Thou Shalt not Sacrifice Education on the Altar of Affordability

It’s an exciting time to be in the field of educational technology. The Internet and social media have allowed for a level of communication and collaboration, both within and between schools, which could only have been imagined in the past. The pace of the development of new ideas and the ability for these ideas to spread, using personal learning networks (PLNs) and hashtags like #jedchat and #jedlab, and it has given teachers the opportunity to create personalized professional development like never before. This in turn has spawned innovative, new models of education in Jewish day schools using project based learning, self-directed learning, the JedCamp un-conference model, and the list goes on and on.

Technology is not only transforming the flow of educational ideas, but making a real change in the classroom as well. For the first time, quality one-to-one computing—in which all students are given a technology device—has become affordable, through the introduction of iPads, with a price point of under $400 per device, and the latest Chromebooks, which are even more cost efficient. Putting these powerful computers in the hands of every student gives teachers numerous possibilities to build highly interactive and engaging lessons, opens up new avenues for student creativity, and facilitates the design of genuine formative assessments embedded within the teaching process.

However, the reports about educational technology in the Jewish news media and the Jewish foundation world tell a different story. Articles on technology in Jewish day schools are inevitably coupled with talk of day school affordability. As an educator, this is very worrisome, since I believe that they ask the wrong question. The current question is usually posed like this: “How can we solve the ‘tuition crisis’ and the problem of Jewish day school affordability utilizing technology?” Affordability is driving the search for technology, which in turn is driving the talk about education. The tail is wagging the day school dog. This is what is making so many teachers uncomfortable. It almost feels like values we hold dear are being sacrificed on the altar of affordability.

But what if we asked the question like this: “How can education be improved utilizing educational technology in an affordable manner?” The goal here is educational improvement. Technology is a vehicle for this improvement and one strives to accomplish this in an affordable manner. This is a question that educators feel comfortable addressing, since it puts the focus on education—and then attempting to achieve incremental cost savings or improved efficiencies wherever possible. As my friend, Rabbi Michael Bitton recently tweeted, “Introducing technology to class is really just a “bait and switch” to force better pedagogy among teachers!” The rallying point should always be on using educational technology to support good pedagogy. Affordability can be an ancillary outcome, when possible, towards this greater goal.

Let me list three specific examples of this from my experience in The Frisch School.

Much of our school system is now web-based. This has allowed us to post report cards online and email progress reports to parents. Obviously, this saves money in terms of paper, postage, and the office hours spent stuffing envelopes. It is also better education. It gives parents and students quick and consistent access to academic reports. By directing communications on student progress by email rather than “snail mail,” it creates an ongoing conversation, a feedback loop about student achievement, between teacher and parent.

We also created an online notes system for students whose individualized education plans (IEPs) requires them. Obviously, this notes system achieves cost savings and efficiencies as students who need notes do not have to photocopy them and have anytime access to notes in all of their classes. However, it still has been labor intensive with a member of our office staff assigned to gather notes from student note takers, scan them, and post them online on a regular basis. Our online notes system has achieved even more efficiency when coupled with our one-to-one iPad program. Many students are now using an iPad app called Evernote to take their notes. They then share a public link to their notes folder for each subject which is posted online for their classmates with IEPs only once. The notes in this link dynamically update in real time as the student adds more notes to her folder. Countless hours are saved with no need to find students, scan, and post notes.

The first two examples are about technology creating cost savings and improved efficiencies in more administrative tasks. Let me also share one example of technology being used to directly add greater efficiency to the learning in the classroom.

We recently experimented with a new Shakespeare app in which students can watch a scene-by-scene cartoon version of a play coupled by a highlighted running script. This program also includes embedded commentary on the use of language, theme, characters, plot, etc. When used instead of the standard Shakespeare text students were given in the past, the cost of the app vs. the cost of the standard print book is about the same. But here’s the rub—I mean, where you’ll find the greater efficiency: Students in a regular track class using this app can now read Shakespeare at home in advance of class, something they could never have done with a mere Shakespeare text. Therefore, teachers who were spending most of the class time either reading Shakespeare to them or having the students read each line of the text out loud, something most teachers and students found tremendously tedious and boring, can now devote more class time to stimulating discussion about the play. The reading of the play is off-loaded to homework where the students have the chance to watch and re-watch a scene while reading along in the text and pause and rewind when they do not understand it. If this sounds familiar it is because it is the “flipping the class” model made popular by Khan Academy applied to Shakespeare. Through an online or iPad based app, the class is “flipped” with students reading the text at home and spending class time on more productive, stimulating pursuits. Once again, this is an affordable model with no added cost to the old textbook. It is also a much more efficient way to educate students. You can read an English teacher’s reflections about the Shakespeare app and how it facilitated project based learning on The Frisch School Blog here.

The examples above, and many more which you can read about on my blog, illustrate the potential for technology to be utilized in a cost effective manner. However, the driver must always be good pedagogy, not affordability. Passionate teachers entered the field of education out of a strong belief in the power of Jewish education as a bulwark against assimilation both in terms of furthering Jewish identity and religious growth (Talmud Torah) and in terms of transforming young Jewish men and ladies into thoughtful, creative, productive human beings (Tikkun Olam). Those of us who went into educational technology did this out of a deep conviction that technology can further enhance these goals. Sometimes technology can be used in ways that also improve affordability, sometimes it cannot, but this should never be the central question or else Jewish day schools in general and the field of Jewish educational technology in particular will lose what makes them such a unique and special place.

Please do not sacrifice education on the altar of affordability.

(Cross-posted on the PEJE Blog)