Technology in the Classroom: How is it going?

Below is my recent posting for Lookjed, the Jewish Educational Listserv published by the Lookstein Center on the thread, Technology in the Classroom: How Is It Going?. Specifically, it is a response to this posting to this thread by my esteemed colleague, Rabbi Yaki Blau which expressed skepticism to the integration of technology into Jewish education. I welcome your feedback in the comments section.

Dear Shalom and List:

In reference to the recent posting by Rabbi Yaki Blau expressing skepticism about the benefits of technology in education, I find it ironic that once again I am debating with my respected colleague at The Frisch School on an online forum hosted in Israel some 6000 miles away from Paramus, NJ, when I could be discussing this with him directly in the teacher's room (as I often do). But that's the point. The Lookjed Listserv has provided us with a forum to debate ideas in a much more nuanced and thoughtful way (and with a MUCH larger audience) then we could ever experience in face-to-face conversation. This is one of the greatest advantages of technology and one that it behooves us to utilize in our classrooms. Technology has become the ideal platform for communication and collaboration.

Here are just a few examples of this from my own school (which Yaki is intimately familiar with).

1) We now have school-wide and grade-wide wikis for teachers and students to collaboratively integrate ideas from various subject areas focused around a common theme. In addition to their use for student-led asynchronous online discussion forums very similar to this Listserv, they have become the platform for many other creative activities. For example, we now run Integrated Educational Days where all of the lessons in a particular grade are focused around a common theme. We have a day for our Freshmen devoted to the subject of Fate and Free Will, for Sophomores devoted to the Power of the Book, and for Juniors devoted to the Holocaust. At the end of the day as a summative assessment, students are asked to work with a partner making a presentation using PowerPoint, Prezi, or Google Docs about the various classes they studied. The wiki is the common learning space where information from these lessons and additional resources are shared by the teachers and where the students final projects are posted as well. Without this online component, such a high level of collaboration between our teachers and students would not be possible. In addition, since this common learning space exists completely on the web, physical distance is no longer an impediment to such intense collaboration which leads to my second example.

2) We have created partnerships with a number of different schools in Israel for our online projects. Through the help of our local Jewish Federation, we have a 9th grade and 11th grade partnership with schools in Nahariya. This past year, we even planned and ran our 11th Grade Holocaust Integration together with one of these schools. We "met" with the teachers using Skype, our teachers both in Israel and New Jersey posted curricular materials on the wiki, and we had a follow-up Skype "face-to-face" conversation between one of our classes in Frisch and one in Nahariya reflecting on what was learned during this educational day. We also have a 10th grade partnership in our English classes with Neveh Channah in Kfar Etzion with the help of my esteemed colleague and fellow educational technologist Reuven Werber. These partnerships go beyond the "pen pals" of yesteryear to full fledged learning projects which are only possible through platforms like wikis and video conferencing.

3) We have also been experimenting with the flipped classroom model where teachers post short lectures online that students can access at home prior to getting into a deeper discussion in class. I have utilized this in my Nach classes to post basic word by word translation of the verses online so that in class we can almost immediately jump to the next level of higher analysis. One might argue that our students would do better reading the chapter in advance of class the old fashioned way but in most cases our students would merely do a superficial reading of an English translation when given such an assignment. When they watch the class on YouTube, they can see and hear a model of an accurate reading of the verses with key words circled or underlined and the ability to rewind if they miss a point. You can view my Youtube Flipped Classroom channel here: Similarly, a number of teachers now give students assignments to read the pesukim or Talmudic text to the teacher at home on their computer using a website called Voicethread. In each of these examples, technology is being utilized as a communication platform for students to work on reading skills an area that is sorely needed based on observations made in many of Lookjed discussions.

These are just a few examples of educational technology utilized as the ideal platform for communication and collaboration. Two other examples which I don't feel that I have the time to flesh out now are Google Docs as a platform for class-wide collaboration and real time student response systems like to simultaneously engage all students in a class discussion. To be continued...

In conclusion, I do not deny Yaki's premise that certain uses of technology can and in many times have made us into more superficial readers and thinkers. I recommend that he (and the list) read the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr which strongly asserts this very point. (You can read my review here.) One should certainly address these points directly with teachers and students and design research and classroom activities forcing students to go beyond the superficial level of thought that has become so easy with the rise of Google. My point is that one not throw out all the tremendous progress that technology is already achieving to enrich our educational lives because of one's fear of it's abuses.

Remember, every new technology in the past has had it's drawbacks as well as benefits. Just think back to the dramatic changes in the nature of Torah learning that took place as a result of the transition from a truly oral law to the written Mishna and Talmud or due to the advent of the printing press. However, I think we would all agree that the benefits of a written "Oral Law" that is accessible to all and cannot easily be forgotten, greatly outweigh the past benefits of an Oral Law that was truly oral. Our rabbis certainly did. And even though the collaborative process of copying manuscripts by hand must have been great for the copyists and led to many beautiful folios, we would all prefer the permanency and universal availability of the printed book. The current state technology is going through is a similarly epoch changing process. It is a brave new world with much to fear but at the same time even more to gain if harnessed thoughtfully and carefully by teachers interested in using it to find new, powerful tools to reach our students.

Kol tuv,
Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky
Director of Educational Technology
The Frisch School
Paramus, NJ