HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Digital Tools for the Classroom

by Sholom Eisenstat Issue: iSchool

It’s too late to make the case for classroom use of the tools of the 21st century. That’s been done over and over in many other places. We’re already 10% of the way through this century and we need to acknowledge that there are powerful modern tools that are here to stay and available to the vast majority of our students. Many of the most powerful tools are available at no cost, and the developer communities are creating ever more powerful and more robust tools for learning.

The tools of the Information Age enable even the youngest of students to greatly increase their reach and enhance their grasp of all that they are interested in knowing. There has never been a time since Creation when students and teachers have had more powerful tools and resources, quantitatively and qualitatively, available to them.

Technology is demonstrably disruptive to all aspects of the environment into which it is introduced. In recent decades, we’ve seen that everywhere from entertainment to the encyclopedia; education is not immune from this disruption. Thus, it is necessary to say that many of the technologies mentioned here are best integrated into the classroom by using them in conjunction with constructivist collaborative, inquiry and project-based techniques of curriculum delivery. If you can’t give up “chalk and talk,” then stop reading now!


Moodle (modular object oriented dynamic learning environment) is a system that enhances and expands the classroom as it enhances the power of teachers and students to build knowledge together. Much more than a “content management” or “learning management” system, Moodle is a set of dynamic tools which provide for the delivery of documents in any digital media directly to any networked computer, anywhere, anytime. Assignments can be submitted, graded and returned all via moodle. Text-based discussion forums, glossaries, calendars, quizzes and much more are integrated parts of the package.

One of the best aspects of Moodle is that it is open-source and free. It is constantly under development and improvement and can even run in Hebrew (more information and the platform can be found at moodle.org). Schools that can’t manage such a server-based product in-house can take advantage of many vendors who supply moodle services.

Moodle enables the teacher and student to interact beyond the physical confines of the classroom—after hours, digitally, publicly or privately. It saves money when used to distribute materials, assignments and documents for study in digital format.

Moodle is best used in conjunction with classroom activities outside of class. Teachers should not fear that it is a replacement for them and their talents but rather as a powerful addition to their toolkit. Many students thrive when they are able to use the power of moodle.

One example of a Moodle site constructed for Jewish learning is available at ilearn.sfsu.edu/login/extlogin.php (Username: JHVC01 Password: F1LMFAN!).

Digital Storytelling - so much more than the pencil

There are many guises that digital storytelling can take. At one level this is merely the latest version of what we called “slide-tape” presentations 30 years ago. Powerpoint presentations are a poor cousin. Digital storytelling tools enable the creation of high quality linear narratives using images and audio voice or music tracks. These can be varied as news reports of Joseph’s brothers’ arrival in Egypt, the expression of the facets of a talmudic argument, a report on the progress of peace negotiations or interviews or a report on a recent science experiment.

There’s the free Microsoft application Photostory which enables the creation of very high quality presentations of images from any digital photo collection. It’s easy to add an audio track to the “photostory” and the application itself can actually compose music to accompany the images.

Apple’s iMovie and Microsoft’s Moviemaker enable students to enter the world of digital storytelling using video.

A very comprehensive introduction to digital storytelling can be seen at teachersfirst.com/getsource.cfm?id=7094.

Podcasting / Audio Recording

Podcasting at the beginner stage is simply using the audio recording capabilities of most computers to record voices. This can be used as a powerful assessment tool where students create a digital recording as an assignment completion; reading and music are obvious choices but students can be very creative when interviewing one another as reporter and expert or creating a radio news item or documentary. Of course, this audio technology can also be used in digital storytelling. Popular applications for audio processing are Audacity for Windows users and GarageBand for Mac users. Both of these applications can create audio files that can be transferred to portable mp3 players. In that way, students can listen to audio files recorded in class for review or preparation.

Many teachers have found that struggling students who are able to listen or watch a teacher’s lesson or demonstration a number of times till they “get it” are more likely to achieve the expectations.

Moving beyond simple audio “casts,” many teachers and students like Voicethread (voicethread.com), which provides for sharing images and video and comment “threads” about them. A very easy and powerful interface is behind this mashup of video podcasting and blogging—“vlogging.”

Blogs, Wikis

The rise of Web 2.0 technologies has replaced the “one way web,” where information was broadcast for the seeker’s choosing, with tools that enable contribution from the user. Blogs, whether available only within the classroom community or to a wider audience provide avenues for expression of opinion. Online blogs are powerful ways to expand comprehension and develop expression. What would Joseph be blogging about from his Egyptian Viceroy office? or Shlomo HaMelech or Moshe Rabbeinu himself?

A wiki is a collaborative, participatory website. Wikis enable the collaborative building of information archives where student learning is demonstrated. The collaborative participation in such activities is a perfect model of the social constructivism that is the foundation of the new web.

For an introduction to the concepts of Web 2.0 see commoncraft.com. Moodle, and wikispaces (wikispaces.com), each provide various flavors of blogs and wikis. A Google search will find many more services for free or small fees.

Handhelds / Wireless

Schools will be enabling teachers and students to connect to their networks wirelessly to take advantage of the power of the computers that are the cellphones, smartphones, ipods, etc., that most students carry with them. Use of these powerful and very portable computers is a new and very exciting avenue of technology integration. Many of these ideas are being developed by Liz Kolb, whose research can be seen at cellphonesinlearning.com.

Each of these tools is able to provide the teacher and the student with appropriate enablers for differentiated instruction.

While on the topic of smaller more portable computing devices, I would be remiss to not mention the just announced Apple iPad computer which might become a perfect classroom computing tool enabling text reading, video and other multimedia, internet access and various applications.

At a fraction of the cost of an interactive whiteboard is the tablet-like SmartSlate from SmartTech (smarttech.com). It provides most of the software functionality of the popular SmartBoard technology at a fraction of the price, while being portable, wireless and compact. Some teachers take to this technology much more readily than the SmartBoard.

Much more information, resources, tools and ideas about 21st Century learning can be found at c4lpt.co.uk/thesmartlearner.

Sholom Eisenstat has an MA in Parshanut HaMikrah and spent years teaching in Jewish day schools. He is currently a Computer Resource Teacher in the York Region District School Board near Toronto. He can be reached at sholom@rogers.com.

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Schools need strategic leadership to select from the onslaught of new technological offerings and to keep the rudder always pointed toward effective education. This issue provides both perspectives that can inform leadership strategy and information about some of the directions and initiatives employing current technology to strengthen education.

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