Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Temple State of Mind, Taking a tour of the Beit Hamikdash

The last few parshiot, Teruma, Tetzave, Ki Tisa, Vayakhel, and Pekuday (coming this week), which are devoted to the construction of the Mishkan and its various vessels, have gotten me into a Temple state of mind. I have written about the Mishkan from a traditional Torah perspective on my other blog devoted to Parshat Hashavua. What I am really interested in is seeing these vessels and reliving the experience of visiting the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem that ultimately housed them. This can be both a great educational lesson for students learning these Parshiot and the various books of Tanach that describe the Temple, as well as a great emotional experience in our anticipation of the rebuilding of the Third Temple. What better way to relive this than through the help of virtual reality and the Internet?

There are various websites devoted to the Temple and its vessels. Here are some of the best starting with a brief virtual tour of the Second Temple as rebuilt by Herod:
Temple in Virtual Reality

Finally, below is another video which is a virtual tour of the Temple. It is a 3 minute promo for a 75 minute Beis Hamikdash in 3-D that can be purchased here.

May we all merit to see the Third Beit Hamikdash rebuilt speedily in our days.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Are reports of the death of the Book greatly exaggerated?

A couple of years ago, I had the unique privilege to accompany a group of my students to The Valmadonna Trust Library a collection of over 13,000 printed Hebrew books and manuscripts, which was on display for a week at Sotheby's in NYC. Seeing Jewish books shelved floor to ceiling in warehouse sized rooms, many opened to reveal beautiful illustrations on the title page complementing their holy text, was a once-in-a-lifetime exhilarating experience. The only thing that comes close to this, although it is a pale second place, is my yearly pilgrimage to the Yeshiva University SOY Seforim Sale.

As Jews, we have always had a romance with the book. I fondly remember a bechina I had with Rav Shraga Feivel Paretzky ZT”L, the bochen for the Yeshiva, when I was in 10th grade at MTA. We were studying Mesechet Gittin. Rav Paretzky ZT"L gathered a group of six of us around a long table and started peppering us with questions. Through his socratic questioning we came to a new understanding of the sugya. When he was finished, he showed us a very old Hebrew book and said, "Do you know where all your questions and answers you just gave me came from? They came from this sefer by Rav Yaakov Gesundheit." He then opened to the first page and read it to us. "Warsaw 1868, that's when this sefer was printed," he exclaimed. "Do you know why that excites me? It means that over 100 years ago in Poland they were having the same discussion in learning that we are having and their students had that same discussion and their students' students until it was passed down until today." I don't recall the specific Talmudic argument we had on that day but I have inculcated his lesson. The importance of the book in Judaism is not merely the fact that it is a source of information. Rather, it is a link in the chain of the mesorah going back to Har Sinai.

But, it appears that the book as we know it is dying. Eli Kannai, Chief Educational Technology Officer of the Avi Chai Foundation, recently directed me to a hypothetical Academic Library "Autopsy Report" from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The thesis of this report, which seems highly likely to be proven true, is that by 2050, the library will be no more. Books will become obsolete as all books and journal articles will be fully digitized to be accessed anytime, anywhere using computers or portable e-readers.

This process is already occurring through a convergence of many technologies including the Google Book Project which is digitizing all the world's libraries of books, inexpensive and user-friendly portable e-readers like Amazon's Kindle or computer based free e-readers like the Blio Reader which not only allow you to read books but also let you highlight words, make annotations, and even have the book read back to you. In the case of the Blio, each word is highlighted as it is read which should a boon for people requiring assistive learning devices to help them with their reading.

In the area of Judaic studies, the web-based Bar Ilan Responsa Project and Otzar HaHochma each offer tens of thousands of fully searchable books while Hebrew Books offers thousands of rare seforim for free. The implications of this for Shabbos use are obvious and are beginning to be discussed. (See Rabbi Gil Student's posting and Rabbi Rozen of Zomet quoted in this article from Ynet.)

The bigger issue is the one I dealt with above. How will the people of the book deal with the possible demise of the book? This is not just a Jewish issue. A recent New York Times article bemoans the fact that with the fazing out of physical books we will lose the art of writing notes in the margins. The hilarious spoof below waxes poetic about the advantages of the book:

There are obviously areas where the advent of the e-reader is a no-brainer. The printing, transport, and distribution of newspapers and magazines to subscribers, only to be thrown away a day or a week later, is tremendously wasteful and will quickly be replaced by electronic devices. Books that are updated yearly or even more frequently such as textbooks, encyclopedias, and journals are already moving to the totally digital age. Soon this will probably spread to more popular works of both fiction and non-fiction as e-readers become even less expensive and more physically attractive and reliable. In the future, books might in fact become an expensive luxury; a decorative device to "show off" one's library rather than a source for information and entertainment.

But for Jews something bigger is at stake, a loss of our connection to our previous generations through the book. It is for this reason that I believe that reports of the death of the book are greatly exaggerated, at least when it comes to seforim. Believe me, I understand greatly the advantage to limud Torah that fully searchable e-readers will provide both for Baal Habatim and Rabbanim. However, the combination of the desire for limud Torah on Shabbos coupled with the need to stay connected to the traditional learning method of the Beis Medrash means that, I hope, the physical book will never go away.

A hybrid approach is more likely, similar to what we are already seeing in some Batei Medrash today. Students will still learn from a printed Gemara perhaps with a Tanach, Mishna Torah, or small set of Shas close at hand (I can dream can't I?). During the week, they will also have an e-reader nearby to look up the gamut of rabbinic text from Rishonim and Acharonim on the page to obscure Midrashim.

Perhaps this will only be the method of choice for Shabbos while during a weekday chavrusa session, only an e-reader Talmudic text will be used, complete with the "Vilna" Tzuras Hadaf and active hyperlinks using the original hyperlinkers, Mesoras HaShas, Ein Mishpat/Ner Mitzvah, and Torah Ohr, to parallel Talmudic, Halakhic, and biblical texts in addition to a database of tens of thousands of other seforim. If that is the case, something will be gained in terms of ease of learning but I am afraid something might be lost as well. We will see. To be continued...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What Watson Can Teach Us

"I for one welcome our new computer overlords." wrote Ken Jennings in his Final Jeopardy response today as he conceded defeat to Watson, the IBM supercomputer.

I have been watching Jeopardy with a great deal of interest these past three days as Watson, the IBM supercomputer, has been competing and soundly defeating the two all-time (human) Jeopardy champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Watson is being billed by IBM as the first computer that can "think" due to its ability to answer complex questions in natural human language in real time. You can watch a video of how Watson does this here:

However, in truth, Watson does not really think at all. He merely goes through a series of algorithms to come up with the most likely answers and then weighs the probably of each of these answers against each other to determine which one he should choose. A great information gathering machine, yes, but a thinker Watson is not.

However, Watson, has a lot to teach us Jewish teachers. How many of us ask our students to merely be "information gatherers" rather than "thinkers"? DO we merely ask our students "Kitzur Shulchan Aruch" type questions on tests? (As a colleague of mine at Gemara Berura affectionately called it when teachers asked students to merely regurgitate that which was presented in class.) In this case, how are we challenging our students to be more than just a pale imitator of Watson?

Watson can also be trained to identify who spoke to whom in a biblical verse, to list the major causes of the civil war, or present the differing positions in a Talmudic dispute between Abaye and Rava or Rashi and Tosfot. But Watson can't be trained to understand WHY Abaye and Rava argue based on an exact inference from the Mishna, HOW events in the United States led to the Civil War, or WHAT textual basis is there for the differing opinions amongst our medieval commentators on a verse in Tanach. We must teach our students to read, think, and analyze on their own and this is what we must test on as well. How many of us include an "unseen" or application question on our tests where we ask our students to apply the skills or analysis they gained from class to a new text or situation?

I believe that technology can assist in this paradigm shift in Jewish education from loading our students with information to teaching them how to think. (On this topic, Rabbi Gil Student has an excellent blog posting on Technology and Sinai and Rabbi Aaron Ross has a piece on Why Teach Gemara.)

Here are three practical examples.

  1. Gemara Berura: I have blogged in a recent post about this program. Gemara Berura is a skills based methodology for students to learn how to learn on their own. The strength of this method is that it is not the "Kitzur Shulchan Aruch" approach. The students are trained to figure out what the Gemara is doing instead of answering what the Gemara is saying. In this way, students gain the ability to divide, classify, and connect a Talmudic text using textual cues like the Talmudic sages mentioned, keywords, and nuances of language. Students closely follow the shakla vetarya, the question/answer argumentative style of the Gemara, and eventually learn to "think" like a Talmudic scholar.
  2. Wikis and Online Discussion Forums: I have also written about this in the past. Students can learn to build their knowledge by sharing with others and through self reflection on these online forums. The asynchronous nature of these activities encourage higher order thinking as students are given the wait time to think before they write and the ability to continue to edit and correct their writing until they are satisfied. Also, reading everyone's response encourages transparency and creativity. There is no one "right" answer so students can't copy off each other and the act of reading other's responses helps kids to develop their own unique ideas.
  3. Smart Boards and other interactive white boards: Close textual reading is greatly facilitated by the Smart Board or other similar interactive white boards. This does not necessarily require dramatically creative lessons. Rather, merely projecting the text on the board, and then using the highlighters and digital pens to point out important shorashim, words, and phrases can help transform our students into careful readers. For the more creative teacher, the act of putting objects on the Smart Board for students to manipulate can also assist students in thinking through important concepts.
Or new computer overlords have much to teach us. It is my hope that Watson spurs us Jewish educators to train our students to accomplish that which each of us were uniquely endowed with by G-d, to think.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Teaching about Torah and Science

Click on the picture for more information about the book.
Professor Nathan Aviezer recently gave a talk as a part of Yeshiva University's Midreshet Yom Rishon program On Contradictions Between Torah and Science: the Creation of the Universe. This is obviously a very popular subject for many of our students, especially in high school, who are first being exposed to evolutionary biology in their science classes and are trying to reconcile it with their religious worldview.

I have been searching for useful resources to share with them containing both serious science and high-level Torah in a format that is easily accessible for our students. Although there is a dearth of websites meeting these criteria, I have found a few which appear below.
  • This visually appealing website by Professor Nathan Aviezer contains an entertaining cartoon video series geared towards high school students. It is accompanied by a teaching unit which can be acquired by contacting Professor Aviezer. I have not been able to preview the teaching unit yet but the videos are worth a look. 
Here is the first episode:

  • This site contains a number of articles with detailed point-by-point analysis of various scientific issues which might be construed as contradicting with Torah including The Big Bang, The Age of the Universe, and Evolution. It also dispels many common myths including problems with the flood and the accuracy scientific dating method and the Big Bang Theory and the existence of G-d.
An application of these websites for the classroom is to assign a WebQuest where students look at these websites in light of the story of creation in the first chapter of Bereishit and create their own an oral/visual presentation attempting a reconciliation of Torah and science.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Gemara Berura: A Skills-based approach to learning Gemara and Mishna too!

I have always been a firm believer in teaching skills in Gemara. This is obviously very difficult on the high school level with the demands of Gemara in terms of language, syntax, lack of punctuation, and unique debating style. However, by communicating a clear methodology to students on how to attack a new Talmudic text, I have had a great deal of success in teaching students how to independently "read" Gemara. I even created a website with my ninth grade students almost ten years ago where my students communicated their approach to learning Gemara.

However, teaching skills is tough and anything that can help make this easier is MUCH appreciated. Enter Gemara Berura. Gemara Berura is a windows based computer application which can help scaffold for students all the steps necessary to learn Gemara. It contains a number of databases including over 900 keywords which are the syntax which helps one figure out "what the Gemara is doing", biographies of all the sages of the Mishna and Talmud, and the Melamed Hebrew/Aramaic Dictionary. It also includes textual formatting tools to divide the Gemara into sections, classify these sections according to their function in the sugya and connect these sections to each other to create a flowchart. The program includes color and shape coded classifications for sections to distinguish different parts of the debate like questions, answers, and proofs.

Full disclosure, I got so excited by Gemara Berura when introduced to it a number of years ago, that I became a teacher trainer for the program. I have had the privilege to train teachers in over a dozen schools and to work collaboratively witha group that created a beginner's Gemara curriculum based on Tefillas Hashacher, the fourth chapter of Mesechet Berachot.

I have found Gemara Berura to be an excellent tool for frontal group learning when coupled with a projector and Smart Board, for chavruta, cooperative learning when working with pairs of students on a computer, and for teacher preparation in creating worksheets and other activities to enhance the regular Gemara instruction from a standard page using the Vilna Shas.

Gemara Berura has recently added a new tool that they call, Mishnayot Berurot that helps divide up the various parts of the Mishna using a similar approach. While in Gemara, these parts are classified according to their function in the Talmudic debate such as Statement, Question, Answer, and Reinforcement; in Mishna, these parts are classified according to Title, Speaker, Case, Ruling, and Reasoning which are more in tune to the "case law" style of most Mishnayot.

You can watch a video demonstration of this new tool below:

For more information about Gemara Berura and/or to schedule a demonstration at your school you can contact Rabbi Meir Fachler or go to Gemara Berura Sales.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Warning: Texting on Shabbos can be Dangerous for the Soul

There is a new malady amongst our "frum" teenagers. It's known as Half Shabbos. This is loosely defined as when otherwise Shomer Shabbos teens text on Shabbos. This phenomenon, unfortunately, has probably been around amongst our kids for the last few years. However, it first made it to the blogosphere in September-November with a number of posts by Alan Brill here, and here, and here. Recently, it has gone mainstream with an article in the Anglo-Jewish press entitled: New ways of wishing 'gd Shbs'.

The reasons for this sickness are many.

  • Kids are addicted to their cell phones. (Many grownups are too but that's another discussion.) They text hundreds of times daily as their normal form of communication. They feel that they cannot be deprived from this basic form of communication on Shabbos.
  • Kids, who are naturally insecure at this age, feel like they will be "left out" unless they use their cell phones. Imagine the frum kid who puts his cell phone away all Shabbos. When he turns it back on after the conclusion of Shabbos he has a dozen text messages from friends on Shabbos discussing where they got together to hang out on Shabbos afternoon. This kid feels like he missed out on something because he did not use his cell phone.
  • Kids do not experience the beauty of Shabbos so they don't see the "big deal" about using their cell phones.
So what can we do about it? I really don't know. The Rav already wondered that while one can educate students about a concept or idea, how can a teacher communicate an emotion? How can one communicate the beauty of Shabbos while sitting in class on a Tuesday morning? I am open to any ideas readers can provide.

One thing that has resonated with me at least when discussing the issue of texting on Shabbos is the need to take a virtual break from cell phones, computers, and other technologies which Shabbos already provides. In our fast paced hi-tech world, there is no more down time. Just today, a New York Times article bemoaned the shrinking divide between work and home that our new age of being constantly "on" has created. I cannot begin to describe the euphoria I feel turning off my cell phone and putting it away on Friday before candle lighting knowing that for the next 25 hours I will be focused only on two things, my family and Torah. I have blogged about this in the past. There have been movements even amongst teens in the secular world to take breaks from texting so they could rediscover their voice. Maybe this would connect with our kids. I don't know. Is it worth a try?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Make a Facebook Page for your next Jewish History, Tanach, or Torah She'Baal Peh Student Project

Those of you interested in Torah and Web 2.0 might remember the Facebook Haggadahs that made the rounds of Internet these past 2 years. The 5769 Facebook Haggadah and the updated 5770 Facebook Haggadah combined a great deal of Torah knowledge, a keen sense of humor, and an uncanny ability to match Facebook in both style and substance to make for an enjoyable and educational satire.

For Jewish educators, the Facebook platform can be the perfect forum for student projects to present a series of events, ideas, and complex relationships about a Perek of Chumash, a major event in Jewish History, or about the Sages of the Mishnah, Talmud, and medieval commentaries that make up the Daf Gemara we use today. The challenge for teachers has been that, while this idea is one that students love and can really learn from, the technical details of making a Facebook page can be daunting for anyone who does not have serious experience in graphic design.

Enter This website allows anyone to log in and create their own "Fake" Facebook Wall. It includes all the Facebook features that make for a rich classroom assignment. One can create a Facebook Wall complete with a profile picture and biographical details about the individual or event being studied, names and pictures of friends of this individual, favorite photos, and both regular and photo postings. One can even add "fake" comments for each of these postings. The end product has an uncanny resemblance to a Facebook page.

Below, I have embedded an example of a "Fake" Rashi Facebook Wall. It took me less than an hour to make. I am confident that our students with much more time, motivation, and creativity could use this platform to produce Facebook projects that enlighten and inform.