Friday, July 15, 2011

Cellphones, Facebook, and the Banning of Technology in Schools

A discussion developed on the Lookjed educators' list recently about cellphones in schools. It seems that there is a Yeshiva in Israel which uses a signal blocker to prevent their students from using cellphones in certain locations at certain times (probably the Beit Midrash during morning seder and the like). Most respondents to the original post were thrilled with the potentially availability of such a device, while one commenter took the extreme opposite approach, nothing that we cannot ban everything and it is better to make learning more fun for the students so that they do not feel the need to text or do whatever else it is they are doing on their phones.

I held off commenting on this thread for a while, and when I saw that no one else had taken what I consider to be the middle road on this issue, I contributed my two cents. Before getting to the heart of my thoughts on the issue, I would like to broaden it as well.

I would guess that many schools are like mine in that they have some form of a ban on cellphones during school hours. This results in a cute cat-and-mouse game of students trying to use their phones and some teachers trying to catch them. Every once in a while a culprit is caught, and those teachers who are particularly savvy about it generally have fewer students texting anyway - either because the kids know that the teacher knows the tricks or because teachers who are savvy about stuff like this also happen to be pretty savvy about how to hold the attention of students (what we call "with-itness").

I would guess as well that there are many schools that ban or block various websites on their school's server. Obviously, a school should take steps to block any pornographic or similarly objectionable sites, but it seems that other sites, such as Facebook, have been targeted as well.

In asking around, I have had a difficult time finding a good reason for banning Facebook (or other similar sites, but no question that FB is the most popular one and thus the easiest target). If the issue is that it distracts kids while they are online, then we may as well ban the entire internet. If the issue is that kids share things on FB that are not appropriate for school, then we have to ask if we are banning something that has tremendous upside because of the possible actions of a few deviants (and keep in mind that every rule in a school has a few deviants - dress code, anyone?). If the issue is that Facebook and texting can and sometimes are used for social exclusion, bullying, and cyber-harassment, then once again we have to consider both that these things can take place without these tools and that we are potentially banning useful tools because of the possible misuse by a few.

Obviously, I am increasingly not in favor of such bans and blocks, and not only because I make use of both of these tools extensively. One some level, I believe that such policies stem from the digital native/digital immigrant divide. Most of the adults in schools, even those of us who are relatively tech-savvy, are still digital immigrants. We can remember a part of our lives when digital technology was not the lifeblood of human existence. Our students, on the other hand, are natives. They have been using computers since several minutes after birth, and they are thus incredibly agile with a wide range of tools. There is no doubt that they use their cellphones and Facebook accounts in ways that most adults do not - and to some extent that probably scares us. Not scares us in the sense of worried that something bad might happen, but scared in the sense that this obliterates the normal power structure in school. Our students may be zooming past us on the information superhighway, driving fully tricked-out sportscars while we are trying to figure out all of the features on our five-year old minivans. And so we level the playing field the only way we can - we let the air out of their tires by setting up bans and blocks.

This is a battle that we will lose. If we are merely banning something, our students will find a way to beat the ban. If we block a site, we run the risk of having mediocre reasons for doing so, which will ultimately make us look silly and weak to our students.

So what to do? My position is that our best bet is to co-opt technology as much as we can, and for two reasons:

1) They are very useful in educational settings. Basic cellphones can be used as calculators and as clickers, using sites such as Smartphones are even better, as they are effectively mini-computers, and hence research devices that students have and thus schools do not even have to buy. Facebook can be used as a communication device within a class or a school community. Their newest competitor, Google+, seems to have even more potential for use in schools (and within two weeks of its beta rollout there are already a myriad of posts online about how best to utilize it in education).

2) We are wasting a golden educational opportunity. To the extent that we have concerns about how students make use of their phones or facebook accounts, the only way that we educate them about this right now is to have lectures by experts, from within the school or outside, about the dangers of the internet. If these were effective, there would be no need to keep having them, and thus I would conclude that a powerpoint slideshow by some grave-looking individual cannot compete for a moment with the razzle-dazzle of colorful and social websites (who did you listen to as a teenager - your mother or your friends?). By allowing these things in school, we have a chance to offer guidance, to provide students with more socially acceptable and appropriate ways to use all of their wonderful toys, and occasionally to catch them misusing them - thus opening up a teachable moment in a relevant manner (lectures in auditoriums are not teachable moments).

There is one more reason to make use of these tools as much as we can in schools. As I noted above, our students use their phones in a manner that is different, either qualitatively or quantitatively, from the way that we use them. However, I have noticed that they can be limited in the way that they use them. To them, a cellphone is for texting, music, and games - but not for answering poll questions or helping in a collaborative effort in class. To the extent that we can show them new cool ways to use technology, we may close the native/immigrant gap one small bit at a time.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Do Your Students Type in Hebrew?

There is a debate underway in this country about the value of teaching cursive (aka script) handwriting in schools. Defenders of this age-old practice speak of it as a venerable institution, helping students move from a clunky print handwriting to a more mellifluous and unbroken script, and thus, presumable, aiding in the writing process. A person properly signs his name in script, and thus this skill is one that should continue to be taught as soon as students have properly mastered printing.

On the other side of the argument are those who claim that students barely write anymore. That is not to say that they no longer compose sentences, but rather that they rarely engage in the physical act known as writing. As technology continues to ride its ever-increasing and all-encompassing encroachment into our lives and the lives of our students, the fact is that the times when a person will need to actually write something by hand may be reduced to nothing more than the occasional signing of his name.

Whichever side of this debate one finds himself on (and I suspect that the qwerty crowd will ultimately succeed, or at least minimize the time used in teaching cursive - see here for one such example), Jewish schools have a second item to think about in this regard - teaching Hebrew keyboarding. Until now, it was fairly easy to ignore this skill - Judaic Studies teachers, at least in Middle School and High School, are somewhat notorious for assigning far less homework and far fewer papers than their General Studies counterparts, and given the general inability of our students to type in Hebrew, we have allowed ourselves to be satisfied will transliterations or pencilled-in Hebrew, while silently praising those few students who have mastered Hebrew typing on their own.

But we are entered a time when this will no longer suffice. Google forms and wikis allow a teacher to create homework assignments that students can answer online, and they both allow one to type in Hebrew. To the extent that students are not trained in Hebrew typing, the questions asked by nature must be limited - no direct quotes from פסוקים, no finding a שורש, and certainly no work for עברית class at all. Why should half of our faculty be forced to accept a בדיעבד use of the wonderful tools that are out there?

The students may, of course, pick up on this disparity as well. If their General Studies courses are rich in computer-based assignments and their Judaic Studies classes still rely on pen and paper, which half of the day will seem to be more dynamic and relevant to their increasingly wired and screen-based lives? We have a difficult enough time making Torah relevant to our 21st century students - we should at least take advantage of those avenues that are readily open and available.

Of course, teaching Hebrew keyboarding (remember when it was called typing?) will take time, but the solution should be easy. Just as the 3rd grade English teacher has to give up a little time to invest in this future skill, 4th grade Hebrew teachers should be willing to make the same sacrifice in the name of the bigger picture (students should not learn two keyboards at once - that could result in system overload). While it might cost a perek or two of Navi, which could of course be made up by any creative and enterprising teacher, it will give their students the opportunity to acquire a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their educational careers.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Student-Centered Education - Good for the Jews?

(This post is a semi-continuation from this post)

One of the most important terms in education today is the notion of student-centered education. As opposed to teacher-centered education, where the topics to be studied, the sources of knowledge, and the pace of learning are all determined by the all-wise and all-knowing oracle at the front of the room, student-centered learning aims to shift the locus of control of all three of those elements to the student as much as possible.

As I discussed in my previous post, this is already being done at higher levels of education. College students get to choose their classes (although the professor often guides things from there), and more and more those students can choose when they learn, as many professors are putting material online. The notion of an independent study allows the student to choose a topic, find his or her own source material, and decide when each stage of the work will be done, with the professor contributing some necessary guidance and advice (and a dissertation is basically an independent study on steroids). High school elective courses provide students with a chance to choose their topics of study, but, again, the teachers tend to maintain control over the other elements of the learning experience.

Online and blended learning at ever-lower levels of education represents an attempt to shift significant amounts of control to the student and an even-younger age. Obviously, one challenge is to make sure that we are not giving students too much choice, too soon. Even in the rosiest vision of a blended learning environment, trained educators will still have a role in terms of defining and delimiting the parameters of what sources should be studied, where and how to find those sources, what to do with those sources, how to analyze material, and on and on. But those challenges are for a different post (and, trust me, I will get there).

My current concern - and, remember, I am in favor of this type of learning - is whether or not the notion of student-centered learning is in fact consistent with Jewish values. We place a tremendous amount of importance on the authority of our tradition and our elders, an idea which seems increasingly out of place in a society that emphasizes the "new new thing" - and especially when the divide between digital natives and digital immigrants (Prensky, 2001) accentuates that divide to a perhaps unprecendented degree. As Yossi Prager of the Avi Chai Foundation said in his remarks to the graduates of the Azrieli Graduate School this year:

"Traditional religion, and Judaism especially, is countercultural; it can only flourish by forging an alternative to the culture around us. Freedom is freedom to stand apart from the tyranny of the present [secular] consensus; it is the freedom to transform ourselves into something faithful yet new, disciplined yet unprecedented..."

Respect for authority may indeed be part of our countercultural nature, and it is a backbone of what has kept us who we are. Blended and online learning present amazing possibilities with the opportunity to transform so many aspects of education in so many ways. However, it is important that we understand and anticipate some of the collateral issues that can develop, and work to construct an educational approach that can keep our students in the center without having them think that the world revolves around them.

Monday, July 4, 2011

What kind of children are we raising?

My Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital, once told of a conference he attended in Bar-Ilan University. At that conference (whose exact purpose I do not recall), one of the academics declared that artificial intelligence and robotics had reached a point - and this was at least 15 years ago - where the day was not far away where a robot could be built that could do everything that a mother could do. Short of marvelling at the advances in technology, Rav Amital took a broader view and replied, "Yes, we could construct such a robot that could serve in place of a mother. But what kind of child would it raise?"

This question is consistently on my mind these days as we continue to make computers and technology an increasingly important part of education. It seems that we have reached at least the third level of computer involvement in education. Once upon a time, computers were more or less for typing up papers - glorified typewriters, if you will. The next level was computers as a communication tool (email) and then sliding into a role as a classroom aide (smartboards, etc.). The current level is computers being used as a more collaborative medium, as blogs, wikis, googledocs and so on allow students and students and/or students and teachers to work together on projects, lessons, and an ever-widening variety of educational experiences.

Now education is moving towards the next level - online learning or blended learning. In some ways, this has already arrived. The University of Phoenix is famous for their online courses, and people have been able to order great books or entire university courses on tape for decades. has made it possible to download thousands of shiurim and to literally follow shiur yomi from many of Yeshiva University's Roshei Yeshiva. However, all of those efforts have been aimed mainly as adults. What is beginning to happen is the introduction of this type of learning at the high school, the middle school, and perhaps even the elementary school level.

Few, if any, people are suggesting that 3rd graders should download their assignments, watch YouTube videos, and play podcasts and somehow assemble an education in that fashion. Rather, most suggestions to this effect speak of gradually introducing more and more computer-based elements into a student's education, thus providing them with the opportunity to expand their horizons, better control the pace of their own education, and come to class ready to discuss that which they have already absorbed. As I will discuss in future posts, there is much to commend this approach to education when done well and in an age-appropriate fashion.

However, I write this post as a necessary caution for myself and all other like-minded educators who willingly embrace the next wave in education, and particularly if technology is involved. To my mind, much good has already been achieved through our adoption of various technologies, and there is much more good still on the way. However, we have to bear in mind Rav Amital's question - what kind of children will we raise if we hand over significant portions of the education process to machines? Our role as educators is not simply to pour information into receptacles known as children. Rather, we are charged with helping our students develop as students, as good citizens, as socially responsible members of society, and as Bnei and Bnot Torah. Computers can accomplish the information aspect - we have to make sure that we hold on to our role and ability to do the rest.