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ARTICLE The Near Future: Digital Badging in Jewish Education

It’s Sunday morning, and a Jewish tween bounds out of bed with the enthusiasm generally reserved for his Xbox or Instagram. He sets off for his synagogue’s religious school, where he shares with his teacher and fellow students the latest progress he’s made on a project about an aspect of Judaism — perhaps it’s music, or literature, or the story of creation — that he has chosen precisely because it speaks to him.

When he finishes his course of study he won’t receive a report card or grade, but a digital badge: in the simplest terms, an icon signifying his accomplishment.

Parental pipe dream? Not according to Dr. Samuel Abramovich, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo (the State University of New York’s flagship campus) who studies the emerging use of digital badges in Jewish and secular education.

“This is definitely the near future,” said Abramovich. “Soon, I expect.”

To understand the concept of the digital badge, think about the sew-on merit badges that Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts earn in areas such as camping, first aid or canoeing. Then consider a generation enticed by the prospect of earning virtual accolades in video games: “achievements,” “tokens,” or “badges” earned when a player advances a level or accomplishes a feat.

“You want to earn them and maybe even display them socially within your online community of game players,” Abramovich said. “It recognizes your accomplishment. It’s a motivator.”

Digital badges may be sent to students in an e-mail, posted on an internal school website, awarded at school ceremonies or touted in synagogue newsletters. They can also be added to a student’s public profile by way of a transcript or Facebook page.

In some schools, everyone must pursue a badge of their own choosing. In others, it’s optional. Either way, badges recognize achievements that build on or go beyond the traditional curriculum. They can provide recognition for pursuits that are crucial but often go unmeasured, like tikkun olam or teamwork. They give students the independence of choosing a topic that piques their interest and is therefore particularly meaningful, and incentivize them to pursue that interest in creative ways, online and IRL (in real life).

“You could complete your Bar or Bat Mitzvah in a room with just a minyan, but that’s not what a lot of people do,” Abramovich said. “The digital badge is a micro version of that: ‘Here’s what I’ve done in my Jewish learning, in my Jewish study. Here’s what I think represents me as a Jewish adult, as a Jewish person. I want to share this with you. Can you please give me feedback? And I want to see what you’ve done.’”

So what does a top-notch badge program look like?

“That is a very challenging question,” Abramovich said. “Sometimes someone will call me and say, ‘I want to create digital badges. How do you do it?’ It’s a little like saying, ‘How do you teach math?’ There are many ways to teach math.”

At The Binah School (a recently-closed Orthodox girls’ middle and high school in Sharon, Mass.), students earned badges in topics as diverse as kindness, yoga, cooking and the Book of Joshua.

At the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, in Queens, students in pre-kindergarten through age 13 can choose among 33 badges as part of Project 613, a popular (though optional) new program.

“Traditionally you sat in a classroom with three rows, with a teacher in front and with a textbook,” said Faye Gilman, the temple’s educational leader. “This takes you to sitting in a circle, sitting on the floor, sitting in a computer lab. It takes you to a conversation rather than a monologue. And the best part is that it takes you outside, it takes you to your family, it takes you to the Ellis Island museum.”

“You have the opportunity to do this in school, but you also have the opportunity to say, ‘Mom and Dad, let’s look on the computer,’” Gilman continued. “’Let’s see what other badges we can achieve. What can we do as a family to make this happen?’’”

At The Epstein School in Atlanta, a digital badging pioneer, middle school students can choose among badges named after Jewish role models, including Elena Kagan and Ruth Messinger.

“This is about a child choosing to show their talents, interests and skills in a different way,” said Myrna Rubel, principal of The Epstein School’s middle school. “Kids choose, ‘How am I going to show I earned this badge? What are the characteristics of this badge? The whole idea was to use part of their life outside of school as well as their life in school.”

But Rubel cautioned against the temptation to use digital badges as yet another way to give students a “gold star” for learning a prayer or completing a task. “The whole point of this was not to make this a skill-based, ‘kids who do this get this,’” she said. “We didn’t want that. It’s not a substitute for a test. How you make it fun, to keep kids in the game, so to speak, is a challenge.” Teacher buy-in, she added, is crucial.

When it comes to digital badging programs, Abramovich agreed that so much depends on the context, the execution — and the psychology of each individual learner. A badge signifying regular synagogue attendance, for instance, could give some students a motivating extra push. But others, he said, may respond, “You’re trying to badge synagogue attendance? I’m not going to go to synagogue!”

Abramovich had been studying the use of digital badges in secular education when, several years ago, he discovered that a number of Jewish institutions had begun to experiment with them in smart, interesting ways. “Who’s studying this?” he wondered. “Somebody has to be capturing, recognizing and trying to understand all this work.”

His research indicates promising results. “I think we are nearing a point where we can pretty reliably have some faith that digital badges can provide some benefit to Jewish education,” he said.

“We need to make sure there are no negative impacts,” Abramovich added. “Something that was executed perfectly can have strong positive outcomes, but if executed incorrectly can have negative impacts. Then what? How should badges be developed in Jewish education, for whom and where and when? There won’t be a simple pattern.”

These questions will be fodder for Abramovich’s future research.

Now, he is developing a project exploring how lessons learned from digital badging in Jewish education can be applied to traditionally underserved minorities with strong cultural and ethnic identities.

“Why not apply all these lessons we’re learning from digital badges in Jewish education and share them with interested groups who could then have similar benefit?” he said. “If that’s not tikkun olam, I’m not sure what is.”

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