Seek and You Shall Find

 Posted by on April 16, 2019 at 1:14 pm  No Responses »  Categories:
Apr 162019

By Eli Kannai

Cross-posted here on eJewishPhilanthropy.

[This post is part of a series on the new report, The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: How Digital Media Are Reshaping Jewish Education, by Stanford University’s Ari Y. Kelman. The report, commissioned by the Jim Joseph Foundation, was released in conjunction with the recent Jewish Funders Network conference. The series shares multiple perspectives on the findings and questions raised in The Future of Jewish Learning.]

A few months ago, my friend and colleague Josh Miller from the Jim Joseph Foundation asked me to share my thoughts about a new research report, now titled The Future of Jewish Learning Is Here: How Digital Media Are Reshaping Jewish Education, by Prof Ari Kelman et al. As I read through this interesting paper, writing notes and comments to myself, I suddenly understood: engaging in Jewish learning online is now “a thing!” Just as one can engage with sports, obtain financial information, get updated on current events and prepare oneself with regard to traffic and weather all by surfing the internet – one can study Jewish topics. What this research demonstrates, in multiple ways, following different personal stories and use cases, is the very fact that many people find content relevant to their Jewish life online. It is no longer one anecdote, and it is not just to look up candle lighting times or prayer service hours. You can learn Torah online.

Let me explain why this is a significant finding:

I have been engaged with websites that contain a large amount of content since the early days of the web, back in the 90’s. I was first involved with developing general education websites; then I focused on Jewish and Israel-related content. Now, after almost 18 years with The AVI CHAI Foundation, I have seen Jewish content-focused sites reach many tens of millions of visits. I follow the sites AVI CHAI supports via Google Analytics and have access to the data. Some sites enjoy over a million visits a year; others are in the many hundreds of thousands. These are not Wikipedia (estimated over 400 million monthly visitors), but these tens of millions of visits are a very large number, each representing a single individual seeking Jewish content to enrich their spiritual life.

But numbers alone do not tell the storyThis new research provides us with a view from the users’ sidewhat do people look for? What sites are they usingand in what way are they engaging with the content provided by this site? At AVI CHAI Israel, we were always aware that the big numbers of visitors are made of individual people. We wanted to understand our users, what they do on our site and what they are looking to achieve from their visit. For example, the Piyyut website was evaluated twice, teaching us about our users and the way they connect with Piyyutim: are they interested in learning the text, what value do they find in articles about Piyyut? Do they come for the love of the music, or is it more about remembering their communities of origin? Mikranet, a site dedicated to Bible study in Israeli state schools, was also evaluated, letting us learn about the large extent to which the use of this resource is integrated into educators and students’ school work. It is only by such research, asking users why they come, what they do and what they would like to see, that we can focus our efforts and build usable sites that provide information and are also a joy to use.

Kelman’s research tells us that, similar to how users consume other information on the web, Jewish content is used because people do not always want to go through the “traditional.” In this instance, that means avoiding asking rabbis, going to Jewish institutions, etc. They want “self-service,” just as people now buy a plane ticket online without using a travel agent. Cutting out the middleman is part of this generation, like it or not. This in turn means that the communitydevelopersfundersand Jewish communal personnel, should not feel insulted for not being approached personallyRatherthey should build excellent Jewish experiences online that at some point may lead to deeper connections and actual reallife meetings face to face.

Thankfully, more and more focus is on the content itself and the way it should be consumed. Search engines and social networks now allow us to find what we need in a single click, without spending our “precious” web-surfing time on home pages and different navigation menus. Friends now send us direct links to a page within a website; Google responds with the correct information within the search resources without us needing to visit the sites ourselves. The user interface, the navigation aides (those menus – top, side or bottom) have become less crucial. The once very important task of designing a user interface (UI), the way users would seek content and find it on the website, is now complemented (or replaced) by the new artistic task focusing on the way users engage with the content, called UX ( user experience).

It is therefore no surprise that we also learn from this research that users appreciate a smooth, slick and inspiring experience on the web. This is not unique to those seeking Jewish content. For many, “design” may seem more important than the content itself. Some people care how things look almost as much, if not more than, what’s inside. People use pictures to send messages both privately (for example: instead of sending a text to your friend saying you found their car keys under the sofa you just send them a picture) and publicly (Instagram). A picture is worth a thousand words not because it conveys more information but rather because it also carries some emotional weight.

After reading the research, I see a need to develop more digital opportunities for Jewish experiences and learning, as well as to broaden the existing ones. People find the platforms that fit their needs, so we better provide excellent platforms. When they feel it is appropriate, they find the way to share what they learn and experience, digitally or IRL (in real life). People select platforms, not the other way. So platform creators need to set their priorities, deeply considering what they want the user to get out of the digital product as they design the project so that it fits the desired experiences. UX is crucial. When designing or revamping a website, it should not only be about the content; presentation and the way the content can be used – mobile, desktop or midsized screens – matters greatly. Both creators and funders should focus on the emotional engagement – the design – as it is not only a feature, it may be just as significant as the content.

Finally, Jewish learning online should not only be understood in the context of “connection and collaboration,” as important as those opportunities are and as the report makes clear is an integral component of online learning. However, some people choose to learn from the web specifically because they do not have to connect in order to do so. Learning can be social, but it is not only social. Leaders and developers of digital Jewish learning experiences should have in mind both types of learning when creating new content.

In this research, users of a group of ten diverse websites were interviewed. I hope that in a few years, such research will be done with many more sites, because there will be many more Jewish experiences online that would provide information and connect future generations, helping users engage with Jewish content.

Eli Kannai is the Chief Educational Technology Officer for the AVI CHAI Foundation. The complete report, The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: How Digital Media Are Reshaping Jewish Education, is available for download here.

Jul 072016

By Eli Kannai

For a long time, educational technology was focused, to a large extent, on the use of computers (and later the internet) within the classroom. Educators spoke about “breaking the classroom walls” by using YouTube clips to start a classroom discussion or by letting students look up information on the internet. Teachers began to realize that they were no longer the “owners” of information, once handheld internet devices were introduced (aka smartphones) smart kids would challenge the teachers’ authority by fact checking the information discussed in class. Educators then spoke of the transition from “the sage on the stage to the guide on the side” that meant moving away from the lecturing model – but what instead? How can a teacher be a “guide on the side” with so little time to teach (or “guide”)?

In the meantime, many technologies entered the classroom. Interactive whiteboards (such as “SmartBoard”) and clickers helped enhance the delivery of still lecture based teaching. Gaming is still a promising modality for education, but “gamification” – making the common “drill and practice” routines look like a game is not really the fulfillment of this promise. Augmented and virtual reality are also promising technologies to penetrate the classroom walls, and 3D printers as well as LEGO based robotics enable project based learning and more – yet all this does not replace the frontal, lecture based education used for the core subjects studied in school. For better and for worse, most of the school curriculum still revolves around content rather than skills, and content is less relevant to the “guide on side” metaphor. Most of the time in school, students are passively listening while teachers are lecturing.

Personalized learning is different. This is not a technology – it is pedagogy. But technology can help. For example, a big promise is adaptive learning and other software-based personalized learning. Students learn and practice at their own level, and the software provides scaffolding for struggling students when needed, and challenging problems for advanced students. No student left unchallenged or behind. This is further enhanced by new technologies: “Big Data” is a term used to discuss the newly available opportunity to analyze large amounts of information stored on computers. The reason one can accumulate such large amounts of data is thanks to new technological capacities that were not available a few years ago, and now we can add to that capacity strong analytic powers to achieve new possibilities. These new opportunities appear in businesses (such as the Amazon or Netflix recommendations which are based on other users) and are now becoming significant in education. When a student uses software to practice, all the data tracking the student’s interactions with the software can be stored. When analyzed and compared with many other students – the software can infer what the student should do next, what are the student’s strengths and weaknesses, to what aspects of learning to turn the attention of the teachers. The information obtained by the computer may also be used by educators to address specific needs of their students. Learning Management Systems (LMS) are used to communicate and report on student behavior, achievements and sometimes pedagogic issues. A sophisticated LMS may also recommend corrective ideas and help teachers identify student misconceptions.

Personalized learning modalities include blended learning models as well as online learning. Blended learning is defined by The Clayton Christensen Institute, a leading think tank in this area, as a formal education program in which a student learns:

  • at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;
  • at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;
  • and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

Currently, this institute identifies a few models of blended learning including the rotation model, in which students move from one learning station to another, flexible options for student learning, flipped classroom and more. In all these models learning is both via computers and with human teachers in a coordinated way: students work individually, in groups, on projects and with teachers. Teachers get to work with smaller groups and find time to address individual student needs. Online learning can be part of a blended environment, or an independent way of learning without much supervision.

When one walks into a classroom that implements blended learning it looks very different than the classroom most grownups are used to. When implemented well, almost all the students should be engaged. The room may not be quiet but almost all of the students would be on task. The teacher might be working with a small group giving students focused attention. Some students would be working alone, some with headphones and a computation device, and others may be doing collaborative work. There may be no “front” or “back” easily spotted in the classroom, but it is not chaotic. I look at it a bit like fusion, melting the best of software and human interaction for the benefit of education.

Over the last fifteen years, Eli Kannai has served as Chief Educational Technology Officer of The AVI CHAI Foundation, where he oversees the development of large content websites, online and blended learning efforts, and other technology related projects.

The New Excellence Through Online Learning

 Posted by on May 29, 2015 at 11:28 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: , ,  Categories:
May 292015

I clearly recall one day, in elementary school, when the rabbi came to our classroom and announced that the average class grade on a recently taken standardized test was better this year than it had been the year before. That was the way teachers and students were measured: as a whole, how did a class perform? The educational system focused on aggregate; if more students performed better, the average would be higher.

This reliance on test scores to measure educational progress has been the norm in the educational world for decades. Standardized testing measures school achievements by averages and statistical methods. This results in a focus on improving the test scores of those students in the middle of the class, creating small improvements that move the school above the necessary threshold. While this tactic may help elevate schools’ average test scores overall, it results in less educational energy being expended towards the many students who fall outside the focus group. But excellence is not defined by high test scores; excellence is achieved when each student is able to fully develop his or her own potential. As we have come to understand that there are different kinds of learners, and different ways to support them, the conflict between “teaching toward the middle” and excellence becomes very apparent. The magnitude of the differences in how students learn, and the quantity of teaching options available to address these differences, open up better ways to address student achievement than raising test scores by raising average scores. Time is often also a significant hindrance to differentiation: schools often do not allot sufficient time and resources to enable teachers to individualize their teaching.

One option for personalized learning is the use of online and blended learning modalities. Online learning makes it possible for any given school to offer an incredible catalog of courses, with unprecedented opportunities for students to excel in subjects not offered by the local school. Taking an online course seriously is a commitment, and many times these courses are rigorously graded, just like face to face courses.

Enabling schools to offer a more flexible and larger program of courses provides an opportunity to meet diverse students’ needs, and therefore for more students in a school to excel. Once online learning becomes mainstream, schools can offer online courses for scheduling conflicts and catch-up courses as well as advanced courses for those students that need more.

Blended learning takes a different approach in enhancing personalized learning. Each child receives instruction appropriate for their own needs, within the framework of an in-person class. Students come to school every morning and step into class; however, what happens inside the room is very different from how your typical class is structured. Many times the room is larger, there may be computers stationed in certain places around the room and tables are not organized in rows the way they were when I went to school. Instead, students rotate between stations: the computer station, independent work, group work, small group instruction and personal meetings, as needed or based on a set protocol. Data gathered by the computer program enriches the educators’ understanding of individual student needs and helps to tailor the learning path of each student.

A classroom organized for blended learning is really about each and every student succeeding, working in different spots within the class on different elements designed by the teacher specifically for each particular student. At times, the learning experience may look more like a workspace, with individual, group and personal meetings taking place. In fact, this model may better prepare our student for the future, as it resembles the “real world out there.”

While the online and blended learning modalities are very different, both allow education to better fit individual needs. They also allow flexibility, which changes the way teachers use their time at school, in class and outside of the classroom. This flexibility is in contrast with the common structure in many schools, where teachers and students have a schedule set for weeks ahead, as well as a static set of goals that cannot be changed, even if students can achieve more. While these structural changes may seem threatening (not to mention the noise level, which may be louder than what I remember from my days at school), they offer the chance to meet individual needs. In general, where there is less structure, there is a place for personal focus.

Tracking each student and ensuring every child gets a chance to learn—not only the ones “in the middle”—supports achieving excellence for everyone. Extraordinary gifted students are able to do more, above and beyond their grade level, and learn subjects not available to them at their local school. Special needs students benefit from blended learning opportunities while not being pulled out of class. The more we learn about education, the more we understand that there are no “typical” students. There is no “middle”: everyone is special and deserves his or her own treatment.

So where do we go from here? One can go visit or read about schools that have started working with online and blended learning modalities. One can also research available online courses. While content is currently more readily available in general studies than in Judaic studies, AVI CHAI and other foundations have been involved in efforts to increase available Judaic studies offerings. DJLN (Digital Jewish Learning Network) has developed a resource portal which lists many of the available programs both in general and in Jewish studies. Other parts of the DJLN site address professional development opportunities. One example of an online learning opportunity in Judaic studies that middle and high school students can take advantage of is the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy.

Once a school decides that excellence is defined by giving each student the opportunity to get the most out of their educational experience, many structural discussions need to take place. Is the schedule flexible enough to allow teachers the time they need to meet, collaborate and prepare? Is there time for them to investigate and learn online content? Analyze data? Meet students?

One size fits all is no longer an option. It is only when educators use their time as efficiently as possible that personalized learning benefits can be realized and excellence can be achieved. The school house may look the same, but what’s inside is very different and enables all of us to achieve excellence.

Eli Kannai is the chief educational technology officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation. ekannai@avichai.org.il

Sep 092011

By: Eli Kannai

On September 3, The New York Times ran a front page article, “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores,” by Matt Richtel. There was an instant reaction from the Jewish educators in the field and ISTE participants began posting on the AVI CHAI Educational Technology blog.

Mallory Rome was the first to respond in her post, “The NY Times Weighs In On Ed Tech”, stressing that the emphasis needs to remain on the learning goals. Dr. Allen Selis, head of School of the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School (SPHDS) in Sunnyvale, CA was next with “Why the digital classroom? A response to NYT: So just what IS the case for the digital classroom? (Part One)”. Selis rebuts a number of points from the article. He points out that technology is a supplement, not substitute to core programming, mentions the necessary skills set our children need and notes the importance of great teaching and curriculum. A more detailed response, confirming the importance of his school investment in educational technology, was promised.

Today he followed up with, “Why the Digital Classroom is Here to Stay, part two: It might not be the messiah, but it sure beats the competition…” and included four points:

1.    Children brains have already experienced a technology focused shift
2.    Today’s employment demands technological literacy
3.    Advancements in technology have amplified global access and the possibilities
4.    Educational technology is not a cure-all, there’s no such thing.

In a nutshell, we must prepare our children for the world that awaits them with the best possible available resources.

Aside from those appearing on the AVI CHAI Educational Technology blog there were many other responses including Cathy Davidson, author of “Now You See It” and one by Mark Warschauer, which Steve Jobs fans may like.

For those interested in more research, the best I have found to date is “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning / A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies” by the U.S. Department of Education (revised September 2010).

I personally think Eileen Lento, from Intel, quoted in the NYT article has got it right: we should be happy with “same or a bit better” results. We know of all the other areas where using technology can help – namely gearing our students up for life in the 21st century. As the world gets more used to technology, and teachers learn how to best leverage it, I predict test scores will improve.

Eli Kannai is the Chief Educational Technology officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Sep 012011

(cross posted on the AVI CHAI Educational Technology Blog)

By: Eli Kannai

For years educational technology advocates are preaching that our schools need to reach a “one to one” device per student ratio. After all, the first thing most employees now get in any new job is some form of computation device with internet connectivity. It can be a laptop, a netbook, a smartphone, tablet, etc. Think about it, in many places, especially in an information intensive workplace, before one gets a desk and a phone number a corporate email is assigned. The good news: in many high schools we have gotten to the 1:1 ratio, middle schools are following closely. Are schools an information and communication intensive environment? I sure hope so. The bad news: we do not really know how to take full advantage of this, so we ask our students NOT to use these devices. In many places we actually ban them. What a shame.

Let me back off a little, and get a bit technical (you may skip this paragraph…): We used to think we needed a desktop or laptop per student to realize the potential of educational technology in our schools. Two things have changed: cloud computing and smart mobile devices. Cloud computing means much of the heavy lifting that we used to have our computers deal with is now processed elsewhere, on servers connected to the internet. We no longer need a huge amount of storage on our device – we can save the files on a Microsoft, Google or Amazon server as well as smaller options (such as Dropbox or Evernote).  Now that the computing and storage demands are lowered, smaller and cheaper devices can function like some former laptops (see explanatory video below).

Moreover, computing and processing power on servers are sometimes bundled together in a very “educational friendly” manner – using Google Docs teachers can share materials with their students, use online surveys, let kids collaborate etc. with all of these features accessible from any connected device: the teacher’s home computer, the classroom desktop, the students’ home machines, and yes those small devices we all walk around with formerly called “phones.”

I think our schools need to change their mindset about mobile devices: from “technological distractions” to “educational technology opportunities.”  We need to have wifi access all over our schools. Content wise, we can start where it is simple: Many schools are looking for “student response systems.”  These enable teachers to poll their students during the lesson and get an immediate response, sometimes embedded in a chart displayed in front of the class. But if your students have a mobile device, cell phone, Smartphone, tablet, netbook, whatever it is – I would recommend you first try a free option. In the long run, I think we are going into a “bring your own device” (often referred to as BYOD) era, and there may be no need for an expensive response system. One simple way is to use Google docs.

Some schools are using free tools based on student cell phones or laptops. The New York Bronx office of educational technology ran a session at the last ISTE conference titled “7 Free Mobile Participation Tools for Classrooms”, the session was taped (you can find it here and the lecture notes are online as well). I have seen the use of text messaging tools as well as internet based tools (and combinations of both).

But it does not end with simple participation tools. We need to embrace mobile devices, and use them as much as we can. We should ask our students to use them for learning, just as we use them for work. It may be that tablets (such as the iPad)  have a greater potential to serve as digital books then larger screen smartphones which are showing up more and more, but those are minor distinctions – we have reached the point where most high school students have the hardware to make good educational technology work. Looking up information and communicating is part of it, but I hope that more robust educational products will emerge in the near future in Jewish studies, so we can really leverage educational technology in the classroom.

Eli Kannai is the Chief Educational Technology officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Jul 212011

By: Eli Kannai

Last month AVI CHAI sponsored 10 Jewish educators at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Philadelphia.  I joined the group for this huge 4 day event, which had about 18,000 people in attendance, including over 1100 presenters and an exhibit floor the size of 5.5 football fields.  AVI CHAI is interested in cultivating day school leaders who are exploring the potential use of technology in their schools. We were pleased to be joined by the PELIE group of fellows who were interested in technology in congregational school settings. Both groups enjoyed the first night dessert reception together sharing ideas and comparing plans for the following days. Our group was also part of the larger group of Jewish educators who were in attendance, which you can read more about in Caren Levine’s post.

A couple of the “overstated” observations from the conference were:

-Email is dead, long live Twitter, which was also noted as the primary vehicle for professional development amongst many ISTE members

-Use student’s mobile devices as interactive response systems in class – no need for a smart board

Those insights and others were discussed at the AVI CHAI group dinners, when each of the educators shared their reflections on the day’s events.  Some of these were tweeted then and there, others are on our educational technology blog.

Here are a few examples from the blog:

Dov Emerson found those educators he follows on twitter who form part of his PLN (personal learning network). Tzvi Pittinsky lists his top ten free educational technology applications from the conference. Rivky Krestt and Mallory Rome wrote about the reasons to use technology in education: “progress for the sake of progress”, or “progress for the sake of learning”.

This is only a sample of what the group shared online, and more posts keep coming – so stay tuned.  As always, your comments and insights are welcome.

Jewish educators at ISTE conference 2011

The Torah speaks of four children

 Posted by on April 22, 2011 at 7:54 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Apr 222011

A few nights ago we read:

“The Torah speaks of four children: One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one does not know how to ask.

The wise one, what does he say? “What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the L-rd, our G-d, has commanded you?” You, in turn, shall instruct him in the laws of Passover, [up to] ‘one is not to eat any dessert after the Passover-lamb.’

The wicked one, what does he say? “What is this service to you?!” He says `to you,’ but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, blunt his teeth and say to him: “It is because of this that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt”; ‘for me’ – but not for him! If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed!”

The simpleton, what does he say? “What is this?” Thus you shall say to him: “With a strong hand the L-rd took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves.”

As for the one who does not know how to ask, you must initiate him, as it is said: “You shall tell your child on that day, `It is because of this that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt.'”


One central point in the Haggada is the educational role that parents are to play in teaching their children about our exodus from Egypt. We, the older generation, are not left alone with the task of educating our children. The Haggada gives us the lesson plan, complete with the story text and educational supplements such as special food. The Afikoman is used to cause the children to stay awake and alert, hoping for a present at the end. The Haggada also gives us pedagogic guidance, teaching us that not every child should be taught in the same way. The four children represent four different personalities and learning styles, and the Haggada searched for verses in the Torah to be used as mottos when discussing the Exodus from Egypt with respect to each child. Each of the four children is characterized by both a learning style and a psychological predisposition towards the subject, and both need to be dealt with.

When we design websites (for on line learning experiences or for any other purpose) we need to think of the four children:

The wise one seems to be the easiest, but teachers will say some of the gifted kids can pose a serious challenge. A website should provide the depth and rich content enough for the wise to research; navigation of this website is not too much of a problem. As the wise child starts  with an accepting position towards the commandments, all that is needed is to provide the content and the student will run in the fast pace that the wise child can study.

The wicked one may also be wise, but he comes from a non-accepting position: He is not even coming to your website! This child needs a “call-out”, a disturbing banner ad calling him inside. Perhaps visual navigation can help pull the “wicked” into the learning.

The simpleton asks simple questions, and is easily distracted. If the site is too crowded with links and call outs all over the place, he asks “what’s this” and “What’s that” – first he needs a simple verbal answer, from there he can continue. The hierarchical navigation would work best, with navigation bars scaffolding the site navigation experience and learning schema.

Until recently, the one that does not know how to ask was in trouble: this child can’t use Google! Without search, how can one navigate and learn? We are told to initiate, let the information find the child. This child needs to be spoon fed, at his own pace. In today’s world, associative navigation using tags and social network links help information find those who cannot search on their own.

Online learning lends itself well to different learning styles. Each website should support all of the children, and have disruptive call-outs to call for those outside. Like many of us, I feel that my learning style is a blend of all four children, and that I seek my own education in multiple ways.

Eli Kannai
Chief Educational Technology Officer