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Teachers' Use of Computers in the North American Jewish Day School: A Research Study
Shalom Berger      Email This Article

As advances in modern technology have changed the way we read the newspaper, transact business, and entertain ourselves, computers have also changed the way we learn, study and communicate. What goes on in the classroom today is impacted upon by technology, and its use will likely affect the skills that today’s children learn in school and the way they are taught to function in the world.

Little formal research has been done on how computer technology has impacted on student learning.[1] At the same time, virtually no modern public or private school can exist in the United States today without a computer lab and computer instruction. The assumption that technology has become an essential part of the basic school curriculum is summed up in the 1996 report of the US Department of Education, Getting America’s Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge, which refers to computers in the classroom as “the ‘new basic’ of American education,” and to the Internet as “the blackboard of the future”.[2]

The No Child Left Behind legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 includes a component called “Enhancing Education Through Technology (ED Tech)”. The goals of this initiative are to improve student achievement through the use of technology. Specifically, the ED Tech grants aim to:

  • Improve student academic achievement through the use of technology in elementary schools and secondary schools.

  • Assist students to become technologically literate by the time they finish the eighth grade.

  • Ensure that teachers are able to integrate technology into the curriculum to improve student achievement.[3]

Clearly the American government views the introduction and use of computers as essential to classroom education today.

To examine the implementation of computer technology in American schools, the National Center for Education Statistics of the US Department of Education carried out a study three years ago entitled “Teacher’s Tools for the 21st Century”.[4] Information was collected from public school teachers across the United States who were asked to respond to a questionnaire that asked for information on teachers’ use of computers and the Internet. Based on that survey, a report was presented that described the classroom reality for public schools regarding:

  • teacher use of educational technology in their classroom and school

  • the availability of this technology

  • training and preparation that the teachers received

  • perceived barriers to technology use.

The study’s results indicated that public school teachers had ready access to computers and the Internet in their classroom or elsewhere in the school, and that they used these technologies to a large extent for preparatory and administrative tasks. Many fewer teachers reported using the computer for accessing research, best practice examples and model lesson plans. Use of the computer for communication with parents and students was also much less common. Regarding use of the computer for instruction, about half of the teachers reported using computers and the Internet during class time for traditional activities (practicing drills or word processing). Some teachers also assigned students to use these technologies for research, problem solving and analysis.

This year, the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora embarked on a corresponding study, aiming to examine computer and Internet use in Jewish schools. Surveys were distributed to a broad range of Jewish day schools in North America.[5] In all, 52 schools were asked to distribute questionnaires similar to those upon which the National Center for Education Statistics study was based; they were asked to give them out to both Jewish studies and general studies teachers. 42 schools responded to the request, and 302 completed questionnaires were returned. The ratio of Jewish to general studies teachers responding to the questionnaire was about even (49:51).

Examination of this data allows us to consider many basic questions about technology use in Jewish Day Schools. Do Jewish students have the same access to computer technology in their schools and classrooms? Do the teachers make use of these technologies in the same way as do their peers in public schools? Are the teachers as well equipped to make use of these technologies in the Jewish studies classroom?

The survey responses allow for an examination of the reality that exists within the schools themselves, and act as a basis for comparison between Jewish schools and public schools.

Technology: Availability and Frequency of Use

When examining availability of computers and internet, Jewish schools compare favorably with the public schools in some areas, but the differences between them bear examination. Although virtually all of the teachers in Jewish schools reported that there are computers available for instructional purposes somewhere in the school (98% in the library or computer lab, for example), only about half of them (55%) had computers in their classrooms. This stands in stark contrast with the situation reported in the public school survey, where 84% of classrooms had computers.

On the other hand, access to the Internet and to email was reported as being slightly higher in the Jewish schools than in the public schools (94% vs. 90%), a discrepancy that may simply stem from the 3 years that elapsed between the two surveys.

A full 96% of teachers in Jewish schools reported having computers at home, with more than half of those indicating that they used their computers to a “large extent”.

Although teachers in Jewish schools report that computers are generally available to them in school (even if they are not always available in the classroom), it is clear that these computers are not used with the same frequency that the public school teachers use them. Frequent use of the computer by students in the library or computer lab (places where there is similar availability in Jewish schools and public schools) during class time, is reported by almost twice as many public school teachers (28%) as by teachers in Jewish schools (15%).

One area in which student usage patterns of technology is virtually identical in Jewish schools and public schools is use of the computer for internet surfing.

Use of the computer by teachers also differs between Jewish and public schools. Virtually all public school teachers report using a computer in school to some extent (99%), while only 79% of Jewish school teachers do so. One area in which teacher usage of technology is virtually the same in Jewish schools as public schools is in the use of email (about 80%) and the Internet (about 87%).

Professional Use of Technology

We have already noted that virtually all teachers in both public and Jewish schools report that there are computers available to them in school, but that a larger number of teachers in the Day Schools report having a computer available to them at home in 2002 (96%) than did public school teachers in the 1999 NCES study (82%). This information is useful to us when we examine the use of computers in teacher preparation.

When preparing for classes, teachers in both public schools and in Jewish day schools make good use of their computers. More than 85% report using the computer to create hand-outs; more than two-thirds use it in planning lessons; about half use it for administrative record-keeping, communicating with colleagues or accessing research.

Although teachers in Jewish schools report using their computers in school less often than do public school teachers for such activities as creating instructional materials (65% vs. 78%), gathering information for preparing lessons (53% vs. 59%) or preparing multimedia presentations (25% vs. 36%), they use them at home as much as do their public school peers. In certain cases - gathering information for preparing lessons (82% vs. 67%) or accessing research and best practices (56% vs. 46%) for example – day school teachers report a higher level of usage than do the public school teachers.

The differences becomes more pronounced when the computer is used for communication purposes – with colleagues, parents and students outside the classroom, as well as using the Internet to post homework or other information.

In general, the computers are not used for communications as much as might be expected. Nevertheless, the day school teachers stay in touch with parents and students from home, as well as from work, a difference that raises the level of communication via the computer for these teachers well beyond what is found among public school teachers. As an example, 22% of public school teachers use their computers at work to communicate with their students (“a little” or “a lot”); 5% do it from home. 25% of teachers in Jewish schools use their computers at work for such communication, while 37% do it from home. Similar trends are found regarding communication with students’ parents and posting homework or other class requirements on the Internet.

The above data reflect three distinct uses of technology by teachers:

  1. preparing lessons
  2. administrative record keeping
  3. communication.

In comparison to their peers in public schools, Jewish Day School teachers engage in lesson preparation - including creating instructional materials, researching material for lesson plans or best practices and preparing multimedia presentations – less often at school and more often at home. Both groups take advantage of the computer to deal with administrative record keeping at school and at home to similar extents. Use of the computer for communication purposes is greater among Day School teachers in general, and is much greater in the case of communication from home.

These findings indicate that Jewish day school teachers are aware of the advantages that computer technology offers them. They make use of it, although differently than do their colleagues in public schools. These teachers prefer to use their computers at home, rather than the computers available to them in school.

This reality may stem from a number of factors. It is possible that many teachers employed in day schools are not there for a full working day, and have little available time to work on a shared computer at school. Their personal computer at home is more suitable and convenient for their needs. At the same time, it is possible that there are other factors involved, as well. One suggestion might be that a culture of computer use in school does not exist in the day schools as it does in public schools.

At the same time, it is essential to point out the commitment that these teachers show to their work and their students. These teachers are professionals who take their work home with them. This dedication comes to the fore in the amount of time that they spend in communication with their students and their parents from home.

Technology and Instruction

In both public schools and Jewish Day Schools, actual computer use during class time lags behind use of the computer by teachers in preparing their lessons. Even the most popular applications - word processing and spreadsheets - are reportedly used to a “large” or “moderate” extent by less than half of the teachers. Practice drills, problem solving and CD-ROM research are reported by less than one-third of the teachers.

As infrequently as class-time computer use is reported by teachers in public schools, it appears that computers are used even less frequently in the Jewish schools (10% using the computer for drill, vs. 31% in the public schools; 13% using the computer for problem solving/analysis vs. 27% in the public schools). Some applications are virtually the same (word processing and spreadsheets, presentation of materials, simulations). Nevertheless, there does seem to be more widespread use of internet research, which is reported to be used more in the Jewish day schools (in 2002) than in the public schools in the 1999 study (64% vs. 51%).

The comparison and contrast of reported use between public schools and Jewish day schools does not tell the whole story, however. It is important to examine the differences between different types of teachers in the Jewish day schools. As reported above, the questionnaires distributed to the Jewish day schools were given to both Jewish and general studies teachers. From the data it is clear that twice as many general studies teachers report using computers during class time “a ‘moderate’ or ‘large’ amount” as do the Jewish studies teachers. In fact, three times as many general studies teachers report using graphical presentations as do Jewish studies teachers.

Some of the differences may be attributed to the limited number of computers available in the classroom in Jewish Day Schools. The NCES study found that teachers with access to computers in their classrooms were significantly more likely to use them than were teachers who needed to move their class to the library or a computer lab. Furthermore, there is a major discrepancy between commercial software applications available for general studies and those available for Judaic studies. The small market and limited funding do not allow for development of sophisticated software that can be applied in the Jewish studies class. This would seem to be indicated by the fact that general applications such as word processing and spreadsheets are used as often in the Jewish day schools as they are in the public schools; use of the Internet is even more prevalent in day schools.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the Jewish studies teachers do not make use of general applications to the same degree that they are used by the other teachers who are working in the same school environment.

Why is the introduction of computer technology during class hours by Jewish studies teachers so limited? To examine this, we need to investigate what preparation teachers receive in technology use and their own sense of what barriers exist in the schools that limit implementation of technology.

Teacher Preparation and Training

Teachers in Jewish day schools report an overall feeling of being prepared to use computers and the Internet in their classrooms. Although 16% reported feeling “Not at all prepared” (compared to 13% of their public school colleagues), 42% reported feeling “well prepared” or “very well prepared” (compared to 33% of public school teachers).

This sense of mastery is interesting, given the differences between the opportunities for professional development offered in the Jewish day schools, the amount that the day school teachers participate in such professional development courses, and the sheer number of hours spent in professional development activities.

While the vast majority of teachers (80% or more) in public schools report that their schools offer them professional development opportunities in basic computer training, software applications, internet use, and integration of technology into the curriculum, only about half of the teachers (between 48 and 58%) in Jewish schools report having such opportunities. At the same time, only about half of the teachers in Jewish schools report participating in technology training when available as compared to more than 75% participation reported by public school teachers. Finally, three-quarters of teachers in the Jewish day schools report that they had participated in less than 8 hours of professional development activities over the last 3 years (25% said that they did not have a single hour of professional development), while almost half of the public school teachers report that they participated in more than 9 hours of such activities.

The lower levels of participation in professional development opportunities in day schools can be explained by examining the incentives that are offered to teachers to participate in such activities. Public schools find a range of ways to encourage participation. More than half of the public school teachers reported receiving credit towards certification, many were offered paid expenses or release time, one third were offered stipends. A much smaller range of incentives were available to teachers in day schools.

Barriers

The differences and similarities between public school teachers and their peers in Jewish day schools with regard to perceived barriers to effective use of computers in the classroom are most instructive.

Although we have seen that the professional development training was more readily available and more often taken advantage of by the public school teachers, both groups of teachers reported that the barriers to their use of computers in teaching were inadequate training opportunities and a lack of release time for teachers to learn/practice/plan ways to use computers or the internet. Similarly, there was wide-spread agreement that lack of time in the schedule was a major impediment to computer use.

The teachers also agreed on what was not the problem. Lack of administrative support was cited by very few as a great barrier to technology usage.

The differences between the different types of schools is, however, interesting. Among the major issues that were of concern to the public school teachers were: not enough computers, computers that were outdated or unreliable, poor internet access and lack of good instructional software. These issues were not mentioned as being of as great a concern by day school teachers.

From the data it appears that teachers in Jewish schools feel that they have up-to-date equipment, a supportive administration, and a sense that they are fairly well prepared to use computers in the classroom. Nevertheless, actual instructional use in Jewish schools lags behind current usage in public schools. This discrepancy demands explanation.

The lack of opportunities for professional development offered by the schools are, in effect, a message to the teachers that these new technologies are not deemed as essential to be introduced into the classroom. Some of the answers indicate that the teachers in the Jewish schools cannot fathom what computers potentially can offer them. 71% of public school teachers, for example, perceive “lack of good educational software” as a barrier to computer use, while only 49% of teachers in Jewish schools see it as a problem. Given the paucity of educational software available to the Jewish studies classroom, one can only conclude that these teachers do not know what they are missing.

Conclusions

Although the jury is still out on the impact of computers on our classrooms, it is clear that familiarity with computers and knowledge of fundamental computer skills are to today’s student what the three R’s of education were in the past. In itself, this is reason to ensure the introduction of computers into today’s Jewish school. Beyond basic skills, however, the computer offers great potential for sophisticated educational programming. Computer technology offers an interactive medium that allows the teacher to prepare specific materials and the student to build, alter and reconfigure text and pictures. The versatility of the computer should be especially attractive to the world of Jewish educators since it offers functions that can be manipulated by the teacher for the specific needs of his or her particular classroom and students.

In many ways the Jewish day school system in North America is as prepared as the public school system for the technology boom of the 21st century. Although not all classrooms have computers in them, there are computers available for teacher use and instructional purposes in virtually every school. Teachers do not perceive that outdated equipment or a lack of computers is an impediment for introducing technology to their students. Teachers in day schools perceive their administrators as no less supportive of introducing technology than do public school teachers. Teachers feel well prepared for computer use, and, in fact, make use of various technologies to research, to prepare materials and to communicate with students and their parents.

Nevertheless, it is clear that day school teachers do not apply this expertise in engaging their students in class. With the exception of internet use, every educational classroom use of the computer is reported as being used less often by teachers in day schools than by public school teachers. When comparing Jewish studies teachers and general studies teachers within the Jewish day school, the Jewish studies teachers use technology as part of their teaching only half as often as do their colleagues teaching general studies.

It is important to note the positive aspects of computer usage by teachers in Jewish schools. In particular, the time that teachers devote to preparing materials at home, and communicating with students and parents outside of classroom hours points to the dedication that these teachers have to their students and to the teaching profession. It is essential that school administrators, the lay leadership and professional boards of education assist these committed teachers to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by these new technologies.


References

Getting America's Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge. (1996). Washington, DC: United States Department of Education.

Smerdon, B., Cronen, S., Lanahan, L., Anderson, J., Iannotti, N., and Angeles, J. (2000). Teacher’s Tools for the 21st Century: A Report on Teachers’ Use of Technology (NCES 2000-102). Washington, DC: United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.


[1] For a summary of available research on the impact of technology on student learning, see the digest of literature on the impact of the computer in instruction by Peerless, Feldman and German that appears in this journal.

[2] Available at http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/os/technology/plan/national/index.html

[3] See http://www.nochildleftbehind.gov/start/facts/21centtech.html

[4] Available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2000102

[5] According to PEJE (The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education), there are about 700 Day Schools in North America ( http://www.peje.org/dayschoolfaq.pdf ). The breakdown is as follows: 21 Reform Day Schools, 70 Conservative Day Schools, 75 Community/Unaffiliated Day Schools, 75 Modern Orthodox Day Schools, 250 Centrist Orthodox Day Schools affiliated with Torah U’mesorah, The remainder are more right wing Yeshivot, many of them in the New York area.

For this study, a representative sample of both elementary and high schools was chosen; yeshivot that may not use computer technology for ideological reasons were not included.

 


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