Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Of Quills, iPads and the New York Times

The other day I opened up my print copy of the New York Times (yes, I still rely on that ancient form of technology: The printed newspaper.) I couldn’t help but notice the article on the front page, above the fold: Grading the Digital School: In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores. The piece described how the drive to digitize classrooms has not led to improved student scores, as measured by current standardized tests. Its perspective, in part, mostly challenged the prevailing philosophy that educational technology will result in increased student achievement. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think that all this is beside the point.

It isn’t that using iPads and Google Docs will necessarily make our students smarter. For better or worse, we live in an increasingly electronic world. The screen of tomorrow will define how we will interface with our environment; just as ink and paper defined how previous generations interacted with their universe. What we as educators need to do is grasp how the ubiquity of digital technology is shaping the way our students learn how to live in their future. We need to redefine our paradigms and expectations so that we can help them be prepared for tomorrow.

Indulge me as I look backwards: This is something I wrote nine months ago:

Technology is not meant to be the end, but to be the means. Technology is a tool to engage our students. Web 2.0 has introduced us to new ways of creating and defining community. Just as the chalk board created new ways to create relationships between the student and the teacher and the nature of education itself, the digital universe we are entering is opening up new doors that will lead to a different learning and teaching reality. It is incumbent upon us to grasp this new type of chalk, and start writing on the virtual chalk board.

I wrote the above words as part of a homework assignment for my just completed education technology certificate course. I called this, at the time, my edtech “mission statement”. I still believe it. My understanding of the ramifications of using education technology in the Jewish classroom has deepened as I’ve learned how these tools can be used. More importantly, I believe more than ever that ultimately all of these programs and applications are merely aides to help us achieve a final goal – creating a Jewish future.

Yes we have no choice but to embrace this digital universe - but not blindly. We need to be critical consumers, analyzing whether this gadget or that program will serve our needs. Will using a smartphone help our students learn to chant Torah? How? Will creating a VoiceThread effectively teach our students what the Amida is all about? What would be a more effective way to learn about midrash: Through bibliodrama or Animoto? We need to define our goals, and then determine the best way to reach them.

Yes, I believe now, more than ever, that 21st century technology is a means to an end. But I also am mindful that the words of Torah are written on animal skin using a bird’s feather and ink made of gallnuts. They can be just as meaningful on that ancient form of technology as they are on my iPad screen. It doesn’t matter how I let those words touch me; its that they do. And that’s the point.