A Discussion Evening about iPads in Jewish Education

Noam Davidovics from Ohr Chadash Academy presenting virtually on the WebYeshiva Webex platform about their 1:1 iPad Initiative. (Photo Credit: Rabbi Dov Emerson)

A few months ago, Rabbi Meir Fachler, a dear friend and long time mentor of mine in the world of Jewish Educational Technology, asked on the Avi Chai Educational Technology blog, Is it time for a Jewish Education Technology Conference? A short while later, another even older friend, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks of Atid and WebYeshiva approached me about helping to set up a discussion evening in the NY/NJ area devoted to Jewish Educational Technology similar to the evenings Atid runs in Jerusalem on various Jewish topics. This got me thinking. Maybe it was time for a Jewish Education Technology Conference and this evening and similar evenings afterwards could be the beginnings of such a conference.

My reasons were selfish. I felt that I could personally benefit from such evenings. While I very much appreciate the many platforms for Jewish Educational technology that have sprung up like #JedChat on Twitter (every Wednesday night at 9PM EST), Yeshiva University's Nings like http://yu20.org/http://www.yuhschinuchcommunity.org/, and http://yuelearning.org/, and Avi Chai Foundation's sponsorship of cohorts of Jewish educators to various general educational technology conferences, what I thought was missing was the opportunity to talk to like minded Jewish educators passionate about EdTech face to face around a table, to hear from each other, learn from our best practices and biggest mistakes, and network together. This in my mind was the most effective way to advance our growing field and create a sense of cohesion amongst the many of us developing our ideas in various different schools.

So I contacted my friends, Rabbis Aaron Ross and Kenny Schiowitz and we set up our first evening at The Frisch School in early January. In order to keep the conversations fruitful and due to space considerations, we were only able to invite a select group of 15-20 Jewish Educational Technology leaders from the NY/NJ area. Rabbi Saks led off with a presentation on the powerful WebYeshiva platform for synchronous online learning and it's plans for expansion into the Day School realm by providing classes especially designed for Yeshiva Middle School and High School students. Then Kenny, Aaron, and I presented on another online learning model, the Flipped Classroom which many of us have adapted after the viral success of Khan Academy.

Building on the success of this first evening, Aaron and I set up a second evening which took place at Yavneh Academy this past Monday night, March 26. This time the topic that I chose was iPads in Jewish Education. I chose this topic once again for a very simple and selfish reason. Since I don't know enough about iPads myself but see their potential as a game changer in the classroom, I really wanted to learn from others who have utilized iPads in Jewish Day Schools. I hoped that my personal passion for this topic would be reciprocated by others who would want to join us for this discussion.

I was very lucky to receive tremendous support from many others in this venture. Rabbi Jeffrey Saks very generously offered the WebYeshiva online platform so we could not only invite a few additional participants around a "virtual table" but we were able to procure two educators from Ohr Chadash Academy in Baltimore, Mr. Noam Davidovics, Director of Educational Technology, and Mrs. Elisheva Erlanger,  5th Grade Chumash teacher, to share their experiences in going 1:1 by providing iPads for every student in 4th through 6th grades. These educators could not easily treck from Baltimore to NJ on a weeknight but through the virtual platform could join us and present. Mrs. Chani Lichtiger, Director of Educational Technology from Yavneh Academy, was able to get an Apple Engineer, Dave Marra to share with us about new iPad and the iBooks platform. Finally, through the help of a fellow Twitter friend, Mr. David Galpert, we were able to get Rabbi Joey Beyda, Assistant Principal at Yeshivah of Flatbush, to present together with David about the Yeshivah of Flatbush 1:1 initiative which has already supplied 60 students with iPads and plans to supply every 9th and 10th grader with an iPad next school year.

Aaron Ross has provided an excellent summary of the evening in a recent blog posting on Building a Jewish EdTech Community. I will merely add some further observations about each presentation.

The first presenter, Dave Marra, a Senior Systems Engineer at Apple. Unfortunately, this is the one portion of the evening that could not be streamed and/or recorded on WebYeshiva due to Apple regulations. I will share below a number of things that Dave Marra taught me that I did not know about the iPad device.
  • Firstly, every iBook and for that matter everything on the iPad can be read back to you with voiceover. This is a very powerful tool for students with learning differences or physical handicaps that have difficulty reading. Such a service is offered for students with IEPs using Bookshare but I have never seen a commercially available reader that could read EVERYTHING. The Kindle and Nook can read back some books but not others due to restrictions from publishers. Only the iPad can read back all books.   
  • Dave showed off a pretty nifty device where, if you have a projector with an HDMI output and purchase an Apple TV (retail $99.99 at Target), you can wirelessly project anything on your iPad onto your whiteboard. No more need for SmartBoards. Your iPad becomes the touch screen from anywhere in the room. This might require new projectors for many rooms as I do not know how many older ones have the HDMI output but it is a very powerful learning tool nevertheless.
  • One final point, that Dave shared confirmed my own suspicion about the new iBooks textbook model which I blogged about in Why Technology Will Not Save Money in Education. While every iPad app purchased by a school for student iPads is owned by the school, this is NOT the case for iBooks. iBook textbooks, even those purchased using Apple's Volume Purchase Program, are owned by the STUDENT not the SCHOOL. This means that if one chooses to buy iPad textbooks the very attractive price of $14.99 becomes a lot less attractive when one realizes that this is a yearly expense. One can accentuate the positives of this, students own their textbooks forever, their notes in their digital books travel with them etc. but the reality is that this deal was done for the textbook publishers gain not the schools and ultimately will likely be more expensive for schools than traditional print textbooks. 
  • I also wonder if iBooks are really better, a point which was also made later in the evening by Rabbi Joey Beyda. While iBooks offer striking videos, animations, and interactives does this merely add more distraction to the reading experience? Would students read better and more deeply with the printed page? This is a point I have discussed in the past in my posting, Does the Internet make us Shallower?
The second group of presenters were Mr. Noam Davidovics and Mrs. Elisheva Erlanger from Ohr Chadash Academy in Baltimore. Noam's presentation appears below. I have embedded at the end of this posting, WebYeshiva's Webex class so you can watch both the Ohr Chadash and Yeshivah of Flatbush presentations.
  • What was powerful about Noam's presentation for me was his presentation of various iPad apps allowing students to annotate PDFs and send them to the teacher as homework assignments, create storyboards, and the ease in which the iPad onscreen keyboard facilitates typing in Hebrew. 
  • Elisheva showed videos of her classes using the iPad. This brought the realities of the effect of iPads in Judaic Studies to life and a highly recommend you watch this segment using the links below to the Webex recording.

The evening ended with presentations by Rabbi Joey Beyda and Mr. David Galpert of Yeshivah of Flatbush.
  • Besides Aaron's excellent summary, what impressed me was the systematic way that such an established school like Flatbush is trying to transform education through the introduction of the iPad. Rabi Beyda pointed out that the 1:1 iPad program is being utilized as a change agent. The reality of the new technology demands that teachers rethink their traditional approaches in the classroom. Frontal lecturing, which is rarely a good thing, just won't work in a classroom where students can merely Google the answers on their iPads. Also, the creative abilities of the iPad and its many apps demand a more student-centered project based approach to learning. I had a similar experience in my school, the Frisch School, when our move to our new building five years ago and the advent of so much new technology with the new building forced everyone to rethink the way they had been teaching. I believe that this type of reflection and reassessment of teaching practices can have very positive educational effects. Obviously, thoughtful teaching and reflection does not require technology but the shakeup that technology can cause can be one method to bring about such practice on the part of teachers.
  • One other powerful point that Rabbi Beyda made was that the world did not come to an end when every student in the class had an iPad. Many were convinced that students would be driven to distraction from all of this extra stimulation and would have little reason to pay attention in class. If anything, Rabbi Beyda pointed out that student attention and the amount of students on task went up with the introduction of the iPads. The devices were a motivating agent for students to get more out of class. Rabbi Beyda estimated that with the iPad 27-28 out of 29 students were on task in class. Obviously, this is only effective when students utilize the iPad for more student-centered approaches and don't just try to lecture as mentioned in the previous point.  

Below, I have embedded the video of our presenters from Ohr Chadash Academy and the Yeshivah of Flatbush courtesy of WebYeshiva. You also might want to access the WebYeshiva page devoted to our iPad discussion evening containing links to recordings of the session for download in Webex format, MP4, and MP3.

The evening was a great success and we hope to create similar evenings every two months or so in the future. My long term goal for these evenings is to both benefit from these mini-conferences and then utilize them as a platform for a more extensive conference devoted to Jewish Educational Technology to answer Rabbi Fachler's clarion call.

There are two critiques of the current evenings that people have expressed that resonate with me.

  1. In order to keep the conversation effective, we have to keep the size small and necessarily turn some people away (although we can open up the virtual platform to many more participants). 
  2. Another critique is that these evenings are jam packed and still don't provide enough time for extended discussion and professional networking. This once again is the limitation of making these events on weeknights during the school year. One can really only start by 7:30 and one must end by 10 to give people a reasonable amount of time to travel back and forth. This then cuts down on time for discussion and networking. 

A Jewish Educational Technology Conference would solve both of these problems. One can open them to anyone who wishes to attend, not an exclusive invite list since sessions would run concurrently for a few days. The EdTech leaders currently at our mini-conferences could then be the presenters at this larger conference for the greater Jewish Day School community of teachers and administrators in the NY/NJ area. One could then also fit in ample time for networking and discussion so people learn from each other informally. I know that such a conference is being planned in Florida this April 29-May 1 with EdJewCon5772.0. It is my hope that through the help of my esteemed colleagues like Aaron Ross, we can pull off a similar conference for the many educators in the NY/NJ area in the near future. It is time for a Jewish Education Technology Conference.