HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Experiments with Educational Technology

by Eli Kannai Issue: iSchool
TOPICS : Technology

In September 2006 The AVI CHAI Foundation sought to partner with innovative teachers who believed they could respond to a pedagogic challenge using technology. Hundreds of teachers submitted proposals for the foundation’s consideration, and 16 teachers received a grant of up to $10,000 each towards their idea. In the current school year a second group of 17 teachers received educational technology experiment grants, and they are in the midst of executing their ideas. In this article I describe some of the lessons learned by the schools and AVI CHAI during the course of these experiments, also thereby demonstrating some of the most troubling pedagogic challenges in Jewish day school education.

The following description is from my vantage point alone; the experimenting teachers may view things differently. Unfortunately I do not have an intimate understanding of each project and classroom situation, each of which is unique, so I can only speak of the broad trends that can be identified today. As the area of educational technology is constantly evolving and many of the experiments are still being implemented, this article should be viewed as a work in progress rather than a final summative evaluation of the field. All of our grantees are asked to blog about their experiences, and the blog can be accessed at edtechexp.blogspot.com; I will make reference to specific posts throughout this article.

It is clear that technology creates mixed feelings in schools. Administrators fear making bad choices such as buying immature technologies that cost a fortune and are barely used before becoming obsolete. The grant program constitutes an effort to stimulate the pedagogic use of technology, starting small, with a teacher-driven initiative.

It is clear that technology creates mixed feelings in schools. Administrators fear making bad choices such as buying immature technologies that cost a fortune and are barely used before becoming obsolete. Many teachers use the technology at home for day to day tasks but cannot find the pedagogic resources necessary to enable them to make good use of it in class. Meanwhile, the students make use of any piece of technology they can get their hands on, but not necessarily for educational purposes. The grant program constitutes an effort to stimulate the pedagogic use of technology in Jewish day schools, starting small, with a teacher-driven initiative. I heard a principal say that “technology is like oxygen for the students,” therefore one must use technology in schools. These creative projects can be replicated with appropriate modifications in many additional schools, if they have support from the administration.

Some projects address more than one pedagogic challenge. For example, many initiatives try to address lack of student engagement in addition to solving some other issue. Some projects try to evoke more student interest in a non-interactive way using presentations such as PowerPoint etc., including pictures, maps and videos; other teachers try their hand at interactive teaching using SmartBoards in the classroom or VoiceThreads for homework assignments. Those teachers who do not use their board interactively asking students to come up to the board during class, often find that using tablet PCs connected to a simple overhead projector does a good job.

There is much to be said about interactive white boards such as the SmartBoards. The board should be used as a vehicle to enhance classroom interactivity, not merely as a “cool” projector. An added benefit is the recording functionality which lets teachers post the lessons to a website, share it with students and fellow teachers as well as parents. In a dedicated wiki (jewishsmartboards.wikispaces.com), the Legacy Heritage Fund, the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education, and The AVI CHAI Foundation are collaborating to advance the best use of interactive whiteboards, and most particularly SmartBoards, in Jewish education. Teachers are welcome to join the wiki and contribute based on their own experiences, as well as access the useful links to lesson plans that can help jumpstart their journey into full use of their boards. During the first round of our grants we learned about the challenges of using Hebrew with these boards, a problem also addressed in the wiki and blog.

Teaching Hebrew as a spoken language presents varied pedagogic challenges including student engagement, the ability to practice individually, and the teacher’s individual feedback. Some teachers chose technology to address these issues, making use of language labs and specific software packages (Rosetta Stone), MP3 recorders and players, and doing video interviews as well as original Hebrew plays. Audio and video technology are now much less expensive and much easier to use with no need for sophisticated editing software, and the results can be posted on the web for family and friends to view. Some teachers point to the fact that listening and grading each student’s performance recorded on MP3 players is time consuming, but it seems like a promising mechanism to enable each student to practice and receive feedback on their way to proficiency.

Some teachers apply a “low-tech” solution to record students speaking and reading by having them call a phone number and record a voice message. This works well, especially with phone systems that send these messages as emails (consider Google Voice), but has its own limitations. VoiceThreads lends itself well to these types of pedagogic activities as the teacher can use the presentation functionality to prepare text or questions to be answered, letting students record their answers and interact with the teacher and with each other with audio.

Many teachers wished to create games for their students, to play and learn at the same time. There are websites that already allow teachers to create game-like quizzes, also called “drill and practice” software. These games tend to take a long time for teachers to prepare and implement, and are more appealing for younger students. AVI CHAI is planning to develop such tools in the future. Stay tuned…

The use of technology should not be limited to literacy-oriented pedagogic challenges. The experiments included a tefillah project in which students created siddur presentations (a sample can be viewed on the blog) and videos of Israel experiences (including video conferencing). Use of technology by the students enhances their feeling of control and ownership. We have learned that innovative use of student-driven creativity is very effective. Schools can showcase the products in school and on their websites, sharing them with parents, families and friends.

Combining many of these technologies together creatively may develop powerful pedagogic tools, for example interviewing Israeli war veterans on video in Hebrew while speaking only Hebrew on the set, or using a website to post videos from the school’s Israel trip. We find that once a teacher starts using technology for one thing, other uses present themselves as well.

Many teachers use technology to prepare for class and to stay in touch with students in between classes, while using only presentation vehicles in class. They use mapping tools to plan their teaching, resource sites such as Chinuch.org and Mikranet to create their lesson plans and forums, wiki’s or blogs to collaborate with the students.

Teachers tell me often how important it is to have the school administration support their efforts. This support is also crucial as these teachers try to export their learning experiences from their own classroom to school-wide efforts. Management buy-in means a lot to the teachers; it allows them to present their success stories to the whole school faculty, and lets the school benefit from the incredibly hard work of the teachers. Unfortunately I do not have the space to mention individual teachers and schools in this article, but their names can be found on the blog. I would like to thank the teachers that partnered with us in the experiments and worked to break the ice, as well as all the teachers who submitted applications. You are all creative and dedicated teachers and I wish us all success integrating technology in Jewish day schools.

Links and reference box:

One can navigate the edtechexp blog (http://j.mp/EdTech) using the label (tags) cloud located on the left.

PowerPoint projects can be found by clicking on the “power point” tag, or directly using the URL:

http://edtechexp.blogspot.com/search/label/PowerPoint. There is a label for SmartBoards (http://j.mp/smartbrd), VoiceThreads (http://j.mp/VoiceThrds).

SmartBoards vs. Tablet PC’s are discussed in the blog in http://j.mp/SB-Tablet and elsewhere.

Projects that involve Israel can be found at http://j.mp/israel-ed, those that deal with games are at http://j.mp/games-ed.

The Tefilah presentations can be found at (http://j.mp/Tefilah).

A wiki “book” dedicated to the use of SmartBoards in Jewish education can be found at http://jewishsmartboards.wikispaces.com/

“I have been there project” is discussed at (http://j.mp/video-ed).

Two sites worth mentioning that can be used to plan lessons and share materials are Chinuch.org and http://www.Mikranet.org.il.

Eli Kannai is the Chief Educational Technology Officer for the AVI CHAI Foundation. Eli can be reached at ekannai@avichaina.org.

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