Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Monday, March 28, 2011

What do you think of Salman Khan and the "Flipped Classroom"?

Two EdTech innovators that I respect, Rabbi Dov Emerson and Rabbi Michael Green, recently pointed me to the amazing TED video by Salman Khan, the visionary who created the Khan Academy as an online repository of over 2100 video tutorials on a wide range of subjects in mathematics and science. In the video, Mr. Khan describes his dream of using his videos to "flip the classroom" where instead of learning about a new topic first from a teacher using a frontal lecturing style, students can watch the videos at home. Class time could then be devoted to what would normally be "homework assignments" with students performing exercises based on the new skill while the teacher is available to assist students who need extra help or provide enrichment in the form of real-world demonstrations.

This idea of the "Flipped Classroom" actually has been around a while. You can watch a video describing a flipped science classroom below:

In the theme of the "flipped classroom", I will now "flip" this blog. Instead of my sharing with you what I think about this idea, which you as always are free to agree or disagree with, I will withhold judgement at this point. I first invite you to share your thoughts either as comments on this posting or by contacting me via Twitter, Facebook, email or any other way you would like. I will post a follow-up in the future summarizing your thoughts (if you have any) and sharing some of my own (which might have changed by that point). I welcome your feedback.

A Passionate, Personal Plea Concerning the Tuition Crisis

I must apologize in advance for the following posting which really does not fit the style or substance of this blog. It is from someone, who I have been conversing with using social media, who is so passionate that I felt that I wanted to give him an audience. I hope that my readership will forgive me for going "off-topic". If you are only interested in educational technology, you can stop reading now. I will blog again shortly with a "sneak peak" at some ed-tech ideas that are still percolating in my mind.

The Jewish Week recently published an article about the "tuition crisis" in Yeshiva Day Schools entitled Teaneck Parents Eyeing Public (School) Option. This article raises a very alarming issue but in a way that is so one-sided that it should upset the sensibilities of anyone dedicated to Yeshiva day school education. My friend, Rabbi Aaron Ross, has blogged convincingly about the many distortions in this article in his posting: Why Does the Jewish Week not Support Day Schools?.

When I first saw this article, I responded vociferously to it using social media. I expressed my dismay that these people are ignoring the simple fact, which has been proven over and over again in numerous studies in the social sciences in the last two decades, that the best defense against assimilation and intermarriage is a Yeshiva education. See for example the following summary of studies on this topic:

Then I was contacted by someone who argued that I was being insensitive by judging others who were in this situation. I struck up a conversation with him and he write me a lengthy response which appears below, with the writer's permission. The only edits I have made have been a few minor grammatical changes and the removing of any personal identifiers from this posting so that the writer could remain anonymous. It is my hope that this plea and other similar stories will help mobilize to the Jewish community to try to find new ways to deal with this crisis.
Thanks for your responses as well, I did read the article you sent via link. First, I think the problem is we are arguing 2 different points. I believe with every fiber of my being in the value both short term and long of a yeshiva education. Period. The problem is affordability. There are those who use the cost of tuition as a ruse for not sending their children and using money for materialistic pleasures. I am not speaking about nor defending that category. There are however those that TRULY want to send kids to yeshiva but DO NOT have the gelt.
In my case, we had one income but couldn't afford it so my wife went to work at a job she absolutely hates and was miserable but she did it. Even with 2 incomes, we had 3 tuitions and every year the tuitions went up. It became impossible to meet financial responsibilities let alone save anything. We, unfortunately, had no choice and ended up putting one daughter in (Public) H.S.
Let me tell you, I dropped my daughter off there on first day. As she got out of the car and walked towards school, it was one or probably the worst day of my life. It was slow motion, surreal, horrible. I wish that day on no one, a million emotions, what helplessness I felt. If there were any way to have sent to yeshiva, I would have. Then, not speaking of you specifically, those more financially endowed pass judgements and criticisms, make the situation more painful. I can assure you that to this day I am not "vacationing" nor living in the Lap of luxury.
I worry every day about the statistics you sent. I can only say we tried our best and hope for the best but we can only do what we can do There is a crisis here. What is the Jewish community doing to help besides talking, discussing and arguing about it? At the risk of spending others money, I would say instead of donating a million dollars to have your name put on a shul, donate that money to a yeshiva for scholarship money. I know shuls need money too, but if our children fall off the path, we won't need shuls any more.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

From the pages of Jewish Action: Technology in the Classroom

Below is my article from the Spring 2011 edition of Jewish Action. You can read the entire article here. I would like to thank Rabbi Gil Student who recommended me for this article. I welcome your feedback.

Technology in the Classroom

imageTeachers often bemoan the fact that students who have been in yeshivah their entire lives often have difficulty deciphering a pasuk in Chumash. However, while all teachers agree that Hebrew reading skills are important, they rarely devote significant class time—especially in high school—to this important skill. The reason is simple. Teaching reading is boring and time-consuming. In the traditional yeshivah environment, where many hours are devoted to chavruta-style learning, perfecting reading skills in the majority of students may be an achievable goal. However, in a typical Jewish day school where classroom instruction is divided into forty-minute periods, teachers cannot spend time calling upon multiple readers without tuning out the rest of the class. 

Enter Voicethread. Voicethread  is a free web-based application that allows one to record himself without using any special software. The teacher can post a piece of text and assign students to read it for homework. The student then logs in and, using a computer and a microphone (virtually every laptop today comes with a built-in microphone), the student reads the text back to the teacher. The teacher can then grade each student individually on his or her reading, even on a nightly basis, without taking a moment of class time.

What’s a Wiki?

Wiki is another great example of how web technology can be used in the classroom. Hawaiian for quick, wiki lives up to its name as a fast and easy way to create web sites that allow users to add and update content. The most famous example of a wiki is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia collaboratively created by thousands of volunteer contributors. At The Frisch School, where I serve as the director of educational technology, we use Wikispaces ( to create wikis for each grade level focused around a common theme. The goal is to tear down the classroom walls by fostering collaboration between different classes. Pages are edited by multiple teachers who post content from various classes related to the particular theme. 

Such online discussions are more than just homework assignments; they are valuable forums for students to flesh out their ideas about religion and life.
Therefore, a typical page can have material posted from Chumash, Navi, English and science classes. 
Students interact with the wiki primarily through discussion forums included on each page. These forums promote student reflection, participation, and interaction. In a typical classroom discussion, students have little time to reflect. Many thoughtful students who require more time to process information are sometimes left out of classroom discussions. In an online discussion, however, students can think over a question before composing a carefully crafted response. Some of the most profound responses have come from students who rarely speak up in class. Such online discussions are more than just homework assignments; they are valuable forums for students to flesh out their ideas about religion and life in a safe educational setting.
Continue here: link

Does the Internet make us shallower? Initial thoughts on The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

I just finished reading The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr. In this book, the author argues that while the Internet has given us a greater breadth of knowledge it has come at the expense of intellectual depth. Here are my initial thoughts.

The book is a fascinating read combining a survey of the history of the development of written language with cognitive psychology and interspersed with the author's enlightening editorial asides. The author cites a great deal of evidence that the brain is "plastic" and can therefore be rewired throughout one's lifetime based on how it's used. He believes that each successive advancement in written language has led to a rewiring of the brain. Carr recounts this development starting with the oral traditions of the bard and continuing with the first chiseled words on cuneiform tablets, the creation of writing surfaces like papyrus and animal hides, the invention of the phonetic alphabet, the first books known as the codex, and finally to the advent of the Gutenberg Printing Press which democratized the book as a medium for the masses.

In each of these instances, Carr argues that the brain went through a fundamental change. For example, the invention of the phonetic alphabet eased the process of reading and writing since it taxed the brain far less than the earlier cuneiform symbols. This led to the shift from a primarily oral culture to a written culture. Later, the printing press with the standard alphabet, punctuation, and spacing between words further increased reading comprehension so the reader could spend more time focusing deeply on the content of the written text. The ability for quiet contemplation which reading provided led to great advances in human consciousness and scientific thinking.

According to the author, this is threatened by the rise of the Internet. The author believes that the Internet discourages deep thinking and analysis by encouraging the opposite form of inquiry, broad skimming of various areas of knowledge. The primary cause of this is the hyperlink, the footnotes embedded within webpages, that serves as a launching pad to various other sites. When one is reading online, one rarely spends too much time on one page and, even when looking at a single webpage, often skims the text rather than reading it with the care of a printed book. The hyperlinks and other stimuli on the page distract the eye. Jumping to another site, even for a few moments, in the midst of reading further causes one to lose one's train of thought. When returning to the original site, the reader has to refocus himself and these extra steps mitigate against deep thought. When this web-based reading is accompanied by multi-tasking, as is common amongst our students who read various websites while simultaneously IMing or texting friends, and updating their Facebook status updates, this further exacerbates the difficulty in achieving anything more than a superficial understanding of the text. The author cites a great deal of research to support each of these statements based on cognitive overload theory and other areas that are beyond the scope of this posting.

The author has an entire chapter devoted to Google that is particularly illuminating. Google claims to have as its mission statement: "to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful." While accessibility, organization, and usefulness appear to be lofty goals, in reality, Google also has some other unstated agendas. The author explains how Google primarily makes its money through the placement of ads that are coupled with each search screen. Therefore, Google profits more when people do a superficial reading of websites and then quickly return to the search screen. The more Google searches, the more profit. Even the Google Books Project which seeks to digitize the world's libraries so it is freely available to the masses (what goal could be loftier than that?) has an insidious side effect. Using text searching in books, encourages one to cull bits and pieces of information from books from a page or two rather than reading the chapter or book in its original context. Once again, the book merely becomes another information source that Google can profit from rather than a tool for contemplation and deep thinking.

The author ends as he began on a cautionary note, stating that by using computers to mediate our understanding of the world, rather than teaching computers to become more human, we are actually training ourselves to become more like an artificial intelligence and gradually becoming devoid of what makes us human.

While I agree that Carr's caution is well founded and noteworthy, I believe that it is a bit unrealistic and overblown. The author creates a false dichotomy between exclusively using printed works which encourages deep thinking and the use of the Internet which rewires the brain against contemplation. What real solution does this provide for the issues that are raised? The author describes how in writing this book he moved from the hubbub of the city to the quiet solitude of a cabin in Colorado and greatly curtailed his use of the Internet and other technologies. This is a highly unrealistic prescription for most of us as the author himself admits.

Even in the Haredi Jewish world where the Internet is often discouraged such decrees against technology often lead to significant backlash. I remember a talk about technology and teenagers given by Rav Yanky Horowitz who is path-breaking, open-minded Haredi educator. When a parent asked him what he should do if his child wants to join Facebook, Rav Horowitz's response was to join Facebook yourself and "friend" your son or daughter. Rav Horowitz noted that if your child wants to join Facebook then s/he will find a way to do it no matter what. However, if you forbid Facebook then this will be a surreptitious act in which the child will likely not use caution or foresight in his/her online interactions. If you allow your child to join Facebook when s/he first expresses a desire to do so early in the teenage years, your child will appreciate you and much more readily accept your influence. I found this illuminating response to be the only realistic response to technology. Not to ban it or decry it's use, but to accept it, set boundaries for it's use, and provide guidance when necessary.

With this in mind, here are a few of my suggestions in how to deal with some of issues Carr raises.

  1. Encourage the use of technology tools to help alleviate the very problems that Carr discusses. Carr notes convincingly that a many hyperlinks, pop-up ads or other distractions on a page can negatively effect reading comprehension and retention. One tool that I have found to be indispensable in combatting this is Readability. This is a free app that gives any web-page the clean appearance of ereaders like the Kindle so one can focus one's attention on the page and not the distractions. I recommend encouraging the use of this tool for your student or child.
  2. Discourage multi-tasking. Although Carr notes that research indicates that kids today are in fact better multi-taskers than in the past, the cost in terms of distractibility and lack of clear and deep thought is immense. When doing homework on the computer, require kids to put away the cell phone, keep IMing to a minimum, and regulate how much time can be devoted to social networking sites. This is a hard one to require but I heard a suggestion from Dr. David Pelcovitz to help educate one's child. Have them do an experiment where one night they do homework the way they normally do and the following night they do the same amount of homework while minimizing multi-tasking. They should then compare the amount of time it takes them to do their homework on each night. They will probably discover on their own the time savings achieved when focusing on one task at a time. If they do not see a difference then perhaps they are not that distracted by their other activities.
  3. Encourage the positive uses of technology. One area where I have personally experienced the advantages of technology is in encouraging time for reflection. This posting is one example. The ability to read an article or book and then blog about it greatly improves my thinking. Often students as well can better express their ideas through typing on a computer than by writing with pen and paper. The social nature of online self expression also encourages reflection. I have used this to great effect with my students through the use of online discussion forums. I have found student responses online to often be richer and more thoughtful than their responses in class or their writings on more formal written assignments.
  4. Shabbos. In Judaism, we are lucky. God has mandated for us, one day a week to refresh our minds and replenish our soul without the distractions of the modern technological world. It's called Shabbos. I often get my best creative work done on Motzi Shabbat because my "wired" brain has had a day to rest. Impress these benefits on your children/students. Perhaps rather than view Shabbos as a chore, a series of "don'ts", or a day when they secretly text when you are not looking, they will learn to appreciate the beauty and power of the day as a welcome break from the constant need to be "online" in our technological world. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Teaching the Hidden Message of Esther

In honor of Purim, I am posting a PowerPoint presentation that I created based on the shiur by Rav Menachem Leibtag, Megillat Esther and its Hidden Message.

I used iSpring, a free PowerPoint add-on, to convert my presentation to a Flash  file and upload it onto Slideboom so I could embed it into my blog with all the animations exactly as it would play in PowerPoint. I hope that this presentation illustrates how the visuals, text, and animations can enhance the understanding of an idea without making the common PowerPoint mistakes that I have blogged about in the past in my posting on Creating Effective PowerPoint Presentations and on Technology Presentations on Jewish Web 2.0 and Educationally Effective Presentations.

When I showed this presentation to Rav Menachem Leibtag he expressed a dream that a website could be created for teachers to collaborate on multi-media curricular materials such as PowerPoint and Smart Notebook presentations based on his shiurim and others. I would think this could be done with a wiki and/or Google Docs model where teachers could post curricular materials for others to add onto or even create curriculum collaboratively. This would obviously require a great many teachers to devote their time to this and funding to make this happen. Does anyone want to help me get this started?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I'm in the movies (and you can be too)!!!

I just finished watching myself and some of my fellow Lookjeders depicted as cartoon characters arguing over Applying Literary analysis in Tanach. You might remember that I previously blogged my response to this question which I then posted on Lookjed, the online forum for Jewish Day School educators.

Lookjed chose a hilariously clever way to spoof this and other Lookjed discussions by transforming these conversations into cartoons. They used a free web-based application called Xtranormal which allows you to make movies by converting your text to speech. You just choose a setting complete with cartoon characters, different scene, and sounds from sixteen different templates, enter the text for each each character to speak, and publish your movie.

You can read the 5771 Purim Lookjed with links to all their cartoon videos here. I have embedded the video in which I am one of the "stars" below.

Educational applications
Obviously, this can be a great tool to share with students for creating multi-media projects. Xtranormal even offers an educational section for this purpose. Below are a few examples.
Give it a try and soon you and your students will be in the movies!!!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Creating Collaborative Classroom Learning Environments using Wikispaces

Below is a presentation on Creating Collaborative Classroom Learning Environments using Wikispaces which I will be giving tonight, March 10, 2011 at the Yeshiva University's Azrieli Graduate School Technology Fair 2011. The fair, which is in its second year, will be between 5:00-9:30 PM at Yeshiva University's Uptown Campus and features presenters who are on the cutting edge of integrating technology for Yeshiva Day School education in both General and Judaic Studies. There are still a few spots available so if you are interested in attending please email

My presentation will include an in-depth tour of the Frisch School Wiki as well as a how-to session on creating your first wiki for your classroom. I am looking forward to seeing many of you there!

Monday, March 07, 2011

My Webinar on Using Technology to Enhance Teaching of Tanach and Toshba

Below is a presentation that I recently gave for a webinar on Using Technology to Enhance Teaching of Tanach and Toshba.

You can download supporting Smart Notebook examples here. Here is a much more extensive Smart Notebook presentation with many more examples which I used for a presentation to the New York Metropolitan Area Chapter of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL-NYMA) on Being Smart With Smartboards A New Tool For School Librarians 3-8-2011.

Since this presentation was entirely web-based, my big question was where to host it. I considered Skype which now has screen sharing in addition to its excellent video and audio quality. The problem with Skype is that one can either share a screen or show video. One can not do both simultaneously. Skype also does not offer the ability to upload a presentation. I wanted people to be able to see me and my screen at the same time while I was also showing them my presentation.

Therefore, I chose Big Marker as my platform to host my webinar. Big Marker offers unlimited free video conferences, is very easy to use, and provides all of the features usually reserved for the platforms that cost money like Adobe Connect including sharing video, audio, presentations, screen sharing, and chat with multiple participants.

The only problem I experienced with my conference using Big Marker was with the audio which seemed to be a few moments behind the video. I solved this by using Skype for my audio and Big Marker for the other features of the conference. This worked fairly well except that Big Marker plays soft background music during a presentation when sound is not enabled (which it wasn't since my audio was coming from Skype). This was mildly annoying for my participants. I have contacted Big Marker to see if they have any solutions to this problem. Stay tuned for further updates.