eyebrows at these claims.  Over at the Lookjed listserv, several well-respected educators have expressed skepticism that Mercava is merely the latest "flavor of the month" that purports to be a cure-all to whatever ails us.  My friend Seth Dimbert has offered a glimpse into what currently exists on Mercava and is also not so convinced that there is a lot happening (in fairness, the end of the video announces this July as the real roll-out date).  Sounding a more positive note, the ever-thoughtful Tzvi Pittinsky, who has already viewed their live presentation a few times, is quite upbeat about all that Mercava has to offer.

Me? Not surprisingly, I have a few thoughts on the matter.

1) I know that this video is probably aimed more at potential funders than at teachers, administrators, or current day school parents, but why does every new idea in Jewish education have to refer to the current state of Jewish education as being abysmal?  This video starts out basically saying that without Mercava, we are going to lose thousands of children to Yiddishkeit.  Someone please enlighten me - is this really what funders want to hear?  And do they actually believe it?  Do they not see the growth in day school enrollment, fledgling Jewish communities, Shana baAretz programs, and so on and so on?  Of course we can be doing better, and of course we have problems and students that we do not succeed with - but I do not think that we are failing in the way that this video suggests.

2) Why do we think that Mercava is going to do something qualitatively different than the many tools that are already out there?  As Seth points out, we already have online texts (such as, see my review of it here), apps that can provide for all sorts of linking (such as ThingLink), many ways of creating instructional videos - and all of those things come free.  Yes, Mercava is planning on doing this with much better quality - but is the success of a classroom reducible to the difference between a video that I make on my own using Camtasia Studio and a similar video made by someone trained by Disney?

3) While Judaic Studies currently lacks a massive collection of online video-based material, such materials have existed for several years over in the world of General Studies.  Has there been a noticeable uptick in student interest and motivation as a result?  Have these tools even been around long enough for there to be any valid studies?  Without knowing the answer to those questions, I am not sure that we can make any concrete claims about similar tools in Judaic Studies.

4) Finally, we need to understand what any talk of a crisis in Jewish education is about.  I rarely hear anyone bemoan the fact that students have not memorized the names of the Meraglim or that they have not learned enough mishnayot or that they have not completed part one of the Mishna Berura (all lamentable things, but not usually the topic of discussion).  Instead, the negative talk about Jewish education is generally about how well we are or are not communicating a love for Judaism and for learning to our students.  Love is not something that comes via a computer - it comes from people.  Mercava could wind up being everything that it hopes to be, and it will all be relatively worthless without well-trained teachers to skillfully implement it into their daily lessons and units.  So, yes, Mercava may be part of what the future of education looks like (and, let's be honest, it already is looking like that), but I do not quite see how they will be more than a very effective and useful tool.

Now, if someone wanted to develop some Torah-based video games that would be X-box worthy, that would be something...

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