Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Friday, February 26, 2010


I found a very cool and simple Web 2.0 application with great potential for the classroom. It is called Etherpad. It allows you to have a chat based synchronous online discussion in real time simply by sharing a link. Students can each chat on a teacher prompt or work together on a group project which computer having a different name and color scheme. The text comes into the website in real time and since the screen constantly refreshes itself you see the others typing. The pad can then be saved in many formats including as a webpage, PDF, or Word document. The discussion is also archived as a webpage with a time slider so you can see how the chats were generated. The page can even be embedded in a website using the following instructions: Embed Etherpad into a Blogpost or on any website as an iframe. A few weeks ago, I posted a link to an Etherpad on my Twitter profile and asked for contributors. I got 2 other chatters. You can see the result below:

Applications for Education
  • You can use Etherpad to host a real time class discussion instead of using other tools like Twitter or discussion forums on Wikis and Blogs. Simply post a prompt on a new Etherpad page, give each student a laptop, and share the link. Here is a blog posting on a class Etherpad discussion: Using Technology to find Students
  • You can also use Etherpad to make sure that all students partnering on a group project  do equal work. You require the students to "show their work" on the project the same way students have to show their scrap paper on a math assignment. Then give each group an Etherpad page and require them to chat, work on their term paper, and share any other discussions on the pad with each student using their own name. I plan on trying this myself on my next assignment.  
Please note: All Etherpads are public, meaning anyone in the world with the direct link can edit them and anyone can view them. I don't think the editing is a serious issue since it is hard to find these links but it requires watching by the teacher. Since it is a public webpage, teachers should advise students to only use first names or pseudonyms and to only type work related activity. No personal information should ever be posted. When embedding a pad in a wiki or blog, one should only embed the latest version of the pad (after you have watched the entire session) as a read-only version. You do this by going to your pad and clicking "Time Slider" and then "Link to read-only page". This way, the embedded link will not allow any additional typing. (Even though the original pad can still be edited using the direct link to the pad.)

Try it yourself and share with me your results.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The How to Learn Gemara Webpage archived on

Almost 9 years ago, in June of 2001, I created my first online class project, Rabbi Pittinsky's 9T2 Gemara Page. I was teaching a 9th grade Gemara class in The Frisch School in which my primary goal was helping students gain the skills to learn Gemara on their own. This is especially difficult since the Gemara or Talmud as it is also known is written in Aramaic with no punctuation and in a question and answer format more similar to online discussion forums than the standard textbooks that our students are familar with. As the culmination of a very succesful year, I asked my students to create a website for students just like them, 9th graders in a Yeshiva Day School, teaching them how to learn Gemara. I did not realize at the time that this would take over 6 weeks of my life.

This was before blogs and wikis so the only way to create a website was to find a hosting company and know HTML code. We decided to host our site on Geocities , a free service available at that time from Yahoo. I took a few books on HTML out from the library and started the project. The students designed every part of the site, deciding what should be included and where. The stronger students focused more on the site content while the weaker students concentrated on the equally important technical aspects of the website. They even got student volunteers from other classes, the "tech gods" who knew HTML well and could design the code for the main pages.

The project was a great success. After it was finished, I posted the project on the Jewish Education Discussion Forum, Lookjed and got thousands of hits and tremendously positive feedback. More importantly, I developed a special kesher (connection) with this class, keeping in touch with many of them until this day. One student has told me she is proud of the fact that when someone searches for her name on Google to check her out for a prospective shidduch or job opportunity the first hit that comes up is her participation in the How to Learn Gemara Webpage. (Obviously, this project was created way before we knew about privacy and security online. I would never create a website today which was not password protected containing student's pictures together with captions with their names.) Another student has become a rabbi himself. I recently saw him at a school dinner and his wife told me that he has taught a Daf Yomi Shiur for 4 years and credits me with teaching him how to learn Gemara.

If I deserve any credit (which I probably don't), I strongly believe it is because of this project which educationally accomplished 2 things:
  1. It summarized for my students all of the important Gemara texts, keywords, and syntax phrases that they learned throughout the year. By teaching them to others through the website, the students learned the material with a depth which any traditional assessment could never match.
  2. It was an excercise in metacognition. Students had to think about how to learn Gemara. They even each wrote essays on How to Learn a Page of Gemara. This gave the students the methodology to tackle a new page of Gemara on their own.
Sadly, as the years passed, I changed my email address and was unable to update the website with my new address since the student who was the webmaster was long gone. I therefore stopped receiving email feedback from people who visited the site. Then, more recently, Yahoo decided to close Geocities which hosted the site. I was afraid that my website would become just a fleeting memory. I saved all of the files offline but wondered whether I would ever have the time and motivation to recreate them somewhere else. Then a group of old Geocities members setup with the goal of archiving all of the old Geocities sites and transfering them to a new location, for free.

Last week, I received an email that my How to Learn Gemara Webpage had been archived. They even gave me the ability to edit the page so I could update my contact information (and the school address as we have moved). So here it is: The only thing changed on the site is my email address and the school address. Everything else is exactly as my students left it in June of 2001. Hopefully, this can be a service for new generations of students who wish to learn how to learn Gemara from their peers.

I highly recommend this type of class project in any subject area whether it is on how to learn Gemara or how to write a sonnet. As I have already seen, your students will appreciate all your time and effort and remember your class as a highlight of their school experience. The only thing I would change today is the venue to host the site. I would recommend wikis which allow for student collaboration requiring little knowledge of code. The wiki provider I use is which provides free, password protected wikis for K-12 education. Give them a try and enjoy the project!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Using Photosynth to create Virtual Hallways

Last year, I blogged about the Photosnyth, the amazing web-based application from Microsoft Labs that stitches together photographs to create a 3D immersive experience. You can see an example of a Photosynth of the International Space Station below.

How can this be used in education?

In our school, we use it to archive beautiful student projects that are created as a part of our week-long Shiriyah. Each grade decorates their hallway based on their theme creating an amazing work of art synthesizing a great deal of Torah learning as well. The only downside is these hallways have to be taken down shortly after Shiriyah is over, becoming only a fleeting memory. Through Photosynth, we have been able to create a lasting memory of each hallway that is more than just individual pictures since you can actually "walk" through each virtual hallway. This year we also added videos of the hallway presentations so that you can fully understand the intent of the students in their hallway designs. You can walk through each of this year's hallways on our Shiriyah wiki at: Enjoy the trip!

Have you watched any good lectures or shiurim lately?

There is a tremendous amount of free video and audio lectures and shiurim online available either to stream on your computer or download to an IPod or other MP3 device. If you had the time and motivation, you could take a vast array of courses from the greatest Yeshivot and Universities. The question is where to start.
    If you have an Ipod the best starting point is Itunes.
    • Open Itunes and select the Itunes Store. 
    • Click on Itunes U. You will see a vast array of courses available for download to your Ipod.
    • Note that even without an Ipod you can watch any of these lessons on your computer directly from Itunes.
    Here is a list of some of the best collections of free online classes for watching on computer.

    1. Yeshiva University's Institute for University-School Partnership offers a vast array of research based graduate level classes In Jewish and General Education. I have given a number of webinars hosted by this portal on Educational Technology that I featured in earlier blog postings. 
    2. This site by the MOFET Jewish Education Portal offers research based webinars for teachers of topics of interest for Jewish and General Education.
    3. Odeo's education section offers over 400 channels with lecture series containing over 75,000 episodes. If I was stuck on a deserted island and had one resource available to exercise my mind this is what I would want.
    4. YUTorah offers thousands of shiurim from Yeshiva University in Tamud, Halakha, Tanach, and Jewish Philosophy. This is the second resource that I would want on a deserted island (or maybe the first). 
    5. This is a list of the 100 free lectures that will make you a better teacher on varied topics like "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" or "SmartBoards in Action". 
    6. The Daily Torah Podcast from Yeshivat Har Etzion features one 30-40 minute shiur 5 days a week that can be subscribed to for listening on your Ipod or otehr MP3 player.
    7. MIT's open courseware containing thousands of MIT courses is every subject imaginable. 
    8. Noted Jewish scholar and self help author, Rabbi Abraham Twerski's website with many free lessons available.
    9. If you want to learn about the "Next Big Thing" in Technology, Culture, or Business this is the place to start.
    10. Lookstein Center bi-weekly podcasts on Jewish education hosted by Rabbi Mark Smilowitz.
    Enjoy the lectures!

    Tuesday, February 09, 2010

    Using Technology to Record Memories

    A little over a week ago, my wife's Zaidy (grandfather) passed away. He lived a long life, mostly in good health, and with his full mental faculties and merited to enjoy 4 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. As the "family rabbi", I was asked to perform the funeral. Since I was a bit shocked and saddened myself, I was in no state of mind to compose my thoughts for the funeral which was less than 16 hours away. I did not quite know where to start. Then I remembered something that my wife's Bubby and Zaidy had the foresight to do a few years ago. They bought me an Olympus digital voice recorder and asked me to interview Zaidy.

    I vaguely remembered this interview which I had done in the summer of 2006 sitting outside while my children were playing in the kiddie pool. I interviewed Zaidy and saved the files on my computer, doing nothing with them. So I quickly started searching for them, not an easy task since I had never properly named the files. They were saved in some random location on my computer since they were originally on a previous PC and transferred over with all of my other files to my new computer much later. However, in a few minutes, I realized that the files from this digital recorder were saved in WMA format. After a quick search of my hard drive for all WMA files, I found the 2 recordings from the interview, put on my headphones, and started transcribing.

    I was listening to my Zaidy, shortly after his death, describe his life, his childhood, the war years, his 70+ year romance with Bubbie, his successful career, and his community service, all in his own words. The effect was eerie but I just kept typing with no time to process or analyze, just absorbing his words. The next morning, I printed out a transcript and edited it into a meaningful eulogy containing many heartwarming stories that no one else had remembered. I started my eulogy by explaining that since I had the privilege to interview my Zaidy and record the interview, his eulogy would be based entirely on his own words.

    This experience has taught me a great lesson on the power of technology to record memories. I cannot emphasize enough the importance to buy yourself a digital recorder (you can get a decent one for under $50) and interview all of the older relatives that you hold dear. You do not need to do anything with the interviews. Just record them and store them on your computer for a later time.

    This is obviously, a great assignment to give to students on all levels of education, elementary or high school. Create a digital history of your family. You will never regret this. These recordings might become the only tangible memories you have of them in their own words. Now I just have to find a time to sit down with my 100 year old great aunt and listen to her life story. To be continued...