Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Shalom Berger

This interview is part of the Network-Weavers Series. More info & interviews here!

Shalom Berger is the Director of E-Communities at The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar-Ilan University. He founded and currently coordinates the Lookjed listserv, creating conversation amongst thousands of educators around the world about current issues in Jewish education.

What prompted you to start in the world of networks, and what did you do?

When I was a day school teacher in the US, one challenge was teachers’ difficulty in learning from one another. I found teachers were reluctant to share information, feeling either the person down the hall would take all their trade secrets, or that a limited number of people would appreciate their work.

Since 1999, the Lookjed list has been serving the needs of educators around the world. It currently has 3500 subscribers, 20% of which are active participants (posting at minimum one time per year). In addition to sharing brief ideas on the listserv, there is also the ability to upload materials on an associated website.

A network could be a lot of things, but in this particular setting, it allows people around the world to converse. It connects educators so that we’re no longer limited to asking the teacher down the hall, “Do you have ideas as to how to teach this?” What is especially fascinating is the way it allows Jews throughout the Diaspora to interact with each other. Someone in Australia can send a question, and they will get responses from throughout the world.

What are the benefits of being part of the Lookjed network?

In a time before everyone blogged and shared resources online, someone asked me, “Why would someone want to answer? What’s in it for them?” The beauty of the Internet is chesed shel emet: people do it without expecting a reward. One benefit is professional collegiality. Participants can find likeminded teachers, which is especially important for those sitting in Jewish communities that aren’t that large. It’s also an opportunity for teachers who consider themselves experts in particular areas to put their names up in lights.

What is your role in Lookjed as its network-weaver?

I’m not a network-weaver; I’m a party host, which came before anyone developed the term network-weaver. The role I play is one of weaving technology with content. It goes beyond tacking all these things onto a bulletin board; it’s also working to create online relationships. I act to introduce human experts to people looking for their expertise, as well as to allow people to more easily access online resources. Some of this happens due to the nature of the media. Once someone put ideas out there, people know them as someone with expertise in that area.

On a technical level, everything comes through my computer screen before goes out to subscribers. But I don’t only record the responses and put it into a format that makes it easy to read; I also play a behind-the-scenes role in making sure the questions are the kind that will be answered. For instance, I might tell someone that their question is too general, and that they need to dig down more specifically to get answers. I might also say: that’s a good question, and I know people who work in that area, so I will forward it to them directly.

In terms of the infrastructure, what functionality would you like to add in the future?

We try to distinguish between technologies that are just fads and don’t add value to work we’re doing and those that offer serious value added to share out the expertise, materials, and resources we have with people outside of Israel.

The power of social media tools is that if an individual finds something interesting, they have the opportunity to spread it to a large group of people. I would be interested in something that allows people to share interesting ideas with specific other individuals. I also would like faculty to work together and create material together. Technology makes this possible – the limit is only people’s time.

In running a listserv, how do you deal with today’s issue of information overload?

Information overload is a problem. But Lookjed offers something directed at a relatively specific population. So we’ve succeeded in cutting through some of that overload in the sense that when people in that population receive materials and suggestions from us, they know it’s more likely than not to be relevant to their classroom, more so than if they were to google Jewish education or chumash.

Did you have formal training as a network-weaver?

When I started doing this 13 years ago there was no training - it was a field that did not yet exist. Today, however, there are formal training programs. Together with my Lookstein Center colleague, Esther Feldman, I directed a two-year fellowship program funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation that trained 14 individuals in different areas of Jewish education (day school, camps, special needs, early childhood, etc.) to be network-weavers. The tools and methodologies that we offered were not limited to listservs, but also wikis, nings, and so forth that allowed the professionals to reach out to their peers and constituencies in a manner most appropriate for their venue. For instance, for special needs camping, they took counselors who usually only interacted during the summer, and on each Friday during the year they would have a call with their campers to say “Shabbat Shalom.” Ecstatic doesn’t cover the reaction of the participants. All the fellows have built communities that really impact the kind of Jewish education they are able to give their constituents and the kind of professional support they are able to offer people in their communities and one another.

It is a profession; it can be taught. Results such as these have reached the point that everyone recognizes its importance, even segments of the community that are reluctant to buy into online interaction. It’s not just the wave of the future; it’s here.

The Lookjed listserv archives appear here. To learn more or to subscribe, please contact Shalom at shalom -@- 

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