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Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Will the Mercava take us into the future of Jewish education?

As we count down the minutes to the secular new year, no one knows what this next year has in store.

However, I can predict the future of Jewish learning some 15 or 20 years from now. In every Beit Midrash, whether in Israel or throughout the diaspora, students will be spending the bulk of their learning time poring over digital texts. These texts might have the look and feel of paper books today, combining the crisp typeface and easy-on-the-eyes screen of the best e-book readers like the Kindle or Nook with a "paper" display which closely mimics the real thing and is pliable to the touch, think of the newspapers in the prescient science fiction film Minority Report. This Beit Midrash will still have regular paper seforim as well for Shabbat, for the less common Jewish works, and for those who prefer the tactile feel of the paper book as Nicholas Carr recently mused about. However, the predominant sefer in the Beit Midrash will be the e-sefer.

These Jewish books will have the Tzuras Hadaf, the classic typesetting of the Vilna Edition Talmud Bavli or Mikraot Gedolot, and each daf will truly be like a website homepage, an analogy already made a decade ago in the classic essay The Talmud and the Internet which I blogged about here, with hypertext links to "open up" every book that the Vilna Shas references, from the Tanach to the Halakhic codes. This one digital sefer will truly be a port of entry into the Sea of Halacha allowing anyone to navigate its vast waters without ever getting up from their table in the Beit Midrash. This will be true in yeshivot of every hashkafa. Even the Haredi world, which today looks askance at many new technologies like the iPhone and Internet, will make another Asifa to find a way to put their hechsher, their stamp of approval, on this important advance in Jewish learning.

The question is how will we get there.

This is what I have been struggling with this past year or so as one-to-one technology has rapidly become mainstream in Jewish day schools with the iPad, Chromebooks, and other inexpensive but powerful technologies. In my school, we have experimented with Gemara iBooks both created in house and in collaboration with the Torah iTextbook Project and many teachers have started Flipping the Beit Midrash as I blogged about recently. We have looked into the Artscroll app and other new apps like Thumbprint.

However, with the advantages of each, none of these have excited me as THE answer to bringing this vision of the future of Jewish education into the present. None until I saw the Mercava. You can watch a promotional video that the Mercava recently produced below. The video shows off the features of the Mercava but begins with a great many interviews so if want to skip right to the actual platform, I recommend using the following link: The Mercava video.



The Mercava intrigues me. It might just be the future of Jewish education. I was first visited by Rav Yehuda Moshe of the Mercava in June of this past school year. He spoke to me and my teachers at length about the Mercava's vision to become the platform for digital seforim with many features that make them ideal for the Beit Midrash and/or Yeshiva classroom.

Let me name a few.

The Mercava's Daf Yomi web-app already features a beautiful typeface of each Gemara page that is fully tablet compliant allowing you to pinch the screen to zoom in on the text. When you click on any word or phrase, it provides a phrase by phrase translation/ explanation. It also allows you to toggle off Rashi font for the commentaries which can greatly assist different kinds of learners. I find that the current app is already a much better teaching tool than Artscroll because it is much more focused and less wordy but still written in an easy to understand language and best of all- it's free. Artscroll's philosophy seems to be to learn the Gemara for you which might be good in a Daf Yomi class but does not help students learn how to learn. The Mercava seems better at giving the support emerging learners need while still giving students the opportunity to think and analyze themselves. I have some teachers in my school who are already using the Mercava with more novice students and they have are having a great deal of success. However, this is only the beginning of what makes the Mercava so intriguing.

Rav Yehuda Moshe also took us "under the hood" to show us what features are still in development that transform the Mercava into a differentiated learning tool that can be adapted by every teacher for every level student. The Mercava is creating a lesson builder that allows teachers to create lessons with guided readings of the Gemara in which the text highlights as the teacher reads. Think of the Flipped Beit Midrash but with the ability for the student to interact with the text while the teacher is reading. This lesson builder will also allow the teacher to embed notes, conduct a class in which students add their own notes and comments to the page, and navigate to other texts directly from the Gemara. This allows the teacher to create source books that navigate directly from the daf of Gemara to the various other resources that will be covered. The teacher can customize these pages adding more translations or less, they can add the color coded structure of the Gemara and highlight the key words. All launching directly from the Tzuras Hadaf and working equally well on an iPad or computer. This is extraordinary.

The only features which I am not so excited about, which ironically are a major selling point in their promotional video, are the many embedded pictures and animations. This is one area where I differ from the vision of the Mercava. While I think pictures and videos about what is going on in the Gemara can be helpful at times, it will never make the Gemara a better learning tool. I think that good learning is messy. Kids learn best when they use their imagination and the teacher invites the student to interact directly with the text not a slick Disney-like video cartoon. They need to find inconsistencies and seek out ways to resolve them; to see a halachic statement and attempt to discover the universal principle on which it is based. As has been proven by the exhaustive research of Larry Cuban, making learning more like TV and movies with videos and cartoons does not make for better learning. It might be a temporary motivational boost but that will quickly wear off. Only real thought provoking activities will keep our students engaged and help them to fall in love with the learning as we have.

But that is a minor quibble. Altogether with what the Mercava already offers and its lesson builder and other classroom tools it truly can be a game changer. Will this be the future of Jewish education and will this future come to fruition in 2014 or will it still have to wait a few more years? Only time will tell.

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