Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Global Learning @FrischSchool

The following posting is cross-posted from The Frisch School Blog.

This week our global world has been transformed into a little village with a one room schoolhouse through the hard work of our teachers both from Frisch and our twinning school and the help of technology. Below is a description of three programs that occurred on Monday and Tuesday.

9th Grade Identity Wiki with students from the Alon School in Nahariya, Israel

On Monday morning in Nahariya Israel, Rabbi Pittinsky, our Director of Educational Technology, taught a lesson to 9th grade students at the Alon School on the theme of Personal Identity. The lesson was based on the poem לכל איש יש שם by זֶלדָה which students our 9th grade Hebrew classes and the students in Nahariya are both learning. Students in Morah Dafna Zilberschmid's classes have been discussing the question how our name and the influences in our life form our identity and this question was continued by the Alon students on the Frisch wiki. More than 40 students in Israel introduced themselves in the wiki discussion, describing their name, family, hobbies, and answering the question whether they would be willing to "change" their name in order to fit into a new group of friends, and important one for adolescents entering high school. This discussion will be continued on the Frisch Wiki by Morah Dafna's classes and hopefully will lead to continued dialogue and joint learning in the future. We thank the Partnership 2Gether project of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federation of Northern NJ for subsidizing Rabbi Pittinsky's trip to our twinning schools in Nahariya.

Skyping between our 10th Grade Frisch Students and Ethiopian Students from the Yavneh School in Israel

Later on Monday, a group of sophomores, under the direction of Morah Dafna, Skyped with Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Sophomores Marni Loffman, Isabelle Berman, Talia Schabes, Kayla Schiffer and Ariela Rivkin have each been matched with an Ethiopian student with whom they will correspond. The program emerged from the Frisch Africa Encounter, during which time the students learned about the obstacles the Ethiopian community faced when coming to Israel and is still grappling with. The students expressed interest in developing relationships with Ethiopian students in Israel. Mrs. Tikvah Wiener, our English Department Chair and Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Studies, contacted her sister Mrs. Smadar Goldstein, who ran the webinar on Ethiopian Jewry during the month the sophomores learned about Africa, and Mrs. Goldstein made the "shidduch" between Frisch and the Ethiopian students. The students will now begin discussions on their own with their "pen pals" and hopefully form relationships with their new acquaintances. Both the Frisch students and the Ethiopians will also get to improve their language skills, the Ethiopians by conversing in English and the Frisch students by speaking in Hebrew. Thank you to Morah Dafna Zilberschmid our Hebrew Department Chair and Morah Sarah Barak our partner from the Yavneh School in Israel for making this wonderful program work! Thank you to Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky and Mr. Chris Perez for making sure the technological parts of the program ran smoothly!

Video Conference between our 11th Grade Students and Students in the Ulpanat Harel School about last week's Holocaust Integration Program

On Tuesday, students from our 11th Grade shared a class discussion by video conference with their counterparts in the Ulpanat Harel School in Nahariya about the topic of the Holocaust. This program was an opportunity follow-up reflections about the topics studied in last week's Integrated Day of Learning on the Holocaust which took place both at The Frisch School and at Ulpanat Harel.

Students discussed the following questions in both Hebrew and English:
1. How could people remain human under inhuman conditions?

2. What can we do today as Jews in America and in Israel in light of the way America and Palestine responded to the holocaust?

3. What are proper ways of commemorating the Holocaust?

Talking to each other via Skype, students were able to form one global classroom as they shared their thoughts. Time went by so quickly that there was a demand for follow-up so both our students in Frisch and the Ulpana will be continuing the conversation through asynchronous discussion on the Frisch Wiki. We would like to thank Mrs. Dafna Zilberschmid and Mrs. Tikvah Wiener were facilitating this discussion from Frisch and Mrs. Mercedes Hadad and Rabbi Yehuda Rosenberg for facilitating the program at Ulpanat Harel. As well, thanks are owed to Mr. Chris Perez our Network Administrator for his technical support at Frisch and Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky for his technical support at the Ulpana in Nahariya. This program also would not have been possible without our Partnership 2Gether Program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern NJ.

We are looking forward to continuing our many twinning programs as we transform our global community into a global village with a single classroom through the help of technology.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

My First Online Course

In a few weeks, G-d willing, I hope to be teaching my first online course through MOFET International. The topic of the course is Using Web 2.0 Tools to Transform Teaching and Learning and you can register by using the following LINK. It is hard to believe that in my 15 years of teaching and 10+ years integrating technology into my classes that I have never before given an online course before. I have taught many blended learning courses using The Frisch School Wiki together with face-to-face instruction. I also currently help facilitate a number of Frisch students who are taking their own online foreign language courses using the K12 platform thanks to a generous grant by the Jewish Education Project and the Avi Chai Foundation to support Digital Learning. However, this is my first foray into the world of asynchronous online learning courses.

The big question that I am struggling with is how do I achieve the sense of belonging and connectedness, the sense of "being" in the course, in an online learning environment. This is easy when everyone meets together in a classroom and I have the chance to also share long conversations with my students outside of class but how does one do this without the common physical learning space and ability to talk directly with each other?

I know that such a connection is possible for I have experienced it myself as a student. I remember the first online course that I ever took. It was a technology certificate course on the topic "New Technologies for Jewish Learning" given some ten years ago through a now defunct Jewish professional development organization called JSkyway. I remember the course well not necessarily for the information that I learned but for the close connection that I developed with my instructor, Dr. Shmuli Spero OBM, a pioneer in the area of technology integration in Jewish education. Dr. Spero sent us ecards to welcome us to the course and constant reminders to keep us focused and on task. His personality was infectious and clearly came across even in this virtual world.

This course opened up a connection to Shmuli that I was able to continue in the years that followed. Dr. Spero became a personal mentor as I took a more active leadership role in educational technology. When I went to Cleveland to conduct my first professional development seminar in the Fuchs Mizrachi School on the topic of Gemara Berura, I finally got to meet Shmuli in person. He sat in on all my sessions and stayed up with me until late at night to give me valuable feedback and constructive critiques between my first and second days of training sessions.

A few years later, I took a hybrid or blended learning course with Shmuli in the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education. The online course was actually on the topic of creating online courses using YU's Angel Course Management System. Shmuli still lived in Cleveland so most of the course was conducted online as he led us through the steps of creating our own online courses. However, Shmuli did come into New York a few times during the semester to teach us in person.

The most notable line from Shmuli in this course that I still use today is how he described the value of the online course management system. "What do you give to the person who has everything?" Shmuli bellowed. "You give him a box to put it in. The Angel Course Management System is that box." I still use a variation of this line to describe the value of the shared online collaborative learning environment that we have helped to build on The Frisch School Wiki. It is the "box" to put all of our learning topics from various subjects in, thus breaking down the walls of the classroom by creating this common learning space.

Years passed and gradually I lost touch with my mentor Dr. Shmuli Spero. Then two years ago, sadly and ironically, I learned of his untimely death to cancer through a video on the front page of the online edition of the New York Times. The video entitled A Patient, a Pioneer was about new experimental cancer treatments. From the first moment that I heard Shmuli's voice in the video, I knew it was him. The video ended on sad note, saying that Shmuli's cancer had recurred. After watching, I Googled Shmuli and I learned online that my mentor, who taught me my first online course, had passed away.

I know that I have digressed in this blog posting. But contemplating teaching my first online course in technology integration, I cannot help but think fondly of my teacher and mentor who opened me up to the world of online learning. Dr. Spero was the rare person who was able to show his great affect and personal connection even through the impersonal medium of online distance learning. I only hope that through his shining example I can be successful as well. May Shmuli Spero's name be remembered for a blessing.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why Technology Will Not Save Money In Education

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times has been making the rounds of Jewish educational "cyberspace", Who really benefits from putting high-tech gadgets in classrooms?. The main thesis of this piece is that the hype by government spokespeople and Apple about digital textbooks and the like is much more about selling iPads and other Apple products than it is about sound education.

One of the most often repeated claims about the benefits of educational technology that this article challenges is the premise that integrating technology in education will achieve a substantial cost savings. The key quote (I believe) is by Thomas Reeves, an educational technology expert at University of Georgia:

There are two big lies the educational technology industry tells... One, you can replace the teacher. Two, you'll save money in the process. Neither is borne out.

This issue is especially poignant in the field of Jewish education where technology integration is often viewed as the solution for the tuition crisis. My friend, Rabbi Aaron Ross in an excellent recent blog posting calls into question this assertion. I will elaborate on one area addressed in the Los Angeles Times article and touched upon by Rabbi Ross that has been of tremendous recent interest to me, the iPad and digital textbooks.

As I have written, digital textbooks on the iPad or other similar e-readers can be a great boon for education in that they can contain much richer interactive content than any traditional textbook. (Although this is not yet the case as Jeffrey Thomas points out in his scathing critique of the first generation of digital textbooks using the iBooks platform.) They can also solve the age old problem of portability with children transporting back and forth from school to home one 1.3 pound device instead of a knapsack full of books weighing dozens of pounds. However, after some simple analysis, I do NOT believe using the iPad for digital textbooks will achieve any cost savings. Rather, it will raise the textbook cost by upwards of $500 per student.

Let me explain. The iPad costs approximately $500 and textbooks from iBooks are currently priced at $14.99 each. Let's assume for this projection that Apple will lower it's textbook price at some point in the near future to $10 each. I think it is fair to assume that Apple will NEVER charge less than $10 for a digital textbook and that the iPad will NEVER be cheaper than $500 considering how Apple has succeeded in keeping it's prices standard over the years.

Now, the average paper high school textbook costs $80. Some cost a little less, many cost more but that is the average. It sounds like the iBooks would be a great deal at $15. But here is the catch. The iBook is sold to the STUDENT while paper textbooks are purchased by the SCHOOL and lent to the student for the duration of the school year. What this means is that a school will have to pay $10 every single year to supply students with digital textbooks for the iPad. This is in addition to the $500 cost for the iPad.

Now let's do the math. If the average paper textbook lasts 8 years, in reality many textbooks are used for twice that time, then within eight years the cost of the iBook is the same as the cost of the paper textbook NOT INCLUDING the $500 for the iPad. In reality, the digital textbooks then become at least $500 more per student for his/her four years in high school than the paper ones. That is a substantial sum of money.

Now you might argue that replacing digital textbooks each year allows a school to always stay current and you would be right. It is pathetic when a student is studying from a history textbook that is 15 years old in which Bill Clinton is still the president. However, in science this time span is less significant and in math it is certainly possible that the 15 year old book is a much better textbook since nothing substantial has changed in high school mathematics in the last 15 years.

Anyways, your argument would be besides the point since my assertion is not that paper textbooks are necessarily better. There are many reasons why the digital books could be vastly superior as stated earlier. My argument is that digital textbooks, as with most educational technologies, are not cheaper. The only way to save money utilizing technology in education is to fire teachers, as Aaron Ross points out in his posting, and a world where our teachers start being replaced by computers is a very scary slippery slope which I am not ready to climb.

Mind you, I am very excited about the potential for iPads to transform education. The fact that iPads are on in less than 15 seconds as opposed to the average laptop that can take 2-5 minutes for start up and log on is a VAST improvement in the classroom where students often learn in 40 minute periods. The ability using iPads to take pictures and video, edit that multi-media content and combine it with text and other web-based resources, and present the finished product is much more than any laptop can do and the easy portability of iPads is a great asset as well. Even the promise of digital textbooks with interactive content is something I am greatly looking forward to.

However, I get very scared when the focus of technology becomes about the device and how it will save us money whether it be iPads, Smart Boards, digital textbooks, or online learning. Educational technology as with all educational innovations can never focus on the device. It has to focus on meeting our curricular and educational goals. Sometimes technology can better achieve these goals, other times it cannot. But don't be fooled by the salesperson or government spokesperson who says that iPads (SmartBoards, online learning, or any other tech flavor of the month) are the panacea for education or the solution to the tuition crisis. It's not about the gadget, it's how we use it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Why I love Teaching, Technology, and Social Media: A Tu B'shvat Story

There is a famous story about Choni Hamagel which I have taught many times in honor of Tu Bishvat from the Talmud in Taanit 23a. Here is a very short summary of the story. Choni draws a circle and demands that G-d bring rain which G-d finally does. Then Choni sees a person planting a carob tree which will only bear fruit after 70 years. Choni questions the wisdom of such a long term proposition and the person responds that since his grandparents planted a carob tree for him, he will plant one for his grandchildren. Choni then falls asleep for 70 years, perhaps the source for the story of Rip Van Winkle, and then wakes up to find the carob tree fully grown. The story ends on a depressing note with Choni so distressed that he is living in a world without any of his former friends and family that he exclaims או חברותא או מיתותא, loosely translated as "Give me a chavruta, a partner, or give me death". For a very clever video rendition of this story minus the "sad" ending, you can watch a wonderful cartoon version created by G-dcast here.

Last night, in honor of Tu Bishvat, I decided to tweet a student project on this story that was created way back in 2001 as a part of a class How to learn Gemara website. One of the wonders of digital learning, a term which I believe had not even been coined when I created this project with my class, is that one creates an online portfolio that can be accessed for many years to come. Even after Yahoo's Geocities which hosted our website went defunct, a new free service generously took over free hosting of our site. You can read more about this project in a previous blog post here.

So I tweeted about this wonderful project created by my students from way back in the day and within a few moments I get a reply on Twitter, "I was one those students!" from @alicht, a student who I have seen in person on only a few occasions in the last 5 years. Obviously, I was beaming, smiling ear to ear, as I interacted with my former student from so many years ago on Twitter.You can view the Twitter exchange below.

This vignette illustrates why I love teaching, technology, and social media. As teachers, we are all planting trees like in the Choni story. Sometimes, these trees can bear almost instant fruit. Other times it is a much longer and more arduous process in which we wonder if any our seeds will ever sprout. But after a few years, you never know what wonderful fruits our trees will grow. However, at times, we don't know about these momentous occasions. How many of us have the chance to meet our students years later and reflect about what effect we might have had on their lives? This is where technology and social media can be so awesome. Through technology, we can create a snapshot of our student's performance, an online portfolio for us teachers and our students to look back on for years to come. And through social media, we can continue to interact with our students as they grow into adults who themselves are influential members of our Jewish community. We don't need a 70 year slumber to wake up to our fruit trees. Through the power of social media we can continue to interact, influence, and "shep good old fashioned naches" at the fruits of our labor.

Happy Tu Bishvat to all!

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

What do our students think of Digital Learning?

The following posting is cross-posted from The Frisch School Blog. Enjoy!

Today is Digital Learning Day, a day devoted to reflection on innovative ways to reach our students using various technologies. As a part of this day, I went around the school taking pictures of various examples of digital learning that occur on a typical day at The Frisch School and I was blown away by the depth of the the technology-assisted learning that took place throughout the school, in the library, computer room, hallways, cafeteria, and classroom.

On the Frisch Wiki, Mrs. Tikvah Wiener, our English Department Chair and Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Studies, asked our students to reflect about how technology enhances or detracts from learning. Here are some responses.

One of the best responses:
"Technology offers significant advantages on two opposite ends of the learning process: learning the facts and seeing the bigger picture. The speed of computer processing and efficiency of the internet expedite the process of learning the basic information. The widespread use of Google, Wikipedia, and other search engines for educational purposes exemplifies this point. One area that I find is particularly aided by the brilliance of the search engine is in-depth research. When I began my research for the upcoming Model United Nations conference, the first thing I did was Google my country and my two topics. Instantly, I had access to previous United Nations resolutions, international law journals, statistics, and other useful resources that would take hours and hours to sift through without the help of Google.

Technology also enhances the culmination of the learning process: taking a step back from the information and placing it in a broader context. Forums and discussion pages (such as the wiki page we are now posting on) offer a unique opportunity for students to the see multiple perspectives on a single issue, a process and educational methodology known as divergent thinking. From personal observations on the Frisch wiki, I have gleaned that discussion through technology is often more effective than classroom discussion because communication through technology requires students to think more carefully before presenting their points of view. Thus, the responses of students tend to be more cohesive and eloquent. Additionally, the enticing nature of technology often provides respite from the normal classroom environment, pushing many students to become more involved in the discussion than they would be in a classroom.

Despite some irreplaceable aspects of the classroom setting, technology has the potential to enhance and expedite the learning process. The internet gives us the world at our fingertips, and the lightning-fast computer processors make obtaining information significantly easier to do than it was even ten years ago. To all those who point out the flaws in educational technology, I answer that this is only the beginning. The technology industry is all about innovation and development, so it is constantly evolving to take on new challenges. As more and more students pass through school systems enhanced by technology, analysts are gathering data to determine which methods do and do not work. The next step is taking the data and putting it to use to improve on existing technologies and create new ones."

"Responsibility extends beyond marking a line between educational purpose and “distractive” purpose. Kohelet teaches that knowledge in excess hurts more than it helps. One must consider the words of Kohelet 1:18 to perceive the truth of the assertion that excessive knowledge has a marked downside: “for in much wisdom is much vexation; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” One must draw a line between areas in which technology can truly aid in the learning process and areas in which technology can only detract from the learning process. Technology grants vast resources of knowledge, but certain areas of study—certain pursuits—must be marked as “vexing,” or in certain cases, outright unacceptable."

"Technology has become a resourceful tool that adds to student learning. With the help of technology one can instantly look up information to add to class discussions and watch videos to enhance the classroom experience. In addition, learning does not stop after class anymore; students are able to utilize websites (like our wiki pages) to have online discussions about topics learned during their school day. Students do not have to worry about having bad hand-writing because now with technology they are able to type up their notes and assignments. I can only imagine how technology will enhance our learning in years to come."

"Technology enhances learning. One example of technology's usefulness is for vocabulary. Instead of having a vocabulary quiz, in my English class, we sometimes have a picture slideshow project. We make slideshows with pictures that explain a word's meaning. After the project is done, we put it online and have an enjoyable and useful study aid. Another example of how technology enhances learning is the SmartBoard. For example, in Biology, Dr. Furman often puts a slideshow on the SmartBoard which depicts an experiment that a given scientist has done. . . Although cell phones are not allowed in my classes, some schools use a new program in which students can answer a question by texting to certain number. Overall, if technology is used in the correct way, it can create a better and more fun learning environment for students."

"The advanced technology today is great for doing research. With just one click on Google, a student has access to just about any information he/she could possibly need. I have used Google every day for research for projects and help with homework, and I use Gmail to email teachers or talk to peers. Other websites such as Facebook and Youtube have their advantages as well. Facebook can be used to talk to students about homework or other school-related topics. A perfect example of Facebook's helping with school-related activities happened during Shiriyah. Rabbi Pittinsky made Twitter and Facebook groups for each grade, so all the students in each grade knew what was going on with their teams."

"I dislike the accessibility of information. I believe it is making students lazy. For example, I can easily find the definition of any word without looking it up manually in the dictionary. This ease is a cause for laziness. Another example of technology's drawbacks is in the writing of research papers. One can easily find an outline of his topic online and copy it. In the past, it was much harder to find pre-made outlines and research papers. When I have a large research paper to do, I often find myself putting off beginning because I know I can easily Google my topic and find what I need, instantaneously. If I had to go to a library to do my work, I would realize how long that would take and get started immediately.... However, I am sure technology will only become more established in education and will be greatly beneficial in certain areas."

Below are slideshows of only a few of the various digital learning activities at Frisch today. Enjoy!