Will Jewish Day Schools Go From Textbooks To Tablets?

By Rachel Marder

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 websites 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 teacher is 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 are 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 they have 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 that for their 85 eighth graders who started using the tablet this year–paid for by the school–it encourages independent learning and 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 their 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 for, but they need to learn how to use it and when to use it.”

In the yeshiva, wifi Internet access and websites 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 of 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 Rabeinu and another group can work on Pharaoh when they learn Tanach,” 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.” (JNS.org) v

Cultural Differences

Loom Over Talks

By Alex Traiman

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement to resume peace negotiations, a process that has stood idle since negotiations last broke down in 2010, raises renewed questions as to whether it is possible for a peace agreement to be reached, particularly as sharp cultural differences between Israelis and Palestinians continue to play a significant role in defining the parameters of peace.

“Culture plays a role both in conflict resolution and conflict maintenance. Culture plays a role when questions of acceptance are raised as a basis for peace,” Dr. Mordechai Kedar, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, which is under formation, told JNS.org.

Speaking in Jordan on Friday, Kerry said that a preliminary agreement “establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

“The representatives of two proud people today have decided that the difficult road ahead is worth traveling,” Kerry said.

A specific date for the first meeting between the Israelis and Palestinians in Washington, DC has not yet been set. Before renewed negotiations start, Kedar believes questions of culture loom over the process.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What does peace mean in each culture?’ before you can hope to reach it,” Kedar said. “While in Western terms ‘peace’ means open borders and multilevel cooperation, in the Middle East ‘peace’ does not mean much more than temporary non-belligerence, but Israel has not yet adjusted its expectations from its neighbors,” nor do Westerners understand the situation in which Israel has to survive in this region, Kedar said.

Early responses from Israel and the Palestinians on the prospects for renewal of negotiations touched on those differences. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu began crafting legislation requiring any negotiated peace deal to be ratified by a national referendum.

In his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu stated, “I don’t think these decisions can be made, if there is a deal, by one government or another, but need to be brought as a national decision.” “It won’t be easy, but we’re going into the negotiations with integrity and honesty,” Netanyahu added.

Meanwhile, multiple Palestinian representatives have been denying that the framework for final-status negotiations had been agreed upon. Palestinian Authority officials have repeatedly accentuated since Kerry’s announcement that they are maintaining their demands in order for talks to resume–including a return to the pre-1967 lines (which were marked as armistice lines between Israel and Jordan after Jordan occupied the West Bank in 1948) as the basis of negotiations, and a complete freeze of construction beyond those lines–and that those demands had not yet been accepted.

Fatah Central Command member Abbas Zaki stated in Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood newspaper As-Sabeel, “The visit [by Kerry to Jordan] is nothing more than consultations; it has nothing to do with launching negotiations.”

According to Kedar, Palestinian demands may have less to do with specific outcomes of negotiations, and more to do with stalling them altogether.

“They don’t accept us, and they don’t want us living in the Middle East altogether. Every Jew who comes here is a colonialist who doesn’t belong here. It’s a matter of existence and not a matter of settlements,” Kedar said.

Kedar highlights Islamic theology and local tribal codes in his assessments of culture, noting that many Arabs presently deny the existence of a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, even though Muslim documents from as late as 1925 assert that the Dome of the Rock was indeed the site of Solomon’s Temple.

Peace negotiations famously broke down at the Camp David Summit in 2000, when then Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat denied that the Temple existed, an affront both to Judaism and Christianity. Arafat later rejected a peace deal in which 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza would have been handed over to the Palestinian Authority, raising serious doubts as to whether the leader ever intended to make peace to begin with.

“In 1967, Jews liberated Jerusalem from the Jordanian illegal and illegitimate occupation, and this is bringing Judaism back to life, which brings into question the role of Islam which was ultimately meant to replace Judaism and Christianity, according to the Islamic approach,” Kedar said. “It is a challenge on the existence of Islam.”

“Islam cannot exist side-by-side with Judaism or Christianity. In Islam, Judaism and Christianity are not valid religions,” he added.

According to Kedar, the basis for coexistence in the Middle East is when one group understands that the other is invincible. As long as one group feels the other can defeated, there will be no peace.

In Kedar’s estimation, understanding and adapting to the local culture is critical to survival in the region. Those who do not adapt to the cultures of the Middle East do not survive in the region. Yet, understanding the Arabic culture, and how it plays a role in peacemaking, has been difficult for Jews who have taken little efforts to learn it, Kedar said.

“We don’t speak Arabic, we don’t teach it enough in schools,” he said. “Our direction is the West. We feel that we are part of the West. We don’t want to feel like part of the Middle East, particularly when we witness the many atrocities that are taking place daily across the region.”

“When you see the poverty, neglect, dictatorships, the worthlessness of human life, who wants to be part of it?” he added.

The proper course of action for Israel, according to Kedar, is to “start to deal with [the Palestinian side] by changing our mindset.”

“They will get the message very quickly if we–Israelis–are consolidated and resolute. The Middle East is no place for weak people,” Kedar said. (JNS) v


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