As American and Israeli schools shift from textbooks to tablets, entrepreneurs from the “start-up nation” hope they can bank on the trend.
In June, Israel’s Education Ministry announced an ambitious pilot program to distribute schoolbooks via e-reader devices, including on tablets, to students and teachers in 100 schools. The ministry, which estimates that 25 percent of Israeli schools already use this more affordable and lightweight technology, aims to expand its usage to bridge technological and academic gaps.
While different Israeli companies competed for the opportunity to prepare the e-books, the ministry selected several start-ups for the initiative, including Contentnet Education and Radix Technologies, which presented on AURA, its innovative classroom management platform for the Android tablet, at the Bett 2013 educational technology show in London in January and February.
AURA allows teachers to control what students are working on during class time, including which Web sites students can visit and when, as well as posting lesson plans for student review, classroom games and activities, and homework assignments for later. When students enter different classes, the tablet adjusts automatically to that subject, while at recess the device unfreezes and becomes free and open, or remains controlled, depending on the school’s preference.
Meir Gefen, the company’s R&D manager, says the motivation behind AURA was to address the fear teachers have that greater technology in the classroom means a loss of control. When a teacher looks out at her class and sees 30 students staring at their tablets, the teacher has no idea what the students are really doing, he says.
“Most likely they’re playing Angry Birds,” says Gefen during an interview from Contentnet’s Tel Aviv office, referencing the popular video game. “In this case, with our system, the teachers are assured they can only see and do what they allow them to do.”
Dr. Dina Goren-Bar, the company’s director and technology adviser, emphasizes that AURA allows teachers to assign different work to students who are at different academic levels in the same class, either in groups or individually. But when the teacher pushes the “attention” key and students see a message flash on their screens, they are forced to stop whatever they were doing and engage with the teacher.
AURA, launched in 2011, is already being used in three of Israel’s chain of religious AMIT junior high and high schools, translating to a couple hundred students. But the company has its sights set outside of Israel on conquering Jewish education in North America. Goren-Bar says a few yeshivot and congregations in the U.S., including Temple Avodat Shalom of River Edge, NJ, and Temple Emanuel of Woodcliff Lake, NJ, are planning to pilot the program in September.
“What we would like to see is Jewish schools using our platform,” says Goren-Bar. “Our dream is basically to allow this not just for Israel but also to allow Jewish education to upgrade itself.”
Goren-Bar says the company has begun reaching out to synagogues of all stripes, day schools, home schools and the Chabad-Lubavitch distance-learning program (for children who live in far-flung parts of the world and take their classes via computer).
“It can work for any Jewish environment,” says Gefen. “It can be used without control or with maximum control. It lends itself to whatever the school policy is.”
Browsing protection can even continue after the school day is done, as it does for some AMIT students. The school can decide that the tablets shut off automatically at midnight to ensure students get a good night’s sleep, and on Shabbat for religious observance.
Avi Rokach, the head of AMIT’s yeshiva in Rehovot, says the 85 eighth graders who started using the tablet this year — paid for by the school — are encouraged to do independent learning and take responsibility.
“We want to give them the base to learn alone,” he says, “not just when the teacher is in the class.”
But it’s also important, Rokach says, for students to have a safe environment in which to use technology. If left to students’ own devices, the freedom could be damaging, he cautions.
“It needs to happen in the yeshiva, not out of the yeshiva,” Rokach explains, adding that his students leave their tablets at school overnight. “We believe that there are very good things that they can use it but they need to learn how to use it and when to use it.”
In the yeshiva, wifi Internet access and Web sites including YouTube and Facebook are also blocked. Teachers download material from home, and then upload it as group discussion topics to the tablets to share the material with students.
Over the next couple years, Rokach envisions each student bringing his own device to school, including tablets, iPads and laptops, holding all of his heavy schoolbooks digitally. This lends itself well to yeshiva learning, he says, where students compare texts and examine multiple sources. Within the same class, groups can do separate learning. “One group can work on Moshe Rabenu and another group can work on Pharaoh when they learn Tanakh,” says Rokach.
Still, in the case of an electrical power outage, he says, the school will always have the hard-copy sources, and some teachers still prefer to use them alongside the technology. But the need for digital sources in the classroom is undeniable, says Rokach, adding that the Israeli Education Ministry’s initiative represents important progress for Israel’s high school students who could one day work at Google.
“The big problem I see in education today is that we need to prepare [students] for the 21st century and we are using devices that belong to the 17th century,” he says. “We want our students to be in the front of the most important fields in Israel and the world, in Torah and science and the army.”
Whether North American day schools — many of which already use various devices in the classroom — will be interested in AURA is up for debate.
Frankel Jewish Academy, a high school in Detroit, cited as a leader in tablet integration, in 2012 and 2013 gave each student an iPad for classroom use. Pattie Shayne, the school’s director of technology, is familiar with AURA, and says it is designed for the android platform only.
“We are implementing a Learning Management System this upcoming school year that is very friendly with all platforms and has an excellent app, too,” Shayne writes in an email to JNS.org.
Similarly to AURA, Frankel already uses an Internet management system called Casper developed by JAMF Software. To self-monitor usage, students and parents sign an Acceptable Use Policy. “Our hope is to help students learn to live responsibly in a digital world and appropriately manage their use of technology to enhance and enrich their learning,” Shayne writes.
Maura Feingold, marketing manager of the Jewish Community High School in San Francisco, says the school provides highly subsidized laptops to its students. It also launched an iPad pilot program in 2012 to teach its staff how to use the device in the classroom. Feingold says that 24 members of the faculty and staff are using iPads “in innovative ways to support learning.”
“Making sure that every JCHS student has a high-quality laptop allows teachers to rely on this instructional tool daily if they so choose,” writes Mallory Rome, assistant head of school. “Through Moodle, students (and parents) can access course materials and deadlines online, with some faculty moving into new uses such as online quizzes and class discussion forums. And we are looking to learn from what other schools do well, from experts in the field, and from the excellent resources that are available in the world of educational technology.”