Monday, May 11, 2015

Technology and Education: A Site Visit at Amit Amichai Rechovot

On a visit to Amit Amichai Rechovot
I’ve been struggling with the issue of cellphones in my classes at Orot.
Last semester, we the college invited a speaker who spoke out our collective addiction to cellphones. Even more impressive than the truly
frightening statistics and stories he told, was the total command he had over an auditorium of 450 students, and his absolute refusal to allow anyone in the room to take out a cellphone. If someone took one out, he stopped his talk, and waited until the person put the phone away.
I was blown away, and convinced that I needed to do the same thing in my classes. And, when the second semester began, I started each class by asking the students to put away their phones in their bags, telling them two things: (1) It’s a distraction for me (which it really is – try talking to someone who’s staring at their phone) and (2) “If you’re there (on the phone) you’re not here. That’s just a fact. You can’t be on the phone and focusing on the class. For a while, I really stuck to it, and I must say that educationally, it was productive. The students were certainly annoyed, but the classes were better – more productive and focused.
But, as the semester has progressed, I’ve backed off – not because I don’t think that the cellphones are a distraction, but because I simply don’t have the energy to fight with them anymore. I would have hoped that students entering my classes would know to put away their phones. Wishful thinking. Each class I have to remind them – over and over – to please put away the phones until the end of class. And then there’s the laptop issue: a number of students bring laptops, and it’s painfully obvious that they’re not only taking notes. How do you distinguish between cellphones and laptops? Why should there be any difference between them?
As part of my work at Orot, I serve as an administrator for the M.Ed. (Masters) program for Educational Administration at Orot’s Rechovot Campus. Today we’re at a site visit at Amit Amichai High School (for boys) in Rechovot. The Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Amit, Rav Avi Rokeach, explained that three years ago the school made a strategic decision to invest in technology. They recognized that the students’ lives were intimately involved in technology – not just as tools, but in the way that the kids think today. If we were able to translate the materials that they learned – Gemara, Chumash, mathematics, etc –using the technological language of the students today – then they could dramatically improve the educational experience of the school. Every student and teacher received a tablet, and they invested in putting all of their materials on the tablets, so that the kids would be ready to learn in their way.
Three months into the project, they recognized that the experiment wasn’t working. Despite the incredible investment in technology, they realized that the tools – the technology – wasn’t the answer. It wasn’t that the tech wasn’t working. It really was. But the investment didn’t really create the change that the school was looking for. It was the same school, the same students, the same learning.
We took a tour of the school, and saw a number of classes in which the students were working in groups; they had projects in English, mathematics, science; many of the classes of course have frontal learning. In each class, students were working with laptops, their phones, etc. There was a lot of learning taking place, but also a lot of email, facebook and Whatsapp as well. We asked about how the teachers prevent students from using the laptops to play. The teacher said that he doesn’t make them learn or stop them from playing. Rather, he gives the both the freedom and independence to make the right choice, and not waste their time in class (and have to do the work at home).
Is tech the answer in education? Not the answer – but it’s certainly part of our students’ lives. How to use that technology, or limit its ability to distract – represents a challenge that educators struggle with on a constant and continuous basis. These aren’t new questions, but as technology grows even more integral to our lives, the questions grow more pressing.
At Amit Amichai, the school went through a long process trying to figure out what the end goals of the school should be. In a nutshell, the Rosh Yeshiva explained that they want to make “educated people” – with all that this involves: knowledge, intelligence, fear of Heaven, love of learning – all the tools that you could possibly want a student to have. That being said, how do you do this? What, in the end, is the best way to achieve that goal? If you had a chip that you could buy which you could implant in a student and this would produce the most desirable outcome – would you use it? The school also asked another question: Why, if our educational goals are so broad, do we spend so much time in our schools simply transmitting information: history, English, science, Chumash – whatever?
Rather, he explained that they decided that the most important investment that they would need to make is in the teachers. While a student could spend at most six years in the school, a teacher could theoretically spend twenty years or more in the school, and have the greatest possible influence on the students. Believing that the teachers would be the best possible agents to drive their own development, they created a committee for “Investigation and Development” in order to move the process forward. The committee would investigate what’s going on in the school and develop new processes to transform the school and move it towards the school’s desired goals.
Clearly, it’s a work in progress. But the students spend a great deal of time working on individual projects. They receive tasks in classes, and work in pairs or in small groups, to achieve those tasks. Clearly, the school is “different” – far less frontal teaching, far more individual learning. Does the school produce graduates that are substantially different than other schools? That’s a question that will have important implications for education in the future.