Thursday, March 08, 2007

Is "redesign" enough, or do we need more radical changes?

Last fall, JESNA launched the Lippman Kanfer Institute Wiki with some pretty fabulous intentions: To map out "an agenda and strategy for ensuring that Jewish education is maximally effective and relevant in the new century." Predicated on the belief "that vigorous conversation about important issues in Jewish education is itself an important tool for change," the idea of the site is to use the technology of the internet to generate discussion.

The keystone of the site is Jonathan Woocher's article Redesigning Jewish Education, but to my mind the component that has the potential to be the most useful - and controversial - is the list of noteworthy programs. Although the website grants that most have not been "rigorously evaluated," it notes that "many show clear signs of success in terms of participation, longevity, and the positive responses of participants." Currently the site lists 27 such examples of best practices in the field, and encourages the viewer to add others.

The site also hosts an article by Dr. David Ariel on Consumer Choice and Jewish education. He suggests that

"...Jewish education could embrace the TIVO model ... becoming a subscription service that allows consumer choice within a limited range while also pushing new content to consumers based on the pattern of their preferences. What is true in the consumer arena is true in Jewish education: While people know what they want, the successful Jewish educational service will provide what people don’t yet know they want..."

(The final article currently on the site is my own, on Synagogue Schools and Congregational Agendas. Aw, shucks!)

No surprise that I find the idea of generating dialogue around this content exciting -- after all, that's the agenda of this blog as well. But the idea of using a Wiki to host these articles is, I think, a truly innovative way to push for a real negotiation of ideas. Imagine a website that functions like the Wikipedia, in which articles are being written and rewritten by interested parties, who then debate the validity and relative merits of these changes on highly active "talk" pages.

Unfortunately, readers haven't taken the site quite that far. So, rather than being an interactive or collaborative experience, the Wiki is still currently functioning much like any other website.

The real problem, though, is that conversation happens on separate "dialogue" pages, in which all one can view are the topic headers for individual threads. So, in order to encounter gabebabe's critique of Woocher's article, you would first have to pick the correct one of the five separate pages in which there is space to comment, and then click on a subject header that reads "Redesigning is a..." Only once you get to the actual page will you learn that the rest of the header is "...Rehashing of Ill Defined Concepts" [harsh, dude!] . gabebabe writes:

"...We have a working model of how to transform conventional schooling into experiential education that is being used in schools across the country. There are already dozens of schools around the country which have made the commitment to transform their schools into learning environments that challenge their students’ Jewish emotional, intellectual, physical, social and/or spiritual responses through approaches through the philosophy of experiential education. They are doing this in their classrooms in the heart of what we call formal education. What they have already accomplished demonstrates how outdated this article is."

What would make the Wiki a truly unique endeavor would be if gabebabe would add the programs he has in mind to the list of noteworthy programs -- and then explain how they accomplish what the other ones don't. While he's at it, he could critique some of the other interventions that are already listed.

With many others contributing through a wiki-fied give-and-take, including people personally involved in the programs being critiqued, perhaps we would collectively be able to arrive at meaningful criteria by which to evaluate Jewish educational reforms, standards for what we mean by "success," and ideas that can be implemented broadly. As an aside, Shulshopper (currently in beta) has the potential to offer a similar contribution to the world of prayer - if, for example, it were possible to search not only for the synagogues that receive the highest ratings, but also the ones that generate the most discussion (although that's not currently on the to-do list for the site).

I'd love to see the Lippman Kanfer Institute wiki embody one of the five strategic changes that Woocher proposes in his article: To become a "hothouse" for collaborative innovation. A fully utilized wiki could

"...draw considerable attention to the processes of innovation and diffusion ...encourage collaboration among key constituencies that need to work together for change to occur...promote the sharing of information among those involved in change in diverse settings...afford opportunities through collaborative inquiry to deepen and refine our understanding of both specific innovations and the process of implementing new approaches generally."

This would require a redesign of the website, which in truth isn't really set up right now to encourage people to edit the content (although I'd be delighted to see my own article reformatted for this purpose). It would truly be a transformation of its current use into something entirely different and far more risky. And, maybe this is a good analogy for what needs to happen in Jewish education writ large.

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