Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Cognitive Surplus and the Fifth Son Project

One of my greatest pleasures as a teacher is meeting passionate students and, with just a little bit of guidance, watching them turn their dreams into a reality. As the Talmud says (Sanhedrin 105b), "A person can be jealous of anyone except for his son and his student." When my students surpass me, it gives me great pride.

A few weeks ago, in my posting on Children in a Digital Age (which you can read here or here), I described just such a group of students who formed the fledgling organization, I used them as an example of Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus. Clay Shirky describes how the increase in leisure time since World War II has led to a Cognitive Surplus where people for the first time have a great deal of free time to spend on worthwhile endeavors. Until recently, however, most of this time was devoted by the overwhelming majority of the population to passive forms of entertainment like watching television. With the advent of the Internet and social media, people are just beginning to use some of this free time for more active pursuits.

Shirky describes four levels of these pursuits. Personal sharing, is where people share parts of their personal lives in the form of text, pictures, or videos on blogs or sites like Facebook and YouTube. Communal sharing, involves a more coordinated shared effort on the part of a group. Public sharing, is where similar minded people actively create something for the public good like the open source software movement where people collaborate on their free time to improve software that all can benefit from. Finally, Civic sharing where a group actively seeks to transform society. is a great example of Civic sharing with high school students devoting their free time to advocating on behalf of the State of Israel and its people.

I remember two years ago when a freshman, Eric Tepper, first came to me with his dream of creating this world-wide student-run organization. I loved the way he dreamed big and possessed the passion and work ethic to make them become a reality so I helped him create a Students4Israel Wiki. Then he was joined this year by a sophomore, Ezra Gontownik, who was also a big dreamer, a hard-worker, and was passionate about political advocacy on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people. Together they wished to create a full-fledged website. I showed them the nuts and bolts of basic web design and warned them that, if they were really interested in succeeding, they had to work quickly and constantly update their site in order to keep up with the fast changing world of the web. Less than two weeks later, I was sitting at my school dinner proof-reading their website on my BlackBerry, as my students were feverishly sending me emails back and forth. Even after the site went live, I did not really understand the power of these students efforts until their first big project, The Gilad Shalit -- Fifth Son Project.

The Gilad Shalit -- Fifth Son Project is designed to raise awareness amongst Jews world-wide about the continued imprisonment of Gilad Shalit at the hands of Hamas. The idea is to create postcards people could use at their Passover Seder to remember Gilad Shalit as the Fifth Son, the son who is absent from the Seder. You can see an example of the postcard below:

Courtesy of
Courtesy of

The statistics of what these students have already accomplished with this project are staggering. Tens of thousands of these postcards have been distributed world-wide. They have attracted over 30 participating schools in over 10 states nation-wide. They have just been featured in a front page cover story by the local Jewish paper, the Jewish Standard in The Fifth Son Project, and in the leading editorial by The Jewish Week, the top Jewish newspaper in the NY/NJ area, A Night Of Watching For Shalit. I am so tremendously impressed and honestly flabbergasted by what these teens have done. I can't wait to see what future projects are in store for these amazing kids.

I now have an answer to those who say that kids should be banned from using social media because it can only lead to trouble. I never thought that it was productive to create new bans for our children (see this video for an example of one principal's attempt to do exactly that: N.J. Principal Calls for Social Network Ban and this video response: Response to Principal Who Bans Social Media). Rather, parents and teachers should guide them and help them to harness the awesome power that this new media can provide when used in constructive directions. We should give our children positive examples to aspire to. To begin with, we can show them the great work of

Monday, April 11, 2011

Using the Web for Passover Prep

In case you are looking for some last minute Passover lesson ideas for the few days of school left before Passover, I am republishing my blog post from last year below. This post features a simple Passover WebQuest which might be worthwhile for your students.

I also recommend the following more recent links:
Here is my posting from last year. I invite people to add more Passover links in the Comments to this posting.
A number of years ago, I started creating Internet scavenger hunts where students were asked a series of questions like a standard worksheet which they could only use specific websites to answer.

My goal was two-fold: 1) to introduce students to various Jewish websites and illustrate their usefulness in answering real world problems and 2) to create hands-on activities for students to discover the answers to halachic questions themselves instead of the boring lecture style so common for classes in Jewish law. I felt that as a Torah teacher who wanted to foster life-long learning in my students, I could not guarantee that they would always have access to Jewish teachers or seforim especially when living on college campus. But I knew that they would always have access to the Internet. If they realized that they could use the Internet to help answer questions as advanced as "How to kasher your kitchen for Passover?" and as basic as "When is Shabbat candle lighting this week?" then this might just strengthen their Jewish identity and their ties to Talmud Torah and Shemirat Hamitzvot. I also wanted to point them to legitimate Jewish websites and resources since unfortunately so much online is still of questionable origin and dubious authority.

Two of my worksheets appear below. The first is a pretty high level worksheet on the laws of Passover based mostly on one of my favorite websites both for Jewish content and it's fun sense of style

Here it is:
Internet Worksheet on Hilchot Pesach

The second is a more basic Internet Jewish Scavenger Hunt designed for students of all levels.
Here it is:
Internet Jewish World Scavenger Hunt

Please feel free to share these with your own classes and tell me how it goes. Happy Passover and Chag Sameach!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Khan Academy

I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks. I should say that on the average we get 2% efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture... where it should be possible to obtain 100% efficiency. (Thomas Edison, 1922, cited in Teachers and machines: the classroom use of technology since 1920, by Larry Cuban).
Generations, young boys twenty two or twenty three, and my generation, the generation of Rav Hayyim Brisker, of the Shakh… of Rabbenu Tam, Rav Hai Ga’on, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Elazar, and Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai… We all speak one language… We all chat. We all laugh. We all enjoy the company. We all pursue one goal. We all are committed to a common vision and we all operate with the same categories. There is Mesorah collegiality, friendship, comity between old and young between antiquity and Middle Ages and modern times… This unity of generations, this march of centuries, this conversation of generations this dialogue between antiquity and present will finally bring the redemption of the Jew. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Uniting of Generations-Pidyon Haben”, 1974, cited in The Role Of Teacher and Student in Jewish Education According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by Tzvi Pittinsky)
It is difficult for a student of any age to learn by listening alone, by passive absorption. He needs activity, to exercise his abilities, to overcome difficulties, to wrestle with the subject matter until he overcomes it. Passivity in class weakens the muscles, saps the student's spiritual abilities which are given no opportunity for exercise and leads to drowsiness and sleep. (Nehama Leibowitz in Torah Insights, 1995)
I soon discovered that people all over the world were watching my YouTube videos. More important, teachers were using them to change the basic rhythm of their classrooms. They asked their students to watch the videos at home and then used class time for actual problem-solving. Instead of 30 students listening passively to a one-size-fits-all lecture, they were learning at their own speed. Some could focus on filling in gaps in their arithmetic while others were able to jump ahead to trigonometry -- and it all took place in the same classroom. It is often said that technology makes modern life less personal, but in this case, it has allowed teachers to take a big step toward humanizing their instruction. (Salman Khan in Turning the Classroom Upside Down from The Wall Street Journal, 4/9/2011)
Last week, in the spirit of Salman Khan and the "flipped classroom model", I flipped my blog and, instead of sharing my thoughts, I merely described Khan's approach and asked for your feedback. You can read this posting together with the interesting responses that I received in What do you think of Salman Khan and the "Flipped Classroom"?

In analyzing my own opinion on this approach, I am torn. In my heart, I would love for this approach to work. Who would not want to use technology to allow students to learn at their own pace, facilitate more individualized teacher-student instruction, and thus humanize the classroom? Salman Khan elaborates on his approach in his recent Wall Street Journal Editorial, Turning the Classroom Upside Down and in an interview that appears below:

However, upon further thought, I wonder how this would work in a Yeshiva Day School setting for multiple subjects in both General and Judaic Studies. Rabbi Yisroel Pollack, sent me the following blog posting which lists, in excruciating detail, the many hurdles which would need to be addressed in trying to introduce the "flipped classroom" systematically into a school. You can read it here: To flip or not to flip.

I am worried that the tremendous enthusiasm currently surrounding this new approach of using online video to "flip the class" is eerily similar to the hype that surrounded earlier technologies that were supposed to revolutionize education. Larry Cuban, noted technology skeptic, in his classic book on this subject, Teachers and machines: the classroom use of technology since 1920, describes a cycle that new technologies followed. It begins with big promises that a new technology will transform education. This is followed by teachers failing to adopt this new approach. Instead of blaming the technology, administrators cite a lack of sufficient funding and teacher training for the failure, and the cycle continues. I have described this cycle in a Prezi that I created on The Rationale for Using Educational Technology. Will efforts to bring the Khan Academy into schools follow this same cycle?

My misgivings are both practical and fundamental. On a practical level, is it possible for students to watch 10-20 minute videos for each of their classes in a Jewish middle school or high school where students study, on average, 8-9 subjects a day? This would require 80 to 180 minutes of homework a night just watching online videos!

Furthermore, I wonder if this approach will work for the majority of our subjects. Even the Khan Academy only has videos on math and science. In researching this posting, I watched a number of these videos. I found the math videos to be compelling especially when accompanied by the online activities that Khan Academy offers. However, I did not think the videos in biology were as worthwhile.

The reason I think hints to a fundamental difference between mathematics and almost every other subject. Math is almost entirely about skills acquisition. One learns the skills to solve an equation, practices that skill set on a number of similar problems, and then moves on. These skills are often sequential and cumulative. The analogy that Salman Khan makes to riding a bicycle in his TED video is very apt. Learning to do math seems very similar to learning to ride a bike. But how many other subjects are like this? Certainly, Chumash and Gemara have skills but these skills are intertwined with concepts, ideas, questions, answers, and proofs. Can a Khan type of approach really do justice to this?

On a more fundamental level, I wonder if watching videos about Gemara, Chumash, and Navi prior to class will really be that compelling. In the passages that I began this discussion with, I quoted from The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who describes learning as a dialogue between teacher and student, and with all of the generations of Torah scholars that preceded them. This is the way that we Jews have been learning for time immemorial. It is the approach of the Ba'ayot De'Abbaye Ve'Rabba, the Socratic method of questioning and answering, the Shakla VeTarya, that has made Limud Torah so unique and enjoyable. Can this really be given justice in a YouTube video? As Rabbi Pollack said in his comment to my previous posting, would this not take away the geshmak in learning?

Nehama Leibowitz, who I also mentioned above, cited a different issue. The worst type of learning by everyone's admission is passive absorption or as Salman Khan derisively describes, the "one-size-fits-all lecture". So we are going to solve this problem by having students watch a video lecture at home? What more passive experience could there be! Furthermore, Khan makes a false dichotomy between the "one-size-fits-all lecture" which he believes is the primary mode of instruction today and his approach where students watch the lecture at home and then collaboratively solve problems in school. I do not think that this is a valid description of most teaching and learning in Yeshiva day schools today.

I will use my own classroom as an example. I rarely lecture. I ask questions that students must respond to in writing or through class discussions. I call on students to read. I require students to pose questions to me and to each other. I assign chavruta work in which students work in pairs. I give projects in which students learn much of the material on their own. I use interactive activities on the Smart Board, show videos, manipulate text to find key words and concepts etc. etc. etc. I don't think my class is unique. This is the way any good teacher teaches.

I am very afraid that a Khan Academy type of approach will merely relegate me to a talking head or worse, a computer technician behind a screen watching the "data" come in as students perform rote exercises so that I can "intervene" for the student with the red danger line. This is not education. As I described in my previous posting on Skype in the Classroom, no technology should ever be used to replace good teachers. That is what I am worried Khan Academy could become.

I salute Salman Khan. He has designed an excellent supplement to classroom instruction. It could serve as a great review after the lesson, or for the student who needs extra support, or even, occasionally, for the student demanding further enrichment. But it should never replace the dialogue between teacher, student, and text that has always been the hallmark of every good Judaic Studies classroom.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Skype in the Classroom

One of the most exciting technologies in the last few years is Skype. I don't think that our students realize how cool this is; literally, the Jetson's video phone has come to life. However, just because something is exciting and cool does not mean it is always a good fit for education. One must put a great deal of thought and planning to design an effective Skype lesson.

First, let me share what I strongly believe Skype should NOT be used for. Skype should never be used to replace good teachers. This is a topic that I will be revisiting in a future follow-up posting on Khan Academy. Nothing can replace an effective teacher directly interacting with her students. A teacher can walk the room redirecting students who are off-task, checking for understanding, and calling on students during the course of a discussion. None of this can be done via Skype.

I find similar difficulty when giving webinars. Since I am looking at a computer screen instead of a class full of students, perhaps using a small webcam, it is very hard to gauge students interest and engagement. I find that I become more of a "talking head" going through a lecture with the help of PowerPoint slides and screen-sharing. While I only interact with students when they pose questions via chat or ask the occasional audio question. I also find that I gain a great deal of energy from being in front of students. I feel like I am on a stage putting on a performance. This type of positive enthusiasm is harder to generate on Skype.

Let me make it clear. I agree that there is a place for Skype and these experiences can be quite meaningful for our students. However, this is only when there is clear added value for using this medium which cannot be easily done face to face. For example, if through Skype or similar video platforms, I can easily interact with a class of students from another country or connect students from many different locations then that is a great added value that only Skype or similar platforms can provide. When using Skype for these reasons, care should be given to always have a teacher in the room so that the important educational tasks that I described above can be accomplished through direct face-to-face communication.

Here are three recent examples of Skype that I have done at my school. I am sure that there are many others that people can share with me by commenting on this posting.

  1. This past year we Skyped graduation. We had three seniors who were already in Israel learning in Yeshiva in preparation for their service in the Israel Defense Forces. Through Skype, these students were able to attend their graduation. They watched the entire graduation from the Western Wall in Jerusalem and at specific moments of graduation each of them appeared on the big screen so they could be seen by family and friends "accepting" their diplomas just like their fellow students.
  2. For Yom Yerushalayim, we had a class Skype with an American Oleh in Gush Etzion who shared his personal experiences being in Israel during the 6 Day War. For this presentation, we were able to involve 3 classes who were all able to hear from the Oleh and then ask him questions about his experience.
  3. Just yesterday, we connected one of our classes with a class in one of our sister schools, Ulpanat Harel of Nahariya, Israel via Skype. You can read details about this class here: Skype Conference @FrischSchool with Ulpanat Harel, Nahariya, Israel. In this class, I saw an interesting transformation occur. At the beginning of the lesson, it seemed that students were merely making personal speeches with little interaction with their peers. As the lesson  continued, a genuine dialogue started to occur so that by the end of the period it almost felt as if we were in the same room as our fellow students who were across the globe. We wished we could have continued for much longer as the conversation became increasingly more rich and tremendously enjoyable.
It is these types of valuable experiences, when computers are used to accomplish educational goals that cannot be easily reached any other way, that makes educational technology so exciting. 

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Review of (and Supplement to) Yeshiva University's Children in a Digital Age: Parent Guide

Photo by Kiifu licensed under Creative Commons.
In a talk on the Impact of Technology and Contemporary Culture on Jewish Life, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt describes the tremendous pace of change in today's society. In past centuries, if one wanted to experience change, one traveled in space. A trip around the next hill might reveal an entirely new culture complete with a different language, economy, entertainment, and form of government. However, one could live for decades or even centuries in the same location and see little if any change. Today's society is reversed. We live in a global culture. One can travel anywhere in the world and find people dressed in the same styles with the same shopping malls and popular entertainment. However, because of the rapid advancements in technology, if one wants to experience change, one merely needs to wait a few years or sometimes even a few months (not the 70 years of Choni Hama'agel's slumber) to behold an entirely different society.

This is what makes a parent's guide to the digital age such a necessity. Many parents have trouble keeping up with their children as they navigate the ever changing world of new media. They need guidance and Yeshiva University's Institute for University-School Partnership has provided it with its Children in a Digital Age: Parent Guide (PDF). However, this very difficulty is inherent in any attempt to write a guide to this digital age. By the time the guide is published and disseminated, it is already obsolete; much like last year's revolutionary iPad was quickly supplanted by the iPad2, with its dual cameras, faster processor, and sleeker design. With that in mind, my review of the Children in a Digital Age: Parent Guide will be less of a review than a supplement. Since the time that this guide was compiled in November 2010, much has changed or come to the fore on the subject of technology in the Jewish community.

This guide contains much useful material. I found the section on cyberbullying to be particularly compelling and on target. In my mind, this issue is the biggest problem that our children face in using technology today. TV has sensationalized the fear of Internet predators as in the popular Dateline NBC series. However, most of our kids have much more to fear from the "friends" they know posting hurtful and/or inappropriate comments or pictures than from some anonymous predators who lurk in cyberspace. As a supplement to what is in the guide, this recent blog post on Facebook Friending 101 for Schools should be required reading for our parents, teachers, and administrators.

Here are four additional supplementary items that I wish to see added or changed for the next edition of this guide. Perhaps Yeshiva University can adopt a wiki model for these types of guides so that they can be constantly revised by multiple authors as technology continues to transform our kids' lives in new and unanticipated ways.

1. The Emergence of New Social Media Sites

Concerning social media, the guide lists MySpace and Facebook as the two main sites that our children visit. This is only partially correct. While Facebook is by far the most popular social network for our children in middle and high school, MySpace is not, to my knowledge, used by our students anymore. In fact, MySpace has become such a sordid environment that I would be alarmed if I discovered that one of my children was using it. On the other hand, many of our students have started using other forms of social media like Google Buzz and Twitter.

Usage of Google Buzz might surprise some people since it has been maligned by the media as a failure. However, for our younger children, it is often the entry point into the world of social media. This is for a very simple reason; it is integrated into Gmail. Since most children get their first Gmail account by the time they are nine or ten, they automatically have a method of communicating and posting pictures, links, and videos with their peers -- Google Buzz. Kids figure this out pretty quickly. I remember looking over my daughter's shoulder when she was eleven and seeing her entire class having discussions on Google Buzz. None of these children would have been allowed by their parents on Facebook but they were using Google Buzz because it was readily available. This leads to a greater lesson about the ubiquity of social media today. It is everywhere. Short of banning the Internet entirely, I do not think there is an effective way of keeping our children from using it. If one seeks to ban it in one form, our children will merely find another way to use it.

Twitter has been adopted by a sizable minority of our older teenagers. It is still primarily used by twenty and thirty-somethings but some of our high school students have adopted it as an easy way of sharing information or following their favorite celebrities. The public nature of Twitter is alarming for our children and probably the primary reason that most kids do not use it. But, for that very reason, those who use it tend to be much more careful on it than they are on Facebook, which is obviously a plus.

2. The Convergence of Technology Platforms

The most important recent transformation in social networking is not the specific sites our children are accessing but the convergence of technologies which serve as platforms for these sites. The challenge is no longer about putting parental controls on the desktop or laptop computer and keeping that computer in a public place. Our students are accessing social media everywhere, using their cell phone, iPod Touch, iPad, Kindle, etc. If they own a wifi-enabled device and live in a home that has wifi then they have full access to social media.

Philip Rosenthal, a noted Internet safety expert, has compared giving one's child an iPod Touch to giving him a loaded gun. This obvious hyperbole points to the destruction that these devices can cause when used carelessly. The issue is not isolated to Facebook since our children can just as easily send disturbing content via text, instant message, or video chat. Posting disturbing content is not the only problem our community faces. With his recent articles on Half Shabbos, Prof. Alan Brill has brought to the forefront the issue of otherwise "frum" teenagers who are so addicted to their electronic devices that they cannot even stop texting on Shabbos. So what can we do to combat this?

3. Strategies for addressing these issues

In addition to the advice in the parent's guide, our community could benefit from the advice of our rabbanim and academics in these areas. Here is a survey of some recent shiurim on this topic posted on Rabbi Jeremy Wieder in a Sichos Mussar on Internet and Technology discusses the lack of Tzniut that these technologies foster. We live in a society where many people seek to broadcast their every action through Facebook, Youtube, and the like. This is especially problematic for teenagers who are naturally self-absorbed. Besides the content of these "broadcasts," which can be very alarming, the very idea that others are interested in our every action in itself is a problem that we need to discuss with our children.

Rabbi Mordechai Willig in a talk on The Internet - The danger, Issur Yichud, the importance of filters and 'Areivim' discusses his desire to add a new "Issur Yichud" when using the Internet. He believes that one should not go online unless one is in a public place where there is a distinct possibility that one can be interrupted by others. This advice, which might be good for adults, is imperative for our children. Even with the preponderance of devices, our children should know that we are always watching them no matter what device they may be using.

I remember a talk on this topic that Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz gave to a group of parents. One parent asked him what they should do if their child wanted to join Facebook. His response was to join Facebook with him and friend him on the social networking site. The guide also recommended this even if one's child resents it. My experience is that if we friend our children as a condition to allowing them to join Facebook, they won't resent it. They will appreciate the fact that we let them join in an open and honest way. It is when one attempts to friend one's children after they have been on Facebook for a number of years that one might face intense resentment from the children.

One final, essential piece of advice comes from Dr. David Pelcovitz in a talk on Maintaining Kedusha in an Overexposed Society. He quotes Victor Frankl, who said that between stimulus and response is a pause and that is where our humanity is. We have to teach our children to pause before they post. This moment for thoughtful reflection can prevent many hurtful comments and pictures. The challenge is that this pause is among the hardest things for kids to do, especially when they are middle school age. I do not know how to teach our kids to do this without moderating all their comments before they post. (By the way, parental moderation would be a great feature for Facebook to add for children aged 12-14. I know that 13 is the official age when kids are allowed to join Facebook but every child that I know started when they were 12 and "fudged" their age.)

We live in a world that puts a premium on real-time information. Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains describes how even Google has changed its algorithm to give more weight to information that is recent than to information that is important. How does one teach one's kids to pause in such a fast paced society?

4. The Positives of Social Media

I would be remiss if I did not end this review/supplement with a mention of the positives of social media. There is a reason why our children (and we, for that matter) are so drawn to social media and it is not entirely negative. Clay Shirky, in his book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, describes how social media can serve as a tremendously positive force not only for keeping in touch with friends but for organizing people around a common cause. He discusses how the Internet has transformed our use of our excess free time, our "cognitive surplus," from primarily passive mediums like television to more active online communications.

I will give one example. A group of like-minded students in my school decided a few years ago that they wanted to advocate on behalf of the State of Israel, a common passion of our more politically motivated kids. Instead of phoning a few friends, they started a group which they called Students 4 Israel and created a wiki which they used to coordinate congressional letter writing campaigns, petition signings, campaigns to purchase Israeli products, and other meaningful actions on behalf of Israel. These campaigns soon involved hundreds of students in multiple schools, all writing letters or signing petitions on the same day. They recently upgraded their wiki to a full-fledged website and now include members from over a dozen participating high schools. This type of political action and information gathering is what makes social media so attractive to and powerful for our kids. It is our job to provide them with proper supervision and guidance so they can utilize these positive aspects of social media without suffering from the common setbacks which Yeshiva University's Children in a Digital Age: Parent Guide seeks to help us avoid.

Another version of this posting appears on here: link