HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


The Rationale for Educational Technology for General and Jewish Studies

by Tzvi Pittinsky Issue: iSchool

One problem that has plagued students for generations is boredom in the classroom. This is illustrated in a famous clip from the classic film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The teacher, played to perfection by Ben Stein, is trying to teach his high school history class about the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 and its connection to the “voodoo economics” of the early 1980s. The students are each portrayed by director John Hughes in different and unique stages of boredom. Although the teacher continuously attempts to engage in a conversation with his students by asking repeatedly “anyone, anyone?” there is little connection between teacher and student. Boredom not only leads to a lack of student engagement, but studies indicate that student boredom often leads to greater problems such as truancy and poor academic achievement. These problems are not unique to public school education but have pervaded our day schools, as indicated by a recent lengthy online discussion on this topic on Lookjed, a forum for Jewish educators.

One would expect technology to be the panacea to solve student boredom. However, recent studies indicate the opposite to be true. In a study of college students in Northwest England (British Educational Research Journal 35:2), 59% of students reported that they were bored in at least half of their classes. The same study found the professor’s use of PowerPoint to be a contributing factor to student boredom. This is because teachers often use PowerPoint to merely post their lecture notes and then read directly from the slides. In this case, students feel little reason to attend the lecture since they can better read the PowerPoint slides on their own. It should be noted that the same study indicated that when teachers gave out handouts together with their PowerPoint presentations it tended to mitigate student boredom. This and similar studies have led to a movement by some university professors to “Teach Naked” by removing all technology from the classroom.

Computer-based instruction and lab time fared even worse in the study referenced above. This was determined to be based on the nature of the lab time, which focused primarily on activities involving rote memorization and reviewing exactly what was already covered in class, with little higher order thinking. As Clifford Stoll noted over a decade ago, “Computers in classrooms are the filmstrips of the 1990s. We loved them because we didn’t have to think for an hour, teachers loved them because they didn’t have to teach, and parents loved them because it showed their schools were high-tech. But no learning happened.” The study concluded that in order for technology to be effective it has to be open-ended and/or students need to be allowed to create something new using the technology. To use technology merely to post one’s notes on slides or for drill and skill activities like the old “Math Blaster” games where students blast the aliens by solving math problems is ineffective at best and might even lead to the very student boredom that the technology is attempting to prevent.

Noted technology skeptic Larry Cuban studied the implementation of the computer in education by comparing it to other previous attempts to adapt new technologies for the classroom such as radio, TV, and the film strip. With each of these technologies he found a similar cycle. The technology was introduced together with promises that the new technology would transform education and make the lessons come alive. A great deal of educational funds was spent on the new technology. However, the teachers failed to adapt the technology to their classrooms. Instead of blaming the technology, school administrators and technology enthusiasts blamed other factors like a lack of sufficient funding or lack of teacher training and the cycle repeated itself. Larry Cuban found a similar problem with the introduction of computers into the classroom. In a 2001 study of high schools in Silicon Valley, he found technology use limited to early adapters with 60-70% of teachers never using the computer labs. Even when technology was utilized it was primarily to reinforce existing teaching practices rather than transform them.

At this point, a couple of comments are in order to counter this pessimistic view of technology. First, it must be noted that technology has changed a great deal even in the last 10 years. Usually new technology takes 20-30 years from its invention until it becomes mainstream in the consumer marketplace. Since the personal computer only started to come into common use in the early 1980s, we are just beginning to see the fruits of its effective adaptation into education.

Also, as Larry Cuban noted, a primary problem with teachers utilizing technology is a lack of teacher training. Teachers report that professional development for the effective integration of technology into instruction is their greatest need. The old model of occasional professional development days for the faculty does not work for teachers trying to utilize new computer technology. What is needed is “just on time” professional development where there are members of the staff whose primary responsibility is not to fix the computers but to help the teachers use them. This position of technology coordinator or director of educational technology is becoming commonplace in public and private schools and is beginning to be introduced in Jewish day schools as well.

So what are effective uses for technology in the classroom? I like to talk about the 3 Cs of successful technology integration: Communication and Collaboration, Constructivist and Cooperative Learning, and Compelling Course Content.

The first and most important use of technology in the classroom is to encourage Communication and Collaboration. We need to give our students opportunities to communicate with the teacher and their classmates and collaborate with each other. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik mentioned in many of his seminal talks and essays, Jewish education is primarily a dialogue. This dialogue is with teacher and student, between students, and with all of the previous generations of our Sages throughout the generations. We should seek to encourage this dialogue both in our class through active discussions and the use of the shakla vetarya method of questions and answers that is so common in the Talmud and rabbinic sources. Nechama Leibowitz was a master at promoting this dialogue through her use of open ended questions, her encouragement of debate, and her posing questions in which every student was required to write an answer. Technology is the ideal method to enhance this by hosting asynchronous discussion forums in which every student has the chance to reflect and then compose responses on blogs or wikis and through the use of micro-blogging tools like Twitter to encourage 100% student participation in real-time during class.

Studies indicate that online asynchronous discussion forums allow students time to think about what they will post and to craft thoughtful responses. Students find that online discussions are less stressful than being called on in class. Students are also willing to discuss much more sensitive topics online than they would ever discuss in class and they work much more carefully on what they will post since “if it’s going to be for everyone to read, I want to feel good about they way it is going to represent me.” Students also utilize much greater higher order thinking skills online than in a classroom discussion. On the high school level, students made more connections between current events and class content online, they developed historical thinking skills and online discussions gave students the chance to reflect and draw on prior knowledge before posting.

In The Frisch School, we have encouraged online discussions by creating a 9th grade and 10th grade wiki. In this forum, teachers from various subjects post course materials revolving around a common theme, Identity for the 9th grade and Exploration for the 10th grade. These materials can be of all types of media including text, pictures, audio, video, and links to websites. The students compose messages in the Discussion section of each page dealing with these materials. This had led to many of the same findings discussed above with students able to reflect and pose more thoughtful responses online than they usually gave in class. The wiki has also helped students make connections between different subject areas that are featured on the same page, achieving true curricular integration. For example, students referenced what they learned in Talmud class when discussing a piece of English literature, and what they learned about slavery in American history class helped shed light on the issue of slavery as it appears in the Chumash.

The wiki has also broken down the walls of the classroom, allowing students not only to comment on the teacher’s question, but to comment on other students in their class, and even to comment on students from other classes in their grade who have discussed the same question online. It is when students start talking to each other online that the most thrilling moments occurred. It was no longer a mere homework assignment for the students; rather, they became actively engaged because they wanted their voices to be a part of the conversation.

For example, in one heated discussion, students were asked to comment on the article on Parshat Korach by Rabbi Soloveitchik, “The Common Sense Rebellion Against Torah Authority.” The assignment asked students to comment on the article, comment on each other, and then comment on a student from a parallel track that had already hosted a wiki discussion about the article. We found that instead of posting three messages as the assignment required, many students posted five or more responses because they were a part of this “war of ideas.” In addition, the discussion went far afield from the material studied in the Chumash class about Korach and the topic of rabbinic authority mentioned in the article, with students engaging in an insightful conversation on an issue that they cared deeply about, spontaneous prayer vs. prayer from the siddur. The students genuinely enjoyed this give and take of ideas. As one student noted in the beginning of one of his messages, “Get ready for an argument. This is gonna be fun.”

This year we have expanded this “classroom without walls” to include two sister schools in Israel. On the 9th grade wiki, our students are participating in discussions together with a secular Israeli public school in Nahariya, Israel, while on the 10th grade wiki we have invited a religious Zionist school in Gush Etzion to come on board. Since all of these discussions are hosted online, the geographical distance between the students no longer matters with the difference in time zones mitigated by the asynchronous nature of these discussions. These discussions have allowed our students to broaden their perspectives by meeting others who might come from different cultural backgrounds or different levels of religious observance but who share many Jewish values and who are studying the same texts as they are.

The second approach to effectively using technology is using it to promote Constructivist and Cooperative learning. This is the natural outgrowth of the first approach. Students need to be given activities in class in which they work with each other to construct their own meaning of the text. This is most effective through chavruta learning with the teacher scaffolding the material so it is on a level to challenge the students without being overly daunting. Technology greatly enhances this. Some tools that can be used are project-based activities like Webquests, where students use online resources to create a finished product, and open-ended software programs like Gemara Berura that assist students in learning through a sugya with a chavruta. In Gemara Berura, students learn how to read a text of Talmud on their own through a color and shape coded system and through the use of databases of keywords, definitions, and biographies of all of the rabbinic sages. Students involved in these types of programs and web-based projects actively engage with the text, allowing the teacher to transition from being the “Sage on the Stage” who is the source for all information to being the “Guide on the Side” who helps students interpret and evaluate the information that they find on their own.

Finally, technology can be utilized to create Compelling Course Content to directly address student boredom. These are the bells and whistles that make learning “fun.” While this cannot be a primary focus of technology integration, it can be used to great effect as a part of a well constructed lesson. Technology supports this through showing audio and video clips (never more than a few minutes in length), through art, and through interactive resources that are especially effective when used with a Smart Board. Studies indicate that the use of the Smart Board increases student motivation through the seamless integration of technology into the lesson. Students also enjoy touching the board to manipulate text and images and the board easily facilitates student-led presentations.

One example of an interactive technology that I have used together with the Smart Board in my Tanakh classes is Google Earth. Google Earth not only helps one to navigate to any part of the globe and manipulate it with a finger, it allows for overlays with other materials as well. For example, when we are learning about when Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in the beginning of the 2nd Commonwealth in the book of Nehemiah Chapters 3-4, one can overlay modern Jerusalem with a map of ancient Jerusalem that references all of the places mentioned in the Tanakh. In another example, we can study the eclipse of the sun predicted in the book of Amos by opening a Google Earth file created by NASA of the total eclipse of the sun over the Middle East which took place during the time of Amos on June 15, 763 BCE. This model shows the precise time to the second of this eclipse and exactly how much of an eclipse occurred (around 92%) at every location in Israel.

It is important to consider even when creating exciting and entertaining course content that it be open-ended in order to encourage questioning and higher order thinking. Activities where the answer magically appears after a few moments have little educational value because they only encourage rote memorization while stifling thinking.

In summary, technology is a powerful tool for Jewish education but one that must be used carefully in order to utilize its benefits. It can greatly improve communications between teacher and student and among students that is the hallmark of the dialectical approach of Jewish study throughout the ages. It can also greatly enhance chavruta learning by creating the scaffolds students need to learn on their own. Finally, it can help create exciting course content to engage students in the lesson. Great care must be used, as technology when used ineffectively can be detrimental to the learning process. Technology coordinators or directors of educational technology who are teachers knowledgeable in good pedagogy in both general and Judaic Studies as well as expert in technology can greatly assist their fellow educators in unlocking the great potential that technology offers for our students.

Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the Director of Educational Technology at the Frisch School in Paramus, NJ, and the author of numerous articles as well as of a popular blog on technology and Jewish education, techrav.blogspot.com. He can be reached at Tzvi.Pittinsky@Frisch.org.

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iSchool

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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