Using laptops offers lessons in ethics of technology

Big Brother is watching at Milken Community High School. At least, he’s watching your computer.

For two years, the Bel Air school has required every seventh- and ninth-grader to come with a laptop so that it can integrate technology into the classroom. This fall, Milken will install a program, LanSchool, in each computer, which will allow administrators to see what’s taking place on every screen, according to Jason Ablin, head of school.

That means they could know when a student is looking at Facebook instead of their French assignment or when someone’s checking out Lady Gaga instead of Lady Macbeth.

“I can go on my computer at any moment and look at any laptop in the school,” Ablin said.

This software is part of a larger debate taking place on how best to balance the incredible educational power of laptops and tablet devices with worries about their possible misuse and power to distract.

Proponents argue that using technology in this way has completely flipped the teaching paradigm. One-to-one programs in which each student has a device provide unlimited access to information, allow for unprecedented collaboration and offer multimedia solutions that simply weren’t available in the past.

Consider Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA) in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. YULA started a program in 2009 in which underclassmen pay a technology fee that covers the use of a laptop on loan from the schools.

As a result, students could create podcasts in response to a Shakespeare play instead of writing a five-page essay. Rather than writing a lab report, they could create slideshows and present them in class.

Unfortunately, they also could fool around.

“That was a huge thing the first year because they were downloading games from the Internet,” said Shawn Clary, YULA’s director of technology. “We had to kind of adjust how we did things.”

While there were basic filters to prevent access to inappropriate content, other restrictions were more liberal. Now, computers have been set up using Apple’s settings so that only programs installed by the school can be opened.

“Each year, the program gets better and better and better,” Clary said. “You’ve got to just do it and learn as you go and shape your reactions to the situations as they come.”

Those situations are always changing, just like available technology.

New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills was one of the first to bring tablet devices into the classroom when it bought 50 iPads for last fall, said Sam Gliksman, director of educational technology. The school has since doubled that number, while also encouraging students to bring their own devices, including laptops.

“We have a number of different courses that are specifically designated to use iPads,” Gliksman said.

In a Jewish studies course, for example, an application allows students to read, search and annotate the Talmud. More generally, the tablets allow students to break up into groups, research topics and share their findings with others by posting to an electronic classroom that can be displayed in the real one.

Gliksman said the school chose tablets over laptops for several reasons: They’re lightweight, they go on with the touch of a button and don’t take minutes to boot up, and they’re small, creating less of a barrier between the teacher and student.

He recognizes that technology has the potential to be a distraction. And while filters are available — and NCJHS uses minimal ones — Gliksman believes they’re marginally effective. Just Google “ways to get around school Web filters,” and note the 32 million sites that pop up.

Still, he believes it’s worth welcoming the devices, especially as educational models shift to place more emphasis on research and discovery as opposed to having students sit and listen to a teacher.

The topic continues to be a hot one for schools around the region. BJE — Builders of Jewish Education works with 38 day schools to help them use technology better and hired Gliksman as a consultant. The institutions that he will be assisting this fall include Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge and Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village.

While it can be exciting to experiment in the classroom with the latest technology, it’s important to remember that the issue goes far beyond mere gadgetry, according to Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE associate director.

“This is really not a conversation about laptops or Smart Boards or iPads. It’s really a conversation about how kids and adults interact with the world today,” he said. “This is the world that they live in.”

The trick, he continued, is to make sure that students are prepared for it. That’s where schools can help.

“We would not suggest that kids should be thrown into any circumstance without having the tools to function responsibly. It’s a wonderful opportunity for school to be part of the process of educating the kids about how to be responsible members of society,” he said. “There are curricula galore on technology citizenship.”

Milkin Community High School’s Ablin sees this as a major reason for teachers to embrace technology so closely.

“The real reason we want the technology in the classroom is it allows us to have an ethical discussion of technology,” he said. “Our job, in particular as a Jewish day school, is to attach clear values to [students’] use of technology.”

That means no inappropriate sites or language and no cyberbullying among students. Ablin hopes LanSchool will simply serve to get the message out early in the school year. While it permits the 750-student school to limit access to all sorts of sites, he said he’s not interested in that.

“You can’t have the conversation if you put a big firewall in front of the kids,” he said.

Ablin is more excited about establishing an ongoing dialogue that includes students and parents, including a night when parents are asked to bring their child’s computer to school for an exploration into their digital world.

He said the school has a responsibility, too, not to overly rely on laptops, whose power and durability he still prefers to tablets. To that end, the school asks that the devices not be used more than 20 percent of the time in the classroom.

Other area schools are jumping into this arena as well.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in West Los Angeles will require for the first time this fall that its sixth-graders buy iPads. The decision was easy, according to Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school.

“The students are really excited because they are what we call digital natives. To not use this at their age would sort of be strange,” he said.

In addition to making the classroom more global in its reach, it can individualize it as well. During a Hebrew lesson, for instance, not every student needs to go online and read the same newspaper with the same level of difficulty.

“We can differentiate it because everyone doesn’t have to go to the same site,” Malkus said.

To deal with potential misuse, the school has an Internet filter and a user agreement. Administrators will handle violations the same way they would if a teacher confiscated a cell phone used for texting — by contacting a parent.

In Northridge, Heschel purchased iPads for all of its fourth- and fifth-graders to use this fall, and all middle-school students are encouraged to bring their own device. While the school has policies concerning their use and a few filters, administrators are looking at this more as an opportunity to educate students.

“At the end of the day, it’s about teaching them appropriate use,” said Betty Winn, head of school.

Using technology is nothing new to these kids, and the school wouldn’t be doing its job if it didn’t incorporate such things into the curriculum, she said.

“We’re not using technology just for the sake of technology,” Winn explained. “It provides us with very effective tools for them to access and process information as well as help them so that they will be well prepared for the world in which they’re going to live.”