Culture, Mishegas, Politics, Religion

28 Days, 28 Ideas #14: Open Source Curriculum

The idea: A site to host the development of “open source” curriculum for learning how to learn Talmud and other texts in Hebrew/Aramaic.
The need: There are few if any curriculae which are targeted at the student who wants to start a serious learning practice, or for use by teachers who want to initiate students into a serious learning practice. There are many, many sites for introducing the unaffiliated and the uninterested. However, the interested and affiliated who want to take their study practice one step up are in a bind. This is especially so for those who don’t live in a major urban center. Moreover, teachers in day schools and the growing number of community high schools who want to up their game and teach on a higher level are also in bind.
The project: The web site would be a collaboration between Jewish educators and web designers. Tools would be developed that would allow educators to collaborate with each other across geographical boundaries on curriculae and methodologies.
Obstacles: Years ago when I was the chair of the Rabbinics Department at the Ziegler School, I wanted to start a conversation about teaching Talmud in the original languages to adults on a graduate level. I discovered that there was almost nothing published on the subject. There was one article by Dr. Marjorie Lehman of JTS in the Journal of Jewish Education. The situation has improved somewhat. A conference was convened two years ago at Brandeis University to address the issue. Some more articles have since been published. However, when a teacher, pressed by time and not compensated for creating curriculae on her own, wants to teach Talmud to her tenth grade class, she is back with her Talmud and nothing else. (The level of compensation for most Jewish educators at all levels is a stain on the Jewish community and an insult to Torah—but that is a rant for another day.)
What I suggest is that the ability to collaborate—either to have a great idea and put it up to allow someone else to develop; to step into the middle of the process and add a twist which will make it better—will spread the work out and also keep the means of production in the hands of the workers. Credit for the work will be assigned to those who do the work and not to the institutions who benefit from it.
Process: While the curriculum will be “open source,” in that permission will be given to modify, add, etc. to the educational products in process, there will have to be a screening process for collaborators to avoid the wikipedia fallacy, otherwise known as the blind leading the blind. Those who collaborate will have to have been trained and perhaps credentialed in recognized ways so that there is a serious element of quality control.
new-coverAs an example of the type of curriculum I am referring to, I am appending here for download, a pdf textbook that I created several years ago for Kiddushin 29aƒƒ—the discussions dealing with the obligations of parents and children. This curriculum has been used successfully in various different high-school and graduate school settings by several different teachers, and, not to sound like the bitter old man that I am, I should have been well-compensated for developing this—but I harbor no illusions that that will ever be the case. So I present it here in its uncompleted form as an example of the type of curriculum that could benefit from further development by qualified collaborators. (If you are interested in exploring the curriculum, you must download it to your computer and open it with Adobe Reader or the full Acrobat, otherwise most of the functionality won’t be available.)
This post is part of the series 28 Days, 28 Ideas. Check out yesterday’s idea, Birthright Diaspora over at 31 Days, 31 Ideas. And be sure to check out tomorrow’s idea at JTA’s Fundermentalist blog. You can also visit for the full list of ideas as they progress.

7 thoughts on “28 Days, 28 Ideas #14: Open Source Curriculum

  1. This is a good idea.
    While the curriculum will be “open source,” in that permission will be given to modify, add, etc. to the educational products in process, there will have to be a screening process for collaborators to avoid the wikipedia fallacy, otherwise known as the blind leading the blind. Those who collaborate will have to have been trained and perhaps credentialed in recognized ways so that there is a serious element of quality control.
    An alternative method to handling the quality control problem (and there is no denying that it is a real problem!) is to put all works-in-progress in a scratch area, and have your credentialed team review the work before it gets into an official distribution. Anything that’s in the official distribution is known to be vetted, the other material is known to fall under caveat emptor. That way, the process is fully transparent and half-baked ideas that are good but still half-baked are not lost in review.
    If the curriculum is really open source, the professionals making the decisions are always under the check that if they get too suppressive, someone else can come along and fork the project.

  2. Love it, and Efraim’s idea. I’d actually talked with some friends about a related desire: an online edition of Talmud with everything hyperlinked. If done as a wiki, many people could work on it all at once, and any given page can have attached discussion, translation variations, and links to study guides and further information.

  3. I think this is a wonderful way of making people work for no compensation. Real open source software is not made by people tinkering in their basements, but by employees of corporations and foundations who get paid for their work – but whose employers see value in contributing to the Open Source project at hand.
    The same model should be used here. Don’t have people getting something for nothing, especially not schools, who will get used to it in no time.

  4. @Zeo — please contact me by email (efraim DOT feinstein AT gmail DOT com). Our technological interests align. 🙂
    @Amit — I think you’re simplifying too much. The new ideas in open source software come from all of: hobbyists in basements, established corporations, and established foundations. Open source is a development method, and it has the potential to scale to any level. For that matter, a number of today’s corporations trace their roots to hobbyists in their proverbial basements, and mature open source projects form their own foundations to keep up development and maintenance. “Open source” does not necessarily mean “something for nothing.” Stakeholders know (or can be made to know) that the resource won’t exist without their financial support. Buying premade curricula is nothing new; an open source project would place the people who are using it closer to its development. In the case of curriculum development, the main ideas (I think) are to spread innovative ideas quickly, to get faster feedback on the ones that don’t work, and to prevent wasteful duplication of effort.

  5. Aryeh,
    Wonderful idea, but I think it can be expanded within the same framework. There is a dearth of easily accessible curricula for Jews of all ages. There is no reason an open source curriculum system that’s targeted towards adults learning Talmud can’t also work for teaching challenging Jewish topics in hebrew schools. As an aside, it’s unclear from your idea whether you’re promoting good online materials for personal learning or curricula for teachers to improve and better structure their teaching. Both are vital, but I think there’s a huge need for high quality curricula to be used by formal teachers.
    The school curricula I’ve seen are mediocre and often cost large amounts of money even if you just want to sample various units to get ideas. This puts a huge barrier at improving Jewish education and makes each school reinvent the wheel.
    I corresponded with several high people at JTS a bit over a year ago about this idea and they said they had similar plans in the works, but I haven’t heard anything since.
    As for my idea of implementation, though I haven’t personally used the site, google knol might get around some of the wikipedia issues. Each page has an individual creator who has full control of all edits. Last time I checked the policies a page creator can profit from page views and I didn’t see anything that forbit soliciting donations. A centralized page could list all pages that are part of the project and units can be divided into categories if they meet various standards of quality. This would create a system where people retain ownership and credit for their ideas, but there’s an easy way to browse through everyone’s work in an orderly fashion.

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