Barbara Birch: ‘Education Must Address Chasm Between Technology and Moral Guidance’


This article first appeared in eJewish Philanthropy. You can read it on their site here, or below: 

The recent congressional hearings of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey put the chief executives of Facebook and Twitter in the hot seat, answering questions on their procedures for moderating content, labeling posts and tweets, and their general responsibility for the use of the platforms by extreme voices on either side of the political spectrum.

Social media is one of the great innovations of our time, changing how we communicate and share ideas in the public square. Yet it has led to enormous ethical challenges. It is certainly not the first time that technology has led to controversy, nor will it be the last.

In an environment of constant innovation, there is also a constant threat of a growing chasm between technological advancement and moral guidance. The speed at which innovation happens, and our eagerness to benefit from its positive impact, clouds our ability to evaluate the potential downfalls ahead. When Zuckerberg sat in his dorm creating Facebook, he could never have imagined the global phenomenon it would become, let alone how it would transform our ability to share views and affect elections worldwide.

We live in an age in which we are constantly encouraging innovation in order to do the most good. Yet it must be paired with a commitment to being good global citizens, balancing economic growth and the welfare of society and the environment, and respecting the rights of others. The concept of Tikkun Olam – repairing the world – has always been a pillar of Jewish life, a moral imperative embedded in Jewish education. Today, educators must consider how we are addressing social responsibility on an international level, because innovation is no longer limited to just a handful of countries.

The United States is home to Silicon Valley and giants of technological advancement, from NASA to Facebook and tens of thousands of boutique developers. Similarly, Israel’s tech achievements and start-up mindset of the past 20 years are impressive. But look now at the countries with some of the highest levels of technological expertise and you will find new names: Estonia, which has invested hugely in national digital infrastructure; Singapore, renowned as a ‘Smart Nation’; the Netherlands, a global frontrunner for digital skills.

There are few global education networks that can set a standard of social responsibility across geographic boundaries. ORT is one of them. ORT is the world’s largest Jewish education network, offering a first-rate STEM education to students in more than 30 countries, including those mentioned above, many of whom would not otherwise have access to the advanced level of science and technology ORT offers. At the same time, every ORT school and educational program embeds the core Jewish values of doing good in the world and teaches these alongside the advanced subjects needed in today’s global marketplace.

Take, for example, ORT alumnus Mateo Nicolas Salvatto, a graduate of the ORT school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Mateo developed a free app – Hablalo! – which turns text into voice and vice versa to assist people with communication disabilities. The app is used by more than 100,000 people in 53 countries. Mateo credits his use of tech as a social equalizer to ORT’s teaching about social responsibility.

Now in its 140th year, ORT is taking this responsibility, and its unique worldview that crosses continents and communities, seriously. As it embarks on a new strategic direction, ORT plans to develop curricula, which will address vital issues of global citizenship, including giving students the tools to address gender inequity, climate change and other issues that define the world in which we live.

Across the former Soviet Union, Latin America and Israel, ORT students are forging ahead to become the innovators and developers of the future – just as Mateo has. Our network breaks out of geographic silos to provide a platform for collaboration across dozens of countries, sharing knowledge and uniting students and teachers with Jewish and non-Jewish peers around the world. ORT plans to maximize this cross-network collaboration by promoting its experts and sharing educational methods so that each national operation will be able to learn from the others. Working together will also ensure that all learning throughout the ORT network is based in a foundation of core Jewish values.

For ORT, that is what the moral imperative looks like. That is what a global institution, especially one that emphasizes science, technology and innovation, must do to lead in the 21st Century.

Barbara Birch is President and CEO of ORT America