Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Finding Dragons in the Clouds

I remember, as a kid, lying on my back on the side of hill looking at the sky, finding a dragon, George Washington and a tree floating amidst the white, billowing clouds.  I'm going to bet that most of us have had similar experiences, finding disparate symbols in the mist that resides in the sky.  Clouds are made up of water vapor, much of which has previously fallen near or to earth and then evaporates. They are self-renewing. But I think they stand for something else:  The infinite reaches of nature.  For me a cloud summons Heschel's idea of radical amazement.  So attending ISTE 2011 I find myself being amazed and amazed again.  Not at the works of nature or God, (unless we believe that the Deity's Hand is in everything) but at the efforts of Woman and Man.  It's not so much that I am blown away by the latest animation software or iteration of optical touch screens. I am. It's that we are not done yet.  We are still Primitives.  Next year at ISTE there will be new technology.  New applications.  What is innovative today will be passé next summer. But that really doesn't matter.  What's important for me, at least, is what these works of humanity represent.  It's the symbolism that I'm writing about.

I have a confession to make.  In the middle of the day today I escaped the world of apps and androids.  I needed fresh air.  I also had a pilgrimage to make.  You see, I’ve never seen the Liberty Bell in real life.  It’s always been a part of every American’s life.  For my family and me, all being immigrants from the “old country”, it took on special significance, as my parents had chosen the freedom of America that The Bell represented.  So I figured that I’d take a couple of hours to visit this symbol of liberty for which my parents risked their (and my) lives to reach.

Symbols are something conceived by humans to represent something greater.  Our Jewish tradition is full of them: the Chanukiah, challah, the mezuzah, and tallit to name a few.   The Liberty Bell is an example of one of the icons of American secular religion.  I was surprised by my reaction as I stood before this flawed chunk of metal.  I was truly in Awe.

As I gazed upon the cracked and silent bell, I realized that it’s message of liberty (an idea that was associated to the bell 100 years after its casting to protest the abomination of slavery) transcended its physicality. The Bell represents something greater than itself.  It is a symbol that bridges the past with the future.

What does this have to do with Google, Second Life, and wireless document cameras?  These amazing constructs that astound us at their power are but transient symbols and signposts pointing to tomorrow. One of the sessions I attended focused on virtual games and simulations. The instructor (Dr. Greg Jones) pointed out that there is no definitive research that shows that using gaming and sims in the classroom results in higher student achievement. They are short lived. Tomorrow there will be something new. Dr. John Medina, the keynote speaker on Sunday also said that it is still to early to judge the long-term impact of digital technology on the brain. The ISTE conference and the drive to integrate education technology in our classrooms is not The Answer.  It is a symbol for a direction that we are choosing to travel.  It is representing a new way to interact with our environment, what we have learned, and what we will learn.

In the Jewish world, we are also travelling this evolutionary path.  We are used to it. We started out with Oral Law.  Then we wrote it down.  Then we interpreted it…again and again. That’s what the Responsa and commentary are all about.  We’re still doing it.  Storahtelling.  Media Midrash. Bible Raps. G-dcast.comJewish Education Network. YU 2.0. There’s more.  Things I don’t know about and things we haven’t yet thought of.  And before all that I am…Amazed.

Clouds represent the infiniteness of nature, and if you will, the Holy as It interacts with the physical world.  The cloud that we are creating represents human potential.  Just like the Liberty Bell.  The cloud we are crafting does not reside in the sky.  Lo BaShamayim Hee.  It resides in us, in our hearts. Clouds flit across the sky, ever-changing.  The electronic cloud we are creating also doesn’t stand still. We shape its form and direction.  We must remember that we are in the midst of an ever-changing process that defines intellectual and technological development.  This also applies to how Jewish learning accommodates and adapts to contemporary reality. If we want a definition of Jewish survival, I think that’s it: We never stand still. We change our shape and form, but we won’t dissipate into nothing.  We adapt and renew, taking on new forms. Just like clouds.

Before I forget, here's a picture of the Liberty Bell.  Can you find the crack?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Lessons Learned in the Cloud...So Far

My head is spinning.  My first 36 hours at the ISTE 2011 conference have left me intellectually exhausted. And my feet hurt.  I need to tell you that the Philadelphia Convention Center is BIG.  Really.  So what have I learned that I can share with you? Well, let’s frame it in this context:  What are my “takeaways” after one full day at the largest educational technology conference in the world? Here’s a random and partial list:

1)   The conference keynote speaker was Dr. John Medina, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.  Dr. Medina, a molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine revealed that every person’s brain responds to the environment in its own unpredictable and unique fashion. If there is one generalization that can be made about the human brain, it’s that "it is designed to solve problems related to survival in unstable meteorological settings while in constant motion". According to Dr. Medina, the best way to learn is in a setting that is characterized by “aerobic exercise punctuated by islands of learning”. In other words, the classrooms in which we place our children, and the offices in which we find ourselves are incompatible with our biology. The implications are that when it comes to learning, there is no one-size-fits all. Brain research is the proof text.
2)   Learning is quickly leaving the realm of the traditional classroom, and is entering an augmented, virtual reality. Mobile technology, such as QR codes, smart phones, and iPads, will soon be mainstream tools in the classroom. We’re talking within a matter of a few years, according to the Horizon Report: 2011 edition, an authoritative annual publication focusing on the future of education.
3)   On another note, it seems that Google is striving to become the proprietor of all human knowledge.  I couldn’t believe how many applications can be found with the name Google associated with it:  Plan your next vacation with Google City Tours; explore the human body with Google Body; investigate the science behind a bottle stopper at Google Patents; read the front page of your favorite magazine or news paper at Google Fast Flip.

I could go on.  I won’t because there is so much more.  I think the main thing I’ve taken away so far is that many of the assumptions that we have held about the nature of knowledge, learning and teaching are being revisited and rendered, in some cases, irrelevant. It’s almost like we need to start over and rebuild what we think we know when it comes to teaching our kids.  Knowledge no longer resides only in books or in the minds of great teachers.  We can find it anywhere, and anytime we want. 

What is great is that when it comes to the future of Jewish education, I’m going to be an optimist.  There are many Jewish educators here. Some are associated with Dayschools, others with what’s called part-time or complimentary Jewish education:  congregational schools, after-school programs and informal education.  We are all here to learn, with our general and secular education colleagues, how to build a better future for all of our students.  It is an exciting time. There is hope for a Jewish future.

Oh, and there is one more thing I’ve taken away. Hand luggage isn’t always hand luggage.  Don’t plan on a quick getaway from the airport by meticulously packing all of your belongings in a small carry-on. The flights attendants may decide that there is no room for your small bag. Then Murphy’s Law will come into play:  Your hand luggage will be the last piece to arrive.

Maybe some things will never change.  

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Flying Into the Cloud

There’s something about airports. I find them exciting. For me I think they represent travelling into the unknown.  I mean I know that I’m flying to Philadelphia to participate in the ISTE11 (International Society for Technology in Education) conference, but I’m not exactly certain what to expect.  That’s a thrilling prospect.  What I understand is that thousands (according to one description I’ve read, 20000) educators and participants will be there.  Wow!

Thanks to PELIE (Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education) I’m going to have the opportunity to explore ways that Jewish education can be transformed, through the use of digital and cloud based learning experiences. My pedagogical toolbox will be restocked and refitted.  These new implements of learning and teaching can be means that will certainly enhance the way we engage our students.  Just as the radio and television revolutionized what went on in the classroom in the last century, Google Docs, edmodo and mobile technology can transform learning tomorrow.

Of course, I’m going with a specific goal – exploring how edtech can be integrated into the Jewish classroom.  Just as secular education suffers from budget constraints, Jewish education (especially complimentary Jewish education) also is impacted by a deficit in financial support from synagogues, federations and national organizations. My hope is to explore how we can overcome monetary limitations and create vibrant Jewish educational experiences with the technology we already have, while advocating for increased investment.

For the next few days I’ll be blogging here about my experiences.  If you are interested in learning more about this conference from a Jewish perspective, follow on twitter at #pelietech, #jed21 and #avichaifdn. For general info about the conference, follow #iste11.

Onward and Upward!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

One of the blogs I follow is Jewschool.com– a site that presents fascinating, and at times challenging, perspectives of the current and future state of Judaism. I just read this piece by Dan Ab questioning conventional wisdom and the view that Day School education is the primary Jewish educational tool.  The writer reiterates the point I have made elsewhere:  That the majority of children receiving any type of Jewish education DO NOT attend Day Schools. He reminds us all that we must devote our efforts to a broad based and pluralistic approach that validates and supports the various forms of formal and informal Jewish educational experiences. I’m posting this piece as a reminder that as important as Day School education is, it isn’t the ONLY answer or option.  There are many keys that will open the door for our children that will lead to future Jewish engagement. We must not put our proverbial eggs all in one basket. (Note: I’m cross-posting most of the piece. You can go here to read it in its entirety. I did not include the original last paragraph.)  

Taking from the poor to pay for day schools is not the way to improve Jewish education

A recent article in the Forward, by Jerome A. Chanes, discusses the perennial issue of why we must focus our Jewish education efforts on day schools and how to make them affordable. “The system, at least with respect to the most prominent prescription for the [Jewish] future — education — is broken. Jewish parents find themselves increasingly caught between rising day school tuitions and declining real-dollar income. Teachers’ salaries in many Jewish day schools are disgraceful. And because in tough economic times, schools cannot afford to alienate anyone, day schools are increasingly parent-driven — not necessarily a good thing. Add to these a rather flaccid commitment on the part of federations to Jewish education. The system is collapsing.” He worries that, “The Hebrew-based charter school represents a further erosion of the classic text-based Jewish curriculum… The charter schools take this erosion to a new, dangerous, level by separating Hebrew learning from Judaism completely.” He concludes that charter schools are a distraction and only reallocation of more Federation funds towards day schools will fix the broken system.

Dr. Chanes put forth an almost identical solution in a 2009 article for The NY Jewish Week . He hadn’t happened upon the Charter school bogeyman yet, but he did detail which priorities federations need to shift. He urges that federations spend more money subsidizing day school tuition and less money on gyms, immigrant aid, child care for those in need, and poverty programs. He rationalizes this by noting most of the poverty related federation programs spend a lot of money on non-Jews, and, “most analysts agree that Jewish poverty is, in 2009, not the pressing issue for the community.”

Dr. Chanes is not the only opinionator preaching the doom of Jewish peoplehood that can only be avoided if we massively increase donations to day schools. I’m highlighting him because he’s one of the only ones brave enough – at least in 2009 – to say what charitable causes he considers less important than day schools. I (and a few millennia of Jewish ethical principles) might differ with his funding priorities. It’s also questionable if the UJA-Federation of NY, with annual grants of $167 million is even big enough to meaningfully subsidize the 93,000 day school children just in NYC. I’m also doubtful federations would receive their current levels of donations if they followed his suggestions. Still, I give Dr. Chanes credit for being willing to propose where the money should come from.

My bigger concern is that the basic solution for improving Jewish education woes through massive increases in subsidies to day schools, proposed by Dr. Chanes and others, ignores the greater problem we face in giving the next generation the education they need to live Jewish lives. In discussing the importance of day schools in The NY Jewish Week, Chanes notes that almost 30% of Jewish children in the NY area study in a day school or yeshiva. Even taking that number at face value, in the US region with probably the greatest proportion of Jewish day school attendees, over 70% of Jewish children don’t attend them! Many don’t receive any formal Jewish education. And there’s no evidence that any remotely realistic reallocation of Jewish philanthropy towards day school tuition subsidies will shift these percentages by a useful amount. For example, a 2001 report from the AVI CHAI Foundation by Jack Wertheimer notes that, assuming a $10,000 cost per student, it would require an extra $1 billion a year to support a 50% increase US day school enrollment. An article in the Forward this week—in the very same issue as Dr. Chanes’ article—details how a $65 million effort by the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education has helped created new day schools and improved quality, but did little to increase the total number of children actually attending.

Many day schools provide a quality secular education paired with more hours devoted to Judaics than any other option. The children who attend them are given the skills, and frequently the desire, to be vital and active members of our communities. Day schools have unquestionably earned the Jewish community’s intellectual and financial support. However, a narrow focus on supporting day schools as the primary means to educate future Jews shortchanges the educational needs of the vast majority of Jewish children.

We need to find ways to bring more children into formal Jewish education, starting at young ages. We need to work together to improve the quality of Jewish education for children in all forms of educational programs. We need to innovate, document, and evaluate new models of Jewish education to increase the quality and content of Jewish education for children inside and outside day schools.

New models like Hebrew language charter schools paired with afterschool education in Judaics (Dr. Chanes seems to have forgotten to mention the afterschool Judaics component in his Forward article), might be a good fit for some families and communities, but not others. Programs like Kesher and Edah are trying to take the daily afterschool hours, when many families need childcare, and use them for Jewish education. I’m part of an effort to set up a similar program, currently called WMAJA, on the Maryland/ D.C. border. I described my vision in a bit more detail in an article for CJ Magazine. These afterschool programs won’t be the right fit for every Jewish family, but they do have the advantage of being mostly self-supporting (after the start-up years), and they can give children who aren’t in day schools – for a variety of reasons – more Jewish education than they’re currently getting.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Genesis Redux

“The medium, or process, of our time – electric technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life...Everything is changing…Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men [sic] communicate than by the content of the communications.” (Marshall McLuhan)
These prescient words were written by Marshall McLuhan in his ironically entitled book The Medium is the Massage in 1967.  The volume was an accessible explanation of his earlier (and denser) work.  His premise, ergo the title, was that:

“All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive…that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.  The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”
Facebook has changed the world.  It’s not so much WHAT’S said on this social network.  It’s how it is said.  It is the way we make ourselves known. We declaim.  We share private moments. We express our opinions without regard of who reads our words. Being a friend is now a verb and relates to people who, in the past, we would have ordinarily forgotten. We publically open ourselves up to the world.  The public square, once the center of town, is no longer a place where we need to physically gather to find out “what’s happening”.  It is nowhere and everywhere. It is the global, virtual, social network. The soapboxes upon which we stand are plugged into an available power outlet.

So what do we do about this?  Embrace it.

If what we say becomes, as McLuhan wrote, shaped by how we express it, then we need to understand the social networking environment.  Notions of privacy are being thrown out, and replaced by new norms. The nature of public discourse is being redefined. The way our students conduct themselves in both the physical and virtual universes has been shaped by digital life and will translate into modes of behavior and learning in the classroom. The way we teach must reflect the way our students interact with their environment.  We, the instructors, are just one facet of that educational milieu. Rather than bemoan the accouterments of social networking, it is incumbent upon us to truly understand the ramifications of these new definitions and modes of behavior and direct our energies towards accommodating what we do, as teachers and educators, to these new realities.

Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, bemoans the state of humanity, blaming its inevitable demise on the invention of those insidious new technologies, the alphabet and writing.   He claims that this new fangled idea of writing things down will result in the destruction of memory. How far have we gone! Technology shapes the way we experience the world. McLuhan wrote: 

“The wheel is an extension of the foot; the book is an extension of the eye…clothing, an extension of the skin…electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.  Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world.  When these ratios change, men [sic] change.”
Social media has led us to new ways to interact with the world and with each other. Maybe this is the next step in human evolution. 

And it was evening, and it was morning, the next day.