The Start-up Nation ventures into Jewish EdTech

The writer says utilizing technology will help reach Jewish students who can’t afford a formal Jewish education.

March 26, 2015 15:07
4 minute read.

Elementary school children use electronic tablets.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

One of the debates in the Jewish world today is whether technology can help solve the problems facing Jewish education.

The emerging Jewish educational technology industry says a very confident “Yes,” and its pioneers are putting their time, energy and money on the line. Let’s try to understand why.

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Research published in the recent Pew Research Center report and Avi Chai censuses show there are 1.3 million Jewish children in the US of kindergarten through 12th-grade age. This population is divided into three groups: 255,000 children in day schools, 230,000 in supplementary schools (Hebrew or Sunday school), and over 800,000 with no formal Jewish education.

There are three core problems in Jewish education that roughly correspond to these three population groups: for day schools – low learning outcomes (in terms of knowledge, retention and application); for supplementary schools – low student engagement; and for the rest – accessibility to Jewish education is nil.

Educational technology has already begun to solve these very same core problems within the general education sector. Here are some examples: 1. Learning outcomes – According to a November RAND Corporation study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, educational technology increased students’ percentile rank by up to 31 points in math and 17 points in reading. In another study, after two years of a technology-driven education, students achieved from 60 percent to 95% higher grades in writing and language than their non-technology-based counterparts.

2. Student engagement – iPad-based schools in Holland (known as “Steve Jobs Schools”) have reported – in addition to their success with mainstream students – significant positive impact on their Attention Deficit Disorder- diagnosed students, traditionally the toughest audience to engage. At school, students learn using creative apps, educational games and interactive books, and stay motivated and involved throughout the entire day. They think they are playing, but they are actually learning.

3. Accessibility – In recent years, online educational start-ups have started to make education accessible to absolutely anyone, regardless of age, location, class and economic status. For example, in just three years, Coursera has opened up higher education courses to 22 million students from 190 countries. Anyone is free to choose from hundreds of courses from the world’s best educators, once only affordable to the privileged few at top campuses.

Khan Academy, a nonprofit with over $20 million in funding and 10 million unique visitors per month, is not only being used by children at home, but has started to become a “teacher’s assistant” and an integral part of the school experience. EdX, a nonprofit with $60m. in funding from Harvard and MIT, offers 300 courses and boasts 3 million users.

Jewish education is no different. Technology can increase learning outcomes and student satisfaction in all areas, including Hebrew language, Bible, Jewish history, Talmud, Jewish philosophy and Israel education. Technology can help us interest, inspire and excite students, emotionally connecting them to their heritage and strengthening their identity.

Technology, and only technology, can help us reach the 800,000 children who are in no formal education setting whatsoever.

As an added important bonus, all three outlined benefits of technology have very big implications for special education students.

What is still unknown is whether technology can solve the $3 billion annual US Jewish tuition crisis. Innovative blended learning schools such as Yeshiva Hi-Tech in Los Angeles are making progress in this direction by providing a fulltime high school education for $10,000 per student, one-third of the cost of fellow LA day schools. A sweeping solution to the affordability problem for everyone might be nowhere in sight, but what we do know for sure is that a cutting-edge, media-driven virtual school is in the making – and it will bring a comprehensive Jewish education to hundreds of thousands of children, on all levels, for less than $100 a head.

All of this sounds like a very worthwhile investment, but will it also appeal to the financial supporters of Jewish education? On March 16, the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) hosted an exclusive Jewish EdTech event at Google Tel Aviv, in advance of their annual three-day international conference.

There, industry leaders and event cochairs Nicky Newfield, founder of Jewish Interactive, and Yehuda Moshe, co-founder of Mercava, presented the Jewish EdTech industry roadmap to a group of funders. The event also included a full day of interactive demonstrations by nine EdTech ventures, as well as dialogue between CTOs, educators, students, philanthropists and foundation executives.

Newfield commented after the event, “I believe strongly that any child, anywhere, should be able to access an affordable, engaging and relevant Jewish education. We are all excited to be building dynamic philanthropic partnerships so that together we can provide our children with the tools and products they have come to expect, and upon which we can build a vibrant Jewish future.”

Moshe concluded with a concrete call to action. “This is the Start-up Nation at its finest. We have recruited some of the world’s top talent in technology, media and education, all working together for whom it matters most – our children.

We’re building a unified ecosystem in which all content developers, teachers and students build upon each other’s efforts, and we invite the visionaries among you to join in with your talent, treasures and ties.”

With the Jewish EdTech industry in accelerated motion, it appears that the critical question now is not whether technology can help solve the problems facing Jewish education, but when?

The writer has been mapping out the Jewish EdTech space for over two years. He has analyzed dozens of digital curriculum projects.

To learn more about the JFN EdTech event: [email protected]

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