Dr. Laya Salomon
Klal Perspectives: Technology and the 21st Century Orthodox Community
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Technology as a Learning Tool: An Educator’s Perspective
The unprecedented proliferation of technological advancements, marked by an ability to access and manipulate content in unprecedented ways, compels a measure of reflection regarding the use of new technologies in educating our children. Our hashkafa embraces great respect for limits and modesty and, though it varies in degree among different sub-communities within Orthodoxy, we all maintain some degree of separation from secular trends and fanfare. How then, and to what extent, can we balance the threats and opportunities of the Internet for our children, when its regulation often proves too alluring, even for adults? The use of the Internet as an educational vehicle is incredible, but how can children’s engagement with technology avoid becoming a terrible waste of their time – or worse, a contributor to their own spiritual, moral and academic decline?
My experience takes me to the classroom, where I supervise and mentor Judaic and General studies teachers in Orthodox Jewish elementary and high schools throughout North America. It is in these classrooms that I have observed and studied numerous contemporary uses for technology as teaching and learning tools. Summarized below are various potential opportunities and limitations in classroom technology use, as well some of the best practices that promote the use of technology in a productive and healthy way. No doubt these observations will have significant applicability beyond the classroom walls, and may even highlight reflective practices that transcend the spheres of technology.
Educational Uses for Technology
When weighing the value and costs of a particular technology, it’s important to be able to identify its intended purpose. Highlighted below are current technology’s four most common educational uses. Some technologies aim to support student learning through just one of the noted uses while others serve multiple functions. This listing will be followed by a discussion of their respective benefits and limitations.
First, technology can aid student learning by conveying the content being taught. While classroom knowledge was once conveyed exclusively through either textbooks or the teacher’s oral presentation, content can now be relayed through other mediums. On nearly every academic topic and for every grade level, there are podcasts, videos, and countless pages of written material that can be accessed online.
Technology is also used to enhance student learning. A teacher can supplement the base lessons taught in the classroom by directing students to additional material or interactive opportunities via technology. Students can access the same knowledge they confronted in class in new and innovative ways (such as via a game or video), or be introduced to additional but related content that expands or deepens the classroom lesson. In this regard, technology is a bonus enhancement – adding to a child’s education, and/or making learning more enjoyable and accessible.
Technology is also utilized as an assessment vehicle. By responding to assessment questions, students can receive instant feedback indicating how they fare in relation to their previous quiz results or in comparison to their peers. Other tools allow students to design and create materials that reflect the extent of their understanding of a topic or unit. Some applications may be rather directed, such as having a student punctuate lines of a Gemara online or record the proper reading of a pasuk (verse), while other applications are more expansive and creative, such as asking the student to write a storyboard to showcase a middah in action.
Finally, technology is often used as a simple organizational tool. Programs, apps, and sites are available to curate students’ necessary learning tools by housing worksheets, notes, photos, and links to information. These tools aim to minimize lost and crumpled papers, heavy knapsacks, illegible homework pads and an overload of folders and notebooks.
Benefits and Limitations
To what extent do these alternative uses of technology benefit our children enough to warrant their serious consideration? While all available educational uses of technology may be helpful to some degree or another, at least two, I suggest, deserve particular attention and discussion:
1. Unprecedented access to master educators and educational content
I recently supervised a teacher who, while bright and capable, was not an effective lecturer. Her demeanor was understated, and though she prepared interesting worksheets and activities, when telling a story or repeating a dvar torah, she invariably lost the attention of most of her students. I introduced her to several online sites containing video and audio recordings of divrei torah delivered in dynamic and inspiring ways. I then suggested that she consider using some of her classroom time presenting the online material, and then engage the class in a discussion of the online presentation.
Certain passionate pedagogues are particularly brilliant and knowledgeable and have a unique knack for relaying information. With technology, distance proves no longer to be a barrier and access to master pedagogues who reside across the globe has become a possibility. Whether in real time or not, students can now soak in the teachings of gifted educators and acquire an understanding and quality of learning that the typical educator might not be expected to convey.
In almost any topic, grade level or interest, there is a wealth of online content that can address the requirements of any state curriculum standards. This availability carries over to limudai kodesh, as well. Websites and portals provide access to recordings, videos and writings on nearly every Torah topic, taught and explored by exceptionally talented and well-respected bnei Torah. There are sites that produce weekly and monthly videos that capture salient Jewish ideas and core Orthodox concepts, which are sure to invoke students’ curiosity and interests. In addition, I’ve been personally involved in the creation of “all-in-one” sites – those that introduce new materials, allow students to engage in them in fun and interactive ways and offer multiple opportunities to showcase and assure understanding of the new learning. While teachers often create invaluable materials tailored to their particular students, there is also a large reservoir of prepared materials available online that can be enormously effective.
A common resistance to introducing online offerings to the classroom is the concern that it will compromise the role of the teacher or rebbe. If utilized wisely and correctly, however, the opposite is true. Online educational tools can actually significantly enhance the role of the educator. By using online tools, the rebbe or morah can spend more preparation and classroom time developing topics for discussion and engaging in rich and meaningful conversation about the material being taught. Moreover, this extra capacity allows the educator more time to address the learning needs of individual students.
Utilizing online materials in the classroom offers significant educational opportunities, but success will depend on the particular material and the online teachers chosen. Choosing the right material requires an understanding of superior teaching and learning practices. Key considerations include whether the selection will directly aid in attainment of core curricular goals, reflect the ability level of the students, sufficiently challenge the students and call for mindful engagement that assures more activity than passivity. The task of identifying the appropriate online content, and orchestrating a classroom dynamic in which online use enhances the teacher/student relationship, carries great responsibility and cannot be underestimated.
2. Unprecedented Opportunity for individualization
I have encountered students who are disconnected from learning in each type of school, in every grade level and in almost every one of the hundreds of classrooms I have visited. Whether it is an academically gifted child who immediately masters the content, a struggling student unable to keep up or perhaps someone who just doesn’t find the lesson interesting, there are always children whose needs aren’t met in the classroom. And the long-term repercussions of that are well known.
Our community recognizes the drawbacks of, and has lamented, our “one size fits all” approach in education. Educators grapple with the challenge, and search anxiously for ways to address it. Nevertheless, hard-working and dedicated teachers continue to bemoan their inability to meet the needs of all of their students, and lay the blame on limited time and resources and oversized classes.
Technology is by no means a panacea, but it does present opportunities to experiment and seek to address some of these struggles. When utilized correctly, technology can open an array of opportunities to fashion learning to individual needs and interests. Multiple paths may be explored:
- I often share with my students a Peanuts cartoon in which a forlorn Linus shares his teacher’s theory with Charlie Brown: “She says teaching is like bowling. All you can do is roll the ball down the middle and hope you touch most of your students.“ Charlie Brown replies, “She must be a terrible bowler!” Well, there’s truth to this bowling analogy. Teachers who aim to do their best and reach as many students as possible typically target their lessons towards the middle of the class’s range. Given the limited time and resources, teachers see no alternative. Alas, so many students are not being “struck” as a result. Utilizing technology, teachers can direct individual students who need extra learning help, or have yet to master certain skills, towards apps or sites that will compensate for the teacher’s limited availability. Similarly, gifted students who are stifled by the limitations of the materials presented to the entire class can be guided to more advanced and challenging learning in the same manner. The bounty of technology learning tools can, thereby, allow learning to be more individualized, mitigating the limitations imposed by scarce resources and large class sizes.
- Studies have evidenced that students acquire and retain information most effectively when it is actively used. Rather than simply listening to a teacher as a passive recipient, students in an active learning environment are involved in the learning through reading, writing, discussing, interacting and problem solving. Students can be compelled by technology to actively engage in the content, with features that require that they respond to, manipulate and interact with the information in a hands-on manner. Active engagement of the student makes the learning more enjoyable and eliminates the option of daydreaming or affirmatively choosing to opt out of the lesson.
- Each child is an individual, with unique talents, interests and passions. Too often, however, this individuality is not fully identified and utilized, and neglected by our educational system. Students obviously grow much more from their academic experiences and advance more significantly in their subsequent endeavors if their individual attributes are Technology introduces unprecedented opportunities to do just that: The students who are drawn to construction or architecture can virtually build a kosher sukkah or engage in an online engineering project; those who love to draw can depict their understanding of a perek or a unit through an illustrated e-book or comic strip, and so much more. Technology can also facilitate a student’s exploration of additional spheres of study that are of particular interest. A student enamored with a certain topic – such as a particular gadol or era of history – can conduct extra research on that topic and share their newfound knowledge with the teacher and fellow classmates. By tapping into their interests and talents, students can develop a sense of ownership and joy in their learning that is personal and meaningful to them.
- While some students in a classroom are interacting with learning via technology tools, the teacher can provide personalized instruction to others, individually or in small groups. Teachers can thereby maximize the students’ learning experience and also connect with individual students on a personal level.
- Recently, a concept called “flipping” has surfaced as an educational trend. Students learn the basic material (such as the simple meaning of a series of pesukim (verses) in Judaic Studies or mathematical rules and formulas in general studies) at home via a website or app that supplies the content, or through a teacher’s own visual and audio recording of the content. Classroom time is then used to delve more deeply into the content already learned at home, as well as to apply, discuss and practice it. The traditional classroom model is “flipped” – instead of instruction taking place in school and practice and deep application being assigned for homework, technology allows for just the opposite. With the flipped model, students who struggle with the basic learning and core skills can view the recordings of the basic material multiple times at home, and at their own pace. Classroom time can then be used for more meaningful learning, offering more in-class opportunities for teachers to connect with students and target their needs.
While the potential benefits of technology use in education as described are potentially invaluable, there are certainly risks and costs. To help mitigate these risks and costs, two practices are set forth below that should be employed when making decisions regarding technology use, whether in the classroom or at home.
Technology as A Tool
Webster’s dictionary defines a tool as “something used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or profession; a means towards an end.” It is imperative to remember that technology is a tool. If construed by individuals or institutions as being anything but a tool, technology will prove to be either useless or harmful. As with any tool, the impact and effectiveness of technology is dictated not by the nature of the device itself, but rather by how it is actually used. It is with the user of the tool that ultimate responsibility lies.
When using a tool, one must first recognize the benefits the tool is intended to provide and then identify the optimum manner for realizing such benefits. When used as a tool in education, the benefits and purpose of technology is to advance learning and personal growth. When, how, and why to use a form of technology in education, then, should first and foremost be guided by the extent to which it addresses these goals. How can a particular technology benefit or advance the child’s learning? How can it provide him or her with an educational opportunity that exceeds traditional classroom instruction? How can it develop the student’s love for learning? How is success measured? These are questions that we must be able to confidently answer with each child-technology interaction. I’ve seen classrooms in which students are working on devices simply because it’s the fashionable thing to do. Educators and parents are sometimes blindly guided by what appears to be fun and in vogue, without recognizing that, devoid of a clear goal, the technology can be nothing but a distraction.
Just as a hammer is useless without the skilled hand that directs its every move, technology is powerful only to the extent that it is monitored and directed by knowledgeable and experienced individuals. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Kentaro Toyama, author and Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, describes technology’s effect as an “amplification of current human forces.” He asserts that access to technology is not a solution to educational challenges; if anything, it augments the problems. While children with a greater interest in learning will gravitate towards information-rich sites, the distraction to children who lack motivation will simply be exacerbated by video games. “If a private company is failing to make a profit, no one expects that state-of-the-art data centers, better productivity software, and new laptops for all of the employees will turn things around.” The view and expectation that technology itself will fix our children’s educational challenges is flawed. Toyama argues for high-quality adult training and supervision in the use of technologies, noting that only good teaching can address educational issues.
The benefits of technology to children are lost if technology is used as a babysitting technique and if, during its use, parents and teachers are physically absent or mindfully removed. Teachers must play critical roles in choosing the right technology, interacting with students during the process to ensure it’s being used in a maximally beneficially way and overseeing progress and learning gains. As noted, the effectiveness of educational technology is dependent on the critical role played by parents and teachers, not on the technology itself.
Not only does misuse of technology reduce its benefits, but as with many tools, misuse can introduce enormous danger. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect a child to safely navigate the use of the Internet on his own. Adults need to carefully consider what safety features they must put into place, determine what barriers to build and determine how the child should be educated about the Internet’s proper use.
Finally, it should always be recognized that, while technology may be a valuable learning aid, it should never replace core learning. A recent Yale study revealed a cautionary element to technology. Two groups of people were asked random questions about life, history and science. One of the groups was able to seek answers online while the second group was not. Subsequently, both groups were asked another random set of questions but this time neither group was given access to online research. Participants who had online access in the initial round of questions displayed overconfidence in their ability to answer questions even when online access was denied. Connectivity to the Internet created a false sense of actual knowledge attainment! Findings like these, which have been supported by other similar studies, point to the need to ensure individuals’ internalization and comprehension of core knowledge and skills. Knowledge must ultimately rest in the hearts and minds of our children, not solely be accessible to them in the RAM of a computer device.
When technology is viewed as a tool – as a means, rather than as an end – adults can make responsible decisions regarding its use as a benefit for children. But first the end goals must be identified, and only then can it be determined how technology can help achieve those goals.
Consistency at Home and in School
Research has conclusively shown that a child’s education is profoundly enhanced by the existence of a partnership between home and school, marked by mutual communication, joint decision-making and agreed upon goals. In such conditions, students demonstrate more positive attitudes towards learning, enjoy higher achievement scores and improved behavior and put more trust in their schooling and education.
Successful use of technology in a child’s education similarly requires a partnership between home and school. Schools should articulate a clear philosophy regarding the use of technology, and the home should aim to convey an approach consistent with that vision. With such a partnership, the child feels trusting of both environments, and – with maturation – is better positioned to make informed decisions. This consistency results when schools collaborate with parents on decision making and policy setting, particularly on matters pertaining to technology and its use. Similarly, it is imperative that a consistent philosophy and vision for technology be communicated to children by their school’s Judaic and secular studies divisions.
The Orthodox community has been wise in adopting a rather cautionary approach to the embrace of technology. With the rise of advanced technologies and the Internet, a new era has dawned, redefining the range of opportunities for communication, knowledge sharing and personal growth.
Aside from the religious and behavioral concerns that parents and educators must protect against when introducing children to online use, concerns abound regarding the use of technology in education. Does technology in education detract from a child’s ability to learn in a traditional mode? Does the use of online learning accustom students to intellectual over-stimulation, with the bombardment of online glitz compromising children’s ability to concentrate on conventional reading and writing? These questions must be addressed, as we search for clear and definite answers.
Technology continues to advance and to play an increasing role in all aspects of our lives, including education. New tools bring new questions and challenges but also bring new opportunities for learning and growing. We cannot ignore technology’s potential in the education of our children, but rather must tolerate, if not encourage and embrace, its advancements in other spheres of their lives.
Like any new tool, technology offers opportunities but its proper use rests in the informed and deliberate hands that control it.
Laya Salomon, EdD is a professor at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University.
 e.g., https://www.polleverywhere.com, www.socrative.com
 e.g., https://voicethread.com
 e.g., https://storybird.com, https://animoto.com
 e.g., Aleph Beta Academy – https://www.alephbeta.org/
 Jewish Interactive – jewishinteractive.net
 Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-232.
 A number of apps allow teachers to voice-record a lesson while using a whiteboard, document, or presentation to explain the material (e.g., ShowMe, EduCreations, Jing, Screen-Cast-O-Matic). .
 “Tool” Def. 2. Merriam Webster Online, Merriam Webster, 2015.
 Toyama, K. (June 2015). “Why Technology Alone Won’t Fix Schools.” The Atlantic.
 Fisher, M., Goddu, M.K., & Keil, F.C. (2015). “Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimate of Internal Knowledge.” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 144(3) 674-687.
 National Education Association. National Council of Jewish Women (1996). Parents as School Partners: Research Report. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education/Columbia Teacher’s College.