Imagine you are an 11-year old Hebrew School student. You walk into your classroom, turn on your computer and see your avatar. While the teacher explains the day’s assignment, the avatar listens intently and then, when you tell him to, resumes your joint journey through virtual Israel or, as it was known in 1912, Palestine. Having recently landed there from Russia, you have been met by a Turkish official, swapped out your heavy furs for lighter clothes and learned a little about the clothing, currency and foods of the country that will be your new home. Your task for the day is to earn some money. One choice might be to catch fish and sell them to a local merchant. Along the way, you might earn virtual rewards for different tasks.
Sound like fun? Well, Deborah Nagler, director of Simnik.com, the company that is researching and developing 3D online immersive educational environments like this one, knows that it is. “What better way to engage the emotions and intellect of 21st-century Jewish learners than to translate Jewish history, content and practice into a visually exciting, interactive and socially stimulating digital experience?” she asks.
The 58-year-old Nagler knows from whence she speaks. The lifelong Jewish educator, currently the director of Gratz College’s Online Certificate Program in Educational Technology, is so passionate about the potential of Web 2.0 that, when her position as Hadassah’s national director of leadership education and training was eliminated in the 2008 economic downturn, she went back to school to earn her master’s degree in education media design and technology. “I went from being a technology immigrant to a fully acculturated citizen of the digital world,” she laughs.
And a marketable one at that. In October 2011, Gratz College hired Nagler to design and implement a new program focusing on the integration of technology in the classroom, in online platforms and in experiential education. “I introduce students to the breadth and possibility of technology in the classroom,” Nagler explains. At Gratz, this learning takes place in courses that are designed specifically for Jewish educators (master’s and doctoral students in Jewish education and master’s students in Jewish communal services). “Part of the goal is to create a community of practice, with Gratz at the center,” Nagler elaborates. She is also working with Philadelphia public and private schools to engage their staffs in professional development. With “this commitment to combine technology and Jewish communal service, Gratz is truly at the forefront of Jewish life and technology,” she says.
The beauty of these virtual learning environments, according to Nagler, is that they “speak the language of the 97 percent of teens who play video games. Jewish education has little to offer in the way of exciting visuals and engaging challenges,” she notes. “We cannot hope to provide Jewish-education video games anytime soon — the cost is prohibitive. We can, however, provide virtual learning environments that are avatar-driven, interactive and relevant to these young learners, at a fraction of the cost.”
Nagler is quick to point out that computer learning does not make the teacher obsolete. “Every session is bookended with a discussion and a reflection,” she explains. “The teacher monitors the individual progress of each student and is available to ask and answer questions.” Jewish educators are so taken with the approach, she says, that they are hoping to make it one of the centerpieces of their agenda for the future. “One hundred years ago they were publishing textbooks,” she says. “Now they want to be the publisher of virtual learning environments.”