Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It's not about the Benjamins

Technology in education is everywhere. Smartboards in classrooms, schools experimenting with ipads, weekly Twitter chats among educators, and on and on and on. At times, it can seem that not much else is happening in education. The New York Times frequently has articles that seem to shine a harsh light on tech's role in education, while the New York Jewish Week's education writer seems to write about nothing but technology in education.

What is interesting to me is that many of this articles focus on the finances of education technology, and that angle is particularly emphasized in discussions of technology in Jewish schools. With the high cost of Yeshiva tuition (whether or not it is high compared to what it costs a public school is irrelevant since you still have to pay for tuition in addition to your taxes), people are looking for any solution available that can reduce costs, and technology seems to many people to be that silver bullet. Salman Khan has everyone's hearts aflutter (atwitter?) with his sweet serenades about the miracle of flipping the classroom, and new schools are opening that are pledging to leverage technology to reduce costs throughout the school.

This point was driven home to me this week when my school, Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ, was featured in a well-done and lovely short video on the Jewish Daily Forward about some of the ways that we are integrating technology in our school. Interestingly, the tag line under the video reads "As Jewish day schools look for new ways to keep tuition down, Yavneh academy in Paramus, NJ has been integrating technology and online learning into the curriculum." One would assume, therefore, that a primary goal of our technology integration is for the purpose of reducing the cost of tuition.

Now slow down a moment. Let's all take a deep breath and consider that statement. While there may be occasions where integrating technology can lead to lower costs, the fact is that most of our technology decisions are driven by a search for the best available tools to educate our students. In the 21st century, it just so happens that there are many, many tools that falls into the category of technology (replacing the previous technologies of mechanical pencils and those holed-paper reinforcements). However, we firmly believe that technology should always lose out if its benefits are dubious or non-existent when compared to other methodologies.

Beyond that, where do these cost savings come from? Computers, printers, routers, servers, ipads, smartboards, software, and so on are not cheap, can be expensive to repair or replace, and the more of them a school has, the more people the school needs to maintain them (our computer department has gone from 2 people to 4 in the last five years, and all four of them are stretched beyond belief between teaching, providing tech support, providing professional development to help teachers learn the new technology, and helping teachers plan for how and when to use tech in their classes). And even if the value of these things pays off in the long run, what exactly are they replacing in order to save a few Benjamins? Let's try to figure that out.

1) School supplies. Even if a school went completely digital, it is obvious that an ipad costs way more than pens, pencils, notebooks, and compasses. Clearly, the savings is not over here.

2) Textbooks. An interesting debate. Apple caused a tidal wave of discussion last week with their announcement about the new ibooks author and their deal with the major textbook companies to provide content via this platform. My friend Tzvi Pittinsky has written a bit on this topic on his fine blog, and while itextbooks seem promising and exciting (updatable, able to have videos and other media embedded in the books, etc), it is clear that there are many issues still to be discovered with these products. Furthermore, there are very few Jewish textbook companies, and thus as easy as ibooks author looks, it will take a serious commitment of time from somebody to start producing these books for Judaic studies. A cost saver? Unknown.

3) Teachers. This is where most people are probably thinking about saving money via technology, by reducing the amount of time that teachers need to teach, or by allowing each teacher to teach more students, and thus to ultimately require fewer teachers in each school. Since salaries eat up something on the order of 70-80% of a school's annual budget, this would seem to be the place to save money.

As someone recently wrote, "Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be." Meaning that to the extent that a teacher is simply reciting lessons that students can read on their own in books, such a teacher should certainly fear that the glowing box in the back of the room is gunning for his or her job. However, the role of a teacher in a class is so much larger than that - from designing the overall lessons and deciding which technology to include, to marking and reviewing student work (not just checking multiple-choice answers, but providing meaningful feedback and engaging students in conversation to understand how they can improve on what they have done), to identifying which students need additional help and which ones need additional challenges, to reaching out to those students who are reluctant to get involved and help empower them to become more active learners.

Even Khan's notion of a flipped classroom is not necessarily meant as a way to save money by firing teachers. He proposes having students learn the basics on their own so that class time can be spent on application, rather than saving the application for homework. What he flips is the role of the teacher to make the teacher MORE important, not less so. Instead of intoning basic information, teachers in a flipped environment become guides who respond to specific student learning needs, each on his or her own level.

While it may be possible to fit a few more students in a class that is highly driven by technology, there is a limit. While my class of 23 might be able to expand to 28, at some point it becomes very difficult to tend to the needs of all of my students. And while there are some schools that are experimenting with cubicle-like models for students who get most of their information from online materials, such programs are still too new for there to be reliable studies about them, and they are most irrelevant right now for Judaic Studies as a bare minimum amount of online material exists.

Does technology hold the power to reduce the cost of day schools? It is unclear. There are some experiments being tried across the country right now that will provide us some answers. However, the primary reason to integrate technology is because it often does hold the power to enhance and improve the educational experiences that we give our children. And that, of course, is priceless.

1 comment:

Ann said...

I do believe we need to educate our students for a life in the 21st century. And, a hard job that is as life in the 21st century changes exponentially on a daily basis when we speak of technology. I LOVE the technology that has entered my classroom - and I always get excited when I hear about other "cool" things out there.

That being said - I also believe it's a balance.

Do I believe that 21 st century technology to the exclusion of "old" ways is the way to go? Unlikely. Do I know if shifting to more technology will lower tuition costs. Unclear.

But, I do know this - our students will live in an ever changing world that we cannot even predict what it will look like for them. We must guide them as best as we can. However - building community, person-to-person relationships, learning to communicate with others are all just as important too. We must strive for the balance, ultimately.