Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Trip Down Digital Memory Lane

Winter break has started which means for me it is a time to relax and reflect. Since I do much of my thinking with my pen, (or really with my keyboard) I have been contemplating my digital portfolio and have found two tremendous tools to help me (and others) better view my online activities on my blog and Twitter.

The first item that I found by reading a posting by Richard Byrne on his Free Technology for Teachers blog is called Ebook Glue. Ebook Glue is a simple tool that lets you transform any blog into a downloadable eBook. The postings can be downloaded either in ePub format which works on most e-readers including the iPad and the Barnes & Noble Nook, or the Mobi platform which works with the Amazon Kindle. The e-books include text and pictures in an easy to read, visually appealing format. (They are missing any embedded items like YouTube videos or embedded presentations that might have been on your blog though.)  An example from the eBook version of my blog appears below. You can download my eBook here.

A page from the ePub version of this blog as it appears on the iPad.
Note that the ebook will not feature all blog posts, only the most recent ones based on how the blog's feed is set up, usually the last 50-100 pages of postings. Besides the easy to read format similar to what you get using the web app Readability, once the ebook is downloaded it will work anywhere, even without wifi, so it is the perfect companion to take to catch up on your favorite blog postings when you are waiting at the doctor's office or on the train.

Looking back at my blog in this new format has been a transformative experience. Just reading the postings on an ereader, free from the distractions of the web, allows for richer, and deeper reading. This might be a partial solution to the problem that I have discussed in the past, Does the Internet make us Shallower? Ereaders also allow me to add notes and annotations to the page for a more active reading experience.

In education, this is an excellent way to feature student work. (For a great example of using student blogs see FrischLeads created by my colleague, Tikvah Wiener.) Besides the advantages for the reader, this allows our students to easily "publish" their writing which can be a great motivator for them.

The second item I found, appropriately enough through reading a tweet by a member of my PLN, MisterD, is a method to download one's entire Twitter archive. The instructions to do this were recently posted on the Twitter blog. Note that Twitter is slowly rolling out this feature so if you do not see it yet in your Twitter settings, wait a few days and try again.

Once I downloaded my tweets, I still had work to do in order to easily view them. Twitter gives you all files associated with your tweets, most of them highly technical and not important for the average user. After some searching, I discovered that a downloaded folder called "data" containing a subfolder called "csv" which included all of my tweets in csv format, the simplest type of spreadsheet format that can be read using Excel or any similar program. But my search was not over yet. Once I found this folder, I realized that my tweets were stored in dozens of files and I wanted them all in one large spreadsheet for easy sorting and editing using Excel or Google Docs. I did some research and found these instructions for merging multiple csv files into one large file using the Windows Command Prompt. The instructions are a bit scary for most users since they involve typing text-based commands rather than mouse clicks but trust me they are worth following since they will save you a lot of time. Once I had my tweets in one csv file, I opened this file in Excel, saved it in an Excel format, and uploaded it to Google Docs.

Now for the fun part, reading my tweets. Below, you can see my entire Twitter portfolio from when I began using Twitter almost four years ago until this past Friday. It is quite nostalgic to revisit some of my early tweets. My reasons for joining Twitter still apply, to follow great tech writers, although I have realized that many of the best are not newspaper columnists as I then believed but are my fellow teachers. And to use it for professional networking, today I would describe this as to use as my personal learning network, a term which I was unaware of at the time. I had a lot of postings 4 years ago on the special Birkat HaChammah, blessing the sun, ceremony. If you missed it, make sure to catch the next one in 24 years. I wonder how my digital lessons will hold up for the next one? Will we still be using Smart Boards then or will they be replaced by something like the holodeck in Star Trek? I digress.

I have a lot of reading to do this week. If you have a blog or Twitter of your own, I highly recommend you do the same. If you don't, here are a few ebook blogs that I added to my library, Torah Musings by Gil Student and Thinking About Chinuch by Aaron Ross.  Enjoy the reading!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Little Vignette about Evernote

I want to share a little vignette from yesterday about Evernote. Yesterday was our last day of school before winter break and all the 9th graders had been told to hand in their iPads so we could do maintenance on them over the break. We have just finished our first month of a one-to-one iPad pilot with our 9th graders. When they received their iPads, they were locked down with no App Store just to get them used to the device and the various apps that we placed on them. Since then we have installed a mobile device management solution, Airwatch, which will be installed on all of the student iPads over the break. So we would now be able to give them an App Store while managing what apps they can and cannot install on their iPads.

So we collected all the iPads by 3:30PM. I was feeling pretty good about this when suddenly I got a desperate call from one of my science teachers. She tells me that she had assigned work over winter break and all of her students had told her that they cannot do the assignment since their notes from the past month are on their iPads which was now handed into the main office. This is a 21st century version of the old "I left my textbook in school" excuse. I cannot do my homework because I left my iPad in school over the break.

Evernote to the rescue! I quickly ran over to the science lab and asked the students, "How many of you took your notes on your iPad using Evernote?" Every student but one raised their hands. You see, Evernote was the only note-taking app that we had given the students so far. This is for many reasons. It is free. It allows one to easily insert pictures and sound, and most importantly. It is a cloud based solution, meaning every student has every note taken on the device backed up on automatically. So I told the students, "You are in luck! All you need to do to access your notes without your iPad is log into and all of your notes will be there!" I am not sure if the students were happy that I found them a solution or mad that they no longer had an excuse why they could not do their homework. I can tell you that the teacher was very happy.

Then one student raised his hand and said, "I don't use Evernote to take my notes!" Now I am thinking, "Oy, this kid is going to lose his notes!" So I asked him which app he uses to take notes. His response? "Google Drive." Another cloud based solution. And then the two of us shared a knowing smile.

The Benefits and Limitations of Blended Learning

I have a lot of thinking to do. Yesterday, I attended a fascinating presentation on blended learning by a company called Education Elements that was hosted by the Avi Chai Foundation. Education Elements presented three models of blended learning.

  1.  The lab rotation model in which the students split time between direct instruction in the classroom and computer mediated instruction in a computer lab.
  2. The classroom rotation model in which students work entirely in class but rotate between time with the teacher, time working in groups, and time with the computer. 
  3. The flex model in which schools rethink their classrooms and instead design large groups of workstations in learning areas which can be comprised of dozens of computers and teachers rotating to work with students as needed.
The classroom rotation model seemed to be the most interesting to me. It is similar to the centers that are utilized already in early childhood education which allow students to sample different activities and modalities throughout a lesson and then regroup to review and reflect on what was learned. Whether this can work on a high school level, I don't know. That is why I have some thinking to do.

I learned much from this presentation, however, one aspect was worrisome. There was much talk about using blended learning to lower costs. The goal seemed to be to use this model to allow for larger class sizes and then be able to hire fewer teachers. The assertion that technology can be used to reduce costs in education is a dubious one as is pointed out by this excellent review of the literature: There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education and this posting by my friend Aaron Ross: It's Not About the Benjamins. The research by Larry Cuban about the failure of past technology implementations to deliver on their promise of cost savings is especially cogent.

Furthermore, while the research on the academic benefits of blended learning is promising, see a summary of the research here and here, it is still in its nascent stages with very limited implications for K-12 education due to a dearth of studies in this area. On the other hand, the positive relationship between smaller class size and academic achievement is well documented on both the elementary and high school level. See the following research review: Class Size and Student Achievement. Obviously, other academic factors besides class size play an important role in student achievement, most notably teacher quality. However, the goal of these programs is not to make money available to hire, train, and retain better qualified teachers. It is to use blended learning to save money by increasing the class size without negatively affecting student achievement. There is no research to my knowledge to corroborate this.

The question is a simple one. What would you rather have for your children, a larger class with more computers or a smaller class size with less? Technology can make good teachers better and a blended learning environment might be a better mode of education than a more traditional one but the most obvious and important factor in a child's education is the teacher. Technology at the expense of more individualized teacher attention is a tradeoff that I am not willing to make.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Stop Motion Videography: Highly Structured Creative Freedom

One of the hallmarks of Halachic Judaism is the freedom that is created through the boundaries that following the 613 commandments provide. As our rabbis teach us in Pirkei Avot, "You will not find a freer person than one involved in Torah." Without some guide to structure one's life, one cannot be truly free. One is at the whims of his inclinations and desires. Only by operating within a framework of rules, can one truly shine creatively. Similarly in the arts and sport, it is the structure of the Shakespearean sonnet, fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, or of Haiku, the five-seven-five syllable pattern; the complex rules of baseball or football, that give one the ability to improvise and develop something that is truly unique and ingenious. This is true for our students as well.

One outlet for student creativity in the 21st century has been video production. However, too often, without the proper direction and structure, student created videos can be less than satisfying. One way to solve this is to give students the ability to create video that follows a very specific structure that has been around since the dawn of film making, stop motion videography. This technique, in which one pieces pictures together frame by frame to make moving images, can be quite tedious, requiring a great amount of patience and persistence. However, it is the set boundaries that this technique provides that allows kids to show off their incredible talent and creativity. As one student remarked, "Creating stop motion video is like making a silent film. Every movement matters."

Our recent Frisch School Shiriyah featured a stop motion video competition. The results were simply incredible. Each grade's video based on their Shiriyah team themes within the framework of the overall  theme of this year's Shiriyah, Pathways to Piety, is featured below. Each used its own unique method whether it be people, fruit, Lego, clay, or paper cut-outs, to create a highly original and creative presentation. --Full disclosure: I have a cameo appearance in the sophomore video which was created by my son and his friends.-- Get ready to be wowed by the tremendous talent and creativity unlocked by allowing high school students to utilize this highly structured video method!

Freshman Brachot- Blessings

Sophomore Nezikin- Damages

Junior Pirkei Avot- Ethics of our Fathers

Senior Maaseh Avot Siman Lebanim- The Ways of our Fathers is a Sign for the Children

Monday, January 07, 2013

Blogging from #FrischShiriyah

This post will not be about technology. At least not directly. I am staying late at my school's Shiriyah, our annual week long tournament between the grades that is more than just a Color War. There is song, stomp, stop motion video, art, minute to win it, family feud, hallways to transform into virtual wonderlands. The energy is overwhelming with most students coming in on Sunday, their day off, and staying late into the night every night throughout the week. It's already past 8PM and the place is still hopping.

Yes, there is some technology too. We are live streaming Shiriyah once again from our newly redesigned We have once again created Facebook Groups and Twitter feeds so our Shiriyah can invade the world of social media. But that is not what Shiriyah is about.

Shiriyah is about an entire grade of 135+ students coming together to work on a cause. If you think about this in the context of a school this is quite revolutionary. I pointed this out to my daughter as she described all of the drama in her grade on the first day of Shiriyah. (She was the one who told me to blog about this.) In school mostly we reward individual achievement. Students get good grades by working alone and surpassing their classmates. When kids collaborate on assessments it is called "cheating" or they are only allowed to work together on a special "project", not a regular part of the curriculum.

But this is not the way life is. In most of life, reward comes to those who can work together whether it be in family life or in the work force. Modern workers collaborate in teams working on projects as a regular part of their experience. Yes, their individual expertise and accomplishments matter but only if they can also further the achievements of the group. Shouldn't schools run more this way? Yes, many teachers try to promote collaboration and the model of self directed, project based learning is gaining adherents. But this not the norm.

This is why I think every school should have a week like Shiriyah. During Shiriyah, every student is given the chance to excel in a creative area that is her passion but more importantly students learn that the key to success as a group is the ability to work together. I have seen much drama already this Shiriyah but also much to be proud of as kids learn to disagree respectfully, work out their differences, and utilize their differing talents to make a greater whole. I cannot wait to see what this week will bring.