Apr 062011
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How Technology Can Humanize the Classroom
Posted by Sarah Kass

When we think of educational technology, we imagine machines replacing what we regard as the human elements of schools.  We picture Google searches replacing librarians.  We imagine remote lecturers replacing live instructors.  Perhaps we envision individual kids each at his and her own terminal, perhaps with headphones on, no longer benefiting from peer discussions.   Recently, our colleague Eli Kannai, introduced us to the revolutionary work of Salman Khan, via his TED Talk:  http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html.

Khan, a former hedge fund analyst, stumbled upon the power of videos to assist learning while tutoring his cousins and went on to found Khan Academy, an online video-based platform for learning.  What I find most inspiring about Khan’s talk is his contention that his technology humanizes the classroom.  He insists, and I think rightly so, that the current classroom with its human teacher and 25+ students is already a dehumanized environment.  Why?  Because he shows there are 3 inherent tensions always in play in classrooms no matter how excellent and well-intentioned the school:

1- The one teacher to 25+ kid ratio, no matter how gifted the teacher, and no matter how homogenously grouped the kids, makes it  impossible for a teacher to tailor her material to the learning style and needs of every student. And therefore, the default is too often a one-sized-fits-all pedagogy.

2- The pressure on the teacher to cover content necessarily impedes the possibility that each student master the material.  A bell curve of results on a given unit gets recorded as a bell-curve of grades, and the next unit is introduced, despite the majority of students having demonstrable gaps in their understanding of the previous unit.

3- Time available trumps time needed.  The school year is 180 days, the math period is 40 minutes a day.  Whatever the student is unable to demonstrate knowing in those 7200 hours is assumed not to be known or worse, not to be knowable by the student.  Over time, that label determines future educational options available to the student, when perhaps had she had more time other things could have been possible.

Khan’s approach uses technology to reduce each of these dehumanizing tensions, and so humanizes the classroom.  By putting content on videos, the work of the classroom can be flipped.  The students can watch the content at home—rewinding when something is unclear, watching it again when they need to—and the classroom time can be about practicing and applying the content.  Rather than doing the work for homework, the work can be done in the classroom setting.  The student experience of the classroom becomes active, not passive, and the pedagogy employed by the teacher need not be one-size fits all.  Moreover, the Khan site tracks student performance so that the student and teacher are given granular analyses of what the student knows, what she is working on, and what she does not understand.  That way, it’s possible for a single teacher to get beyond the assumed bell curve, and find ways to address the tough spots for every kid.  What’s more, when some students are proficient in the very areas where classmates are struggling, peers can become each other’s best supports.  Finally, the material on line makes it possible for every child to take the time he needs to get it.  And lo and behold, with a little more time on task, students who might otherwise have been labeled as weak are able to progress and to soar.

Can you imagine classrooms where the expectation is every child can learn at a high level and every teacher is able to realize that expectation?  Can you imagine Jewish studies versions of Khan Academy where the teacher need not bear the double burden of covering material and engaging children in exploring and practicing the Jewish values implicit in that material? Can you imagine the Jewish studies teacher having room to be the moral exemplar and not just the content provider, and students experiencing themselves in the Jewish studies classroom as active members of a live tradition?  How do we bring the wisdom of Khan to Jewish education?    We’d love to hear your ideas.