Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Teleconferencing via Bonyim B'Yachad with Director of Education for Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum and Other Possibilities

This past Wednesday, New Milford High School US II, AP US History students, and foreign language students engaged in a Cisco Webex teleconference with the Educational Director of Yad Vashem, Dr. Marcovitz.  It was coordinated by Aryeh Eisenberg, the Director of Special Projects at Bonim B'Yachad, an up and coming Israeli company that focuses on online international education.  I have known Aryeh for over 5 years and have worked closely with him when he was the Director of Technology at Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.  While his company is a for profit endeavor, he was kind enough to do this for me pro bono.

Some 85 or more students attended the teleconference and a dozen faculty members, one of whom, Colleen Tambuscio, teaches a Holocaust class on campus and runs a world reknown trip to the concentration camps over spring break and a fall trip to the US National Holocaust Memorial Museum.  My students had been learning about World War II and the Holocaust.  They had been given the standard reading assignments from "The Americans" a rather decent social studies textbook and they had investigated primary sources on the Holocaust and Nazism prior to the teleconference.  AP students had begun investigating the Polish citizens who secretly hid Jews during the Holocaust as well.

The speaker, an obviously rather talented lecturer, created a rather detailed and organize powerpoint and lecture using webex where we could see both him and the powerpoint.  He was able to write on the powerpoint and speak with the students.  In fact, they were also able to chime in asking questions in an interactive fashion, where appropriate.  While my students are not accustom to passive learning in my courses, this was a welcomed change because of its rarity and also because everyone in the room knew he was an expert and someone speaking to them from Israel, a nation none of  the students had ever visited.

For the most part, the 40 minute speech/interactive questioning was a raving success.  The speaker was clear, the students were engaged, and the material he covered was a valuable accent to what we were doing in class.  Aryeh was available throughout the teleconference via skype or by cell.  I was thrilled with this because if the speaker mentioned something the kids had no background on, I was able to let Aryeh know and the speaker could provide info to the kids on the spot.

The system, Cisco Webex, is incredibly advanced and is really like skype on steroids.  Its capabilities make it much more easy to use, stable, and provides teachers with the ability to multitask showing students maps, powerpoints, video while conversing with them.  The system does not require anything more than a simple projector, speakers, a laptop, internet connection, and a projector board.  I can see a lot of possibilities with this technology for live video learning long term.

Am I suggesting replacing teachers with video lecturers halfway around the world who are so much cheaper and sticking 85 kids in one classroom daily?  No, not exactly.  Although, I do think we can up the number of kids in each classroom and create a more customized educational experience for each.  I do not believe these two ideas are mutually exclusive. I do not believe this advanced chalk and talk method is good alone in a K-12 environment.  However, I do think the use of this technology has a place in our schools and should be used more often.

There is no reason this technology cannot be used to facilitate a classroom of 24 kids or larger in a group project, socratic discussion, or more student centered activity with an assistant teacher hired to chaperone the course.  I would suggest demoing this in an elective course first or an SAT prep course.  In addition, there is no reason why this type of learning cannot replace or supplement Pearson or Khan Academy videos in a flipped model as homework with a live teacher.  There is no reason this cannot be used for pull out reading programs for one-on-one student work during the school day.  I actually can think of endless possibilities.  However, none of them include replacing teachers in classrooms outright.  In fact, I think this could supplement or enhance the in classroom teacher experience providing an even better student to teacher ratio.

In my idea of the ideal educational model, I had suggested three zones, one of which would be cubicles for students to acquire background information to complete more complex interdisciplinary projects to gain specific skills.  This form of education could be utilized in those cubicles since one teacher, teleconferencing from anywhere in the world, could speak to  and work with all students engaged in that project together.  It could also be done in conjunction with a blackboard type model where students receive online discussion material as well and assignments.  This would be entirely new type of hybrid course where facetime with the full professor/teacher would be online.  I do not see this model replacing the need for quality teachers in a school building, but rather augmenting them and perhaps even providing schools with more subject experts in areas we traditionally have trouble filling with solid teachers full-time on staff (i.e. mandarin, engineering, etc).

I have been told by Aryeh some schools have already signed on to use his company in a pilot program for next year.  I am excited to hear about their use of the system.  I'd also like to hear your thoughts and ideas.  or if you have tried doing this.  Thanks again to Aryeh Eisenberg, who can be reached at aryeh@bonimbyachad.org