Back to School | As tablet use surges, startup nation creates technologies

As American and Israeli schools shift from textbooks to tablets, entrepreneurs from the “startup 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 tablets, to students and teachers in 100 schools.

Several Israeli companies competed for the opportunity to prepare the e-books; among those selected by the ministry were Radix Technologies and Contentnet Education, developer of the AURA platform, an innovative classroom management platform for the Android tablet.

AURA allows teachers to control what students are working on during class time (including which websites students can visit and when), and to post lesson plans, classroom games and activities, and homework assignments. 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, Contentnet’s R&D manager, said 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 a class of 30 students staring at their tablets, the instructor has no idea what the students are really doing, he said.

“Most likely they’re playing ‘Angry Birds,’ ” Gefen joked during an interview from the firm’s Tel Aviv office, referencing the popular video game. “In this case, with our system, the teacher is assured students can only see and do what they allow them to do.”

Dina Goren-Bar, Contentnet’s director and technology adviser, emphasized that AURA allows teachers to assign different work to students who are at different academic levels, even 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 were 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. But the company has its sights set beyond Israel, hoping to conquer Jewish education in North America. Goren-Bar said a few yeshivas and congregations in the United States, including Temple Avodat Shalom of River Edge, N.J., and Temple Emanuel of Woodcliff Lake, N.J., are planning to pilot the program in September. Contentnet has begun reaching out to synagogues of all stripes, she said: day schools, home schools and the Chabad-Lubavitch distance-learning program .

“It can work for any Jewish environment,” said 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 ends, 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, said 85 eighth-graders started using the tablet this year — paid for by the school. He believes the device encourages independent learning and responsibility.

“We want to give them the base to learn alone,” he said, “not just when the teacher is in the class.”

But it’s also important for students to have a safe environment in which to use technology, Rokach said. “It needs to happen in the yeshiva, not out of the yeshiva.” Students leave their tablets at school overnight. “We believe that there are very good things that they can use it but they need to learn how to use it and when to use it.”

In the yeshiva, Wi-Fi Internet access and websites including YouTube and Facebook are blocked. Teachers download material from home and then upload it as group discussion topics to the tablets for students.

Over the next few years, Rokach envisions each student bringing his own device to school — including tablets, iPads and laptops — rather than lugging heavy schoolbooks. This lends itself well to yeshiva learning, Rokach said, where students compare texts and examine multiple sources. Within one class, groups can do separate learning. “One group can work on Moshe Rabenu and another group can work on Pharaoh when they learn Tanach,” he explained.

He believes that the Israeli Education Ministry’s initiative represents important progress for Israel’s high school students.

“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,” Rokach said. “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.”

Whether North American day schools will be interested in AURA is up for debate.

Frankel Jewish Academy in Detroit, cited as a leader in tablet integration, in 2012 and 2013 gave each student an iPad for classroom use. Frankel uses an Internet management system called Casper, developed by JAMF Software. To self-monitor usage, students and parents sign an acceptable use policy.

In San Francisco, Jewish Community High School of the Bay provides highly subsidized laptops to its students and launched an iPad pilot program in 2012 to teach its staff how to use the device in the classroom.

“Making sure that every JCHS student has a high-quality laptop allows teachers to rely on this instructional tool daily if they so choose,” noted Mallory Rome, assistant head of school at JCHS. “Through Moodle [an open source course management system], students (and parents) can access course materials and deadlines online, with some faculty moving into new uses such as online quizzes and class discussion forums.

“And we are looking to learn from what other schools do well, from experts in the field, and from the excellent resources that are available in the world of educational technology.”