Smartphones: not just a distraction
My Chumash teacher immediately snatched cell phones when she caught my classmates texting adolescent loves instead of dissecting Rashi. Seven years later, Jewish educators are now encouraging students to bust out iPhones and other digital gadgetry during class.
These days Rebecca Minkus does not mind waking up on Sunday mornings to go to religious school at Lakeside Congregation in Highland Park, Ill. Minkus, 14, knows that for part of the day she and her classmates will be designing a “quest” instead of sitting through a lecture. Quests are digital scavenger hunts, comprised of different missions. Students complete the missions by using smart phones to take pictures, upload videos and scan QR codes. Minkus and her classmates are creating a quest about Jewish identity. Students will complete the quest by visiting various Jewish sites around Chicago.
“When you think of Hebrew school you think of sitting down and learning from a book or lecture, and it’s just really not fun for most people,” Minkus said. “It’s special. We don’t get to do it [quests] in actual school. You actually want to get up on a Sunday morning to go.”
Minkus’ religious school teacher Deborah Harris is no novice when it comes to newfangled digital gizmos. Harris is also the technology coordinator at the Sager Solomon Schechter Middle School in Chicago. In January, hundreds of religious school students in 5th and 6th grade from around the Chicago area completed a “mobile quest” that Harris designed. In March, Harris’s Schechter students completed a Purim quest by uploading videos of them singing Purim songs and scanning QR codes with iPads, iPhones and iPods. Harris said quests help students discover and learn new information in an engaging manner and at their own pace.
“With quests we’re sending kids off to discover parts of themselves and how those things relate to their Jewish identity,” Harris said.
In New York City, Rabbi Owen Gottlieb is immersed in developing his own location-based Jewish mobile phone gmae. Gottlieb, the founder of ConverJent, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching Torah through game design, recently received a $65,000 grant from the Covenant Foundation to develop a mobile phone game about Jewish history.
The Jewish world’s enthusiasm for mobile applications and gaming stems from secular educators’ embrace of “serious games”. Serious games are “designed with the intention of improving some specific aspect of learning and players come to serious games with that expectation,” educational consultant Anne Derryberry wrote in a 2007 paper for Adobe Inc.
Biblical stories and Talmudic commentaries may not seem like they can be adapted to a quest or inspire the creation of a virtual world. But according to Gottlieb, these texts’ rule-based systems and rich narratives are perfect material for both digital and non-digital serious games that teach about abstract concepts like ethics. Legal passages and more narrative passages in Jewish texts are grounded in rules and narratives similar to those found in the popular board game Settlers of Catan and video games like Halo, Gottlieb explained.
“If we can now take the literacy of these games and say there’s an ethic system, resource management system and role play we can really get into challenging, intellectually stimulating situations with games,” said Gottlieb, a doctoral student at New York University.
Jewish educators across the country are making serious efforts to integrate games into their curriculum. The Jewish Education Project is providing a year of game design training to 10 Jewish educators from the greater New York area. Marian Kleinman, the principal at Beth Am Temple Religious School in Pearl River, N.Y., and Gracie Appelt, the youth director at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., said the game design cohort will help them develop more mature and meaningful Jewish-themed games. Kleinman hopes to use games to spur discussions about ethics and aspires to create an app that teaches conversational Hebrew.
Appelt envisions creating games steeped in Jewish content that will simultaneously break social barriers. “Gaming gives an opportunity for learners to explore and learn rather than parrot back the answers,” Appelt said. “When you’re playing a game in Hebrew school you have the ability to make the wrong move and it be OK.”
Jodi Mishkin, Appelt and Kleinman’s peer in the game design program, has been fusing serious games with regular classroom instruction for the past few years. She has been using Petri World, an online immersive environment similar to the popular online game Second Life, to teach about Israel. In Second Life, users create avatars with distinct personalities, develop careers and relationships and build natural and urban environments. Mishkin’s students have created avatars and environments to animate Israel’s landscape.
“I’ve learned things about Jewish cultures that wouldn’t have caught on otherwise,” one of Mishkin’s students, Shaun Schapira, 15, said.
From Israel, Carmi Wisemon and his team at Sviva Israel are working on an immersive online environment called Eco Campus. Eco Campus teaches students in Israel and the United States about conservation. Players can travel throughout different parts of the Eco Campus environment to learn about solar panels and thermal energy. Textbook publisher Behrman House and Builders of Jewish Education, a Los Angeles nonprofit that promotes Jewish learning, are both developing Jewish-themed games based on the Second Life concept.
A major problem in developing these elaborate games is their cost.
“When we were asking people for advice they said, ‘If you don’t have $500,000 don’t start,’” Wisemon said. “People are willing to pump $500,000 to one million dollars into commercial sites. People are very hesitant to do that for nonprofits.”
Jewish-themed smart phone quests and other serious games are just now emerging, and Jewish educators are not ready to proclaim games will dominate future Jewish classrooms. Phil Liff-Grief, associate director of the Builders of Jewish Education, said that core tenants of Jewish education such as Hebrew instruction and text study will coexist with quests designed for Android phones and iPads. However, new technologies such as mobile devices will fundamentally change the way people learn, he said. “Changes are happening very fast. Education should be cognizant of the way people behave in the rest of their ways when thinking about how they should behaved when they’re involved in learning.”
Gabe Weinstein is a junior studying journalism at Ohio University. He enjoys running, reading and rooting for Cleveland’s cursed sports teams.
Correction, 4/20/12: The article originally said “Berhman House and Builders of Jewish Education… are also developing…,” which could have been understood as implying that Behrman and BJE were working together. They are working independently and the wording now reflects that more clearly.
Correction, 4/23/12: The article originally used the word “app” to describe the game that Owen Gottlieb is developing. At his request, the more accurate phrase “mobile phone game” has been substituted.