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Jewish Ed Tech Macher Says Tech Is Not–NOT–the Answer to Affordability

The following guest post is by Russel Neiss, Jewish educator, technologist, activist, and the coding monkey behind PocketTorah, the AlephBet App, and a myriad of other Jewish educational technology initiatives.


“There must be a revolution in education in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education.” — Sidney Pressey, 1924

As the creator of several Jewish educational apps, as a former day school administrator responsible for integrating technology in a pedagogically sound way, and as someone who has articulated a vision for Jewish education that heavily relies on the use of technology, I recently have been asked about my opinions on blended learning, and other attempts to use technology to help make Jewish education more affordable.

In short, I think it’s a bad idea.

Since this is the PEJE blog, let’s ignore the question as to whether or not technology actually helps student achievement (bottom line, it might, but there’s no real evidence yet to prove that it does), and instead focus on whether or not these allegedly new pedagogical approaches cut the cost of education.

To date, there has not been one single large scale study showing any significant cost savings of blended learning. The closest we have is a single report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that suggests given the right circumstances, blended learning can lower the cost of instruction per pupil by an average of around $1,000 annually. The real cost savings of using technology for instruction comes only with a fully virtual school model, which drives the cost down about $4,000 per pupil on average.

For those who deal with school budgets, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The National Association of Independent Schools suggests that salaries and benefits of faculty and staff should make up something like 75% of a school’s budget, with another 5% for marketing/development, 5% for financial aid, and 10% for everything else. So for technology to make any significant impact on the affordability of a school, it means that somehow the technology needs to replace a beloved member of the faculty or staff. Compared to a fully virtual environment blended learning only lets you get rid of a couple of teachers (usually by increasing class sizes), and so the savings remain limited.

In case it’s not clear already, I just want to emphasize this point one more time. What people are really talking about when they discuss the massive cost savings associated with using technology in education is about replacing teachers with technology. And while I know I promised to focus on only the affordability question, can we stop pretending that displacing teachers is going to have a “quality neutral (or better)” effect on pedagogy?

I don’t blame those who think that technology is the answer to our affordability and quality issues in education, it’s been a common trope for over a century. In 1913 Thomas Edison predicted that books would become obsolete and that the “school system will be completely changed inside of ten years” because motion pictures could be more cost efficient as a form of direct instruction. The same promises were made with radio, television, CD-ROMS, laserdisks, the Internet, 1:1 laptop programs, and continues today unabated.

But my favorite historical example that most closely corresponds to recent attempts to address the affordability of education through technological is B.F. Skinner’s Teaching Machine. Here’s the promo for it in all its 1954 filmstrip glory:

Take five minutes to watch it, and then ask yourself why we start every educational technology discussion today as if Dewey, Skinner, Bruner, Bloom, et al. (and their critics) never existed.

We’ve been down this road before. Harnessing technology to create efficiencies and revolutionize education hasn’t had the intended impacts in the past. In part that’s because we ascribe a magical quality to it and try to force it into paradigms that it was never designed to do. Technology should be a method of enhancement, never a cost-efficient replacement for face-to-face learning experiences, or a smokescreen to distract from other cost-efficiencies.

No amount of artificial intelligence or blended learning or Smart-this or i-that is going to be able to replace the pedagogical benefits of a highly trained educator who can help students gain and apply knowledge (Judaic or otherwise) to help them make sense of the world in which they live. Trying to harness technology to supplant these professionals in search of some perceived vast savings that has yet to be realized is a fool’s errand.

17 thoughts on “Jewish Ed Tech Macher Says Tech Is Not–NOT–the Answer to Affordability

  1. dan cohen

    Fascinating. Thx for posting. Tech can be a powerful tool to make our teachers more effective and guide us through a new model of learning (project/problem-based, team learning). Thx for fresh perspective.

  2. Charles


    Great post. If not for your techie bona fides, I’d have pegged you as a Luddite.

    A few thoughts:

    1) AFFORDABILITY ≠ CHEAP. You’re absolutely right that technology should be “a method of enhancement.” And that enhancement should be at the service of improving quality, which helps parents feel more confident that they’re getting value for their many, many tuition dollars. But a cheap education is just as unaffordable as an overpriced one.

    2) You almost give the game away when you note that technology may be used to replace “a beloved member of the faculty or staff.” If we are really going to tackle the issue of affordability (which means considering both cost and quality implications), we may need to consider a model with fewer administrators, or even fewer teachers.
    I’m willing to share your concern about replacing a teacher with a computer program if you’re willing to concede that, unfortunately, some programs are better than some teachers. That speaks to schools’ immediate needs, as well as the systemic need for more investment in professional development and the pipeline of teachers graduating every year. Unfortunately, you can see how a school might be better off going with a blended learning model until they can hire more excellent teachers.

    3) I’ll respond to your impassioned ambivalence with my own. We need more data to really understand the benefit technology provides the 21st century learner. But we also need to keep experimenting: at the micro level of a single student in a single class, and at the macro level, with entire institutions and indeed the entire Jewish educational field. Because I want to know, definitively, what is the most effective Jewish identity delivery system. And I want it to be as affordable as possible.

  3. Russel

    Hey Charles,

    Firstly, thanks for the feedback. My responses as you numbered them:

    1. Agreed on all counts. But I’d add the following: Far too many schools try to use technology as a gimmick to make parents BELIEVE that they’re getting more value their tuition dollars or to make some other cost savings benefit more palatable. (i.e. it’s a lot easier to say “Yes our class sizes are larger than school Y, but it’s because of the magic of computers & this is a benefit because your child is now a computer wizard,” rather than saying “Yes our class sizes are larger than school Y, but only in grades 4+ because the data shows that there isn’t any significant benefit to students beyond that age and we rather use the school’s limited budget in ways that we know will effect positive student outcomes.”

    2. Agreed with everything but the blended learning part. I’m all for cost savings where appropriate and where the data is clear that it won’t hurt student achievement (e.g. the class size example above is a great and easy one, so is increasing faculty teaching hours and taking away prep-periods, and given the right circumstances getting rid of a pay-scale for merit based pay is also a fine idea), the problem is that blended learning has not been proven to be better from a pedagogical perspective. So if you want savings, I’m much more willing to try combining grades in a montessori or other progressive style classroom that’s been proven educationally beneficial, and would serve the ‘affordability’ requirement as well.

    3. I’m totally open to experimenting, but frankly, I rather see our energies and monies go toward pushing the limits on the the revenue end and pushing our community to lobby our politicians to embrace school choice initiatives at the local governmental levels and to setup community day school endowments. Those two initiatives have a significantly higher impact on the affordability of day schools than anything technology could ever accomplish.

  4. Shira Leibowitz


    Thanks for naming so clearly and articulately the blended learning affordability business model: fewer teachers.

    I have questioned numerous educators whom I respect and have not yet found more to the business model of affordable blended learning than you articulate; increasing our student-teacher ratio or rather, having fewer teachers, administrators, and other personnel. This can be done by increasing class size, increasing the number of sections for which a teacher is responsible, or providing some courses on-line. While our need to set tuition at affordable levels, offer tuition assistance, and provide teachers with competitive or even reasonable salaries and benefits may require us to consider savings in the number of teachers, administrators, and other personnel we employ, affordability and blended learning are for me two entirely separate conversations.

    I am more optimistic than you about the potential for blended resources throughtfully implemented to assist us to personalize and differentiate learning for our students. Resources on-line are just that, resources – some of them superb and some of them not great; yet with quality improving exponentially at a very rapid rate. I will continue to explore and pilot blended resources in order to enhance the quality of learning for my students, continuously assessing honestly whether the approaches are having a positive impact on student learning. In doing so, I will look not only at technology but also at the way in which we think about instruction, assessment, and our use of time and space. I will also continue to be as fiscally responsible as I can. I will not, however, equate blended learning and affordability.

    I appreciate the way in which you have framed the questions of blended learning and affordability. It is an important conversation.

  5. Russel

    Hi Shira,

    Thanks for your comments. Yes I agree with you completely regarding blended learning, and will be a little more charif… I think it’s little more than a marketing smokescreen to obfuscate changes to education that parents would otherwise be yelling and screaming about.

    Rather than lie to them about what’s really happening, we ought to engage them in the process, open our books and explain to them where the money goes and why it goes there. We should remind them that the cost to educate a public student is often comparable with their private tuition ($18k+ average in NY) and that they should pressure their local elected officials (and Jewish communal organizations who are still against it **cough ADL **cough** AJC **cough**) to help pass school voucher programs.

  6. Tzvi Pittinsky

    Russel has written a very powerful piece which gages well my feelings and the sentiment of many of my friends in the world of educational technology. I do not view a wholesale adoption of blended learning to solve day school affordability as an EdTech model since my view of EdTech has always been as a method to enhance teachers, to give them more tools and methods to reach different types of learners, not as a method of teacher replacement. Technology at its best can humanize the classroom by providing more avenues for teacher:student discussion, collaboration, and problem solving.

    On the other hand, Charles is right that unfortunately some teachers are no better than computers. If a teacher just focuses on rote learning and not on higher order thinking skills like analysis, application, and evaluation then a computer might do a better job. I blogged about this in the past in my musings on IBM’s Watson and the impact it could have on how we teach. http://techrav.blogspot.com/2011/02/what-watson-can-teach-us.html

    However, the answer to this issue of some bad teachers is not to replace them with computers. It is to get better teachers. Our day school parents will not settle for mediocre education in the name of price savings whether it be through poor teachers or computer replacements. I know that this model might not be as affordable as the other but as Charles says affordable is not equal to cheap. Our day school parents who are paying a great deal and sacrificing and scrimping for a quality Jewish education expect us to utilize the best education models possible. Blended Learning can certainly be a part of this but when it is coupled with educational choices that we know from experience and research have not worked like VERY large class sizes, I am worried about what type of education outcome this will provide.

  7. Tzvi Pittinsky

    I did not see Shira’s comments before I posted my own but I also agree with Shira that experimentation with different models of blended learning, which we are already doing a great deal in my school, is a prudent approach. The technology is improving at a rapid pace and in many instances blended learning can be a superior model providing a higher quality educational experience in both general and Judaic studies. My one caveat that I said earlier is that this model not be coupled with largely increased class sizes. Blended learning when used to enhance pedagogy can be quite powerful. Blended learning used to replace teachers is a different story.

  8. Tikvah Wiener

    Thanks, Russel, for sharing your thoughts about blended learning. I recently heard Chris Lehmann of SLA speak about blended learning, saying changing pace, but not content is not individualized instruction. He also has a problem with the phrase “deliver instruction,” because we’re not dropping off a pizza when we teach. We’re engaged in engaging a person to think deeply and meaningfully about the most important things going on in the world today and about his/her own development as a human being. I don’t hear a lot of that talk when I hear people speak about blended learning.

    Mr. Lehmann’s remarks, which I heard when he was a keynote speaker at EdJEWcon, a conference where JDS educators were gathered to learn about 21st-century learning, validated for me my feelings about blended learning and the direction in which we educators ought to head. Lehmann has built a school of inquiry-based learning, where students are invested in their learning because they interact with it in ways that are meaningful to them, including being able to make decisions about what and how they learn. Technology is part of what allows that to happen, and perhaps Lehmann’s Dewey-like model wouldn’t have been able to happen without it.

    Lehmann’s focus in his speech obviously was not on affordability, but of course any responsible institution should be creating a feasible budget. When talking about these issues, I prefer the word, “sustainability,” because to me it speaks not only to a school’s financial plans but to how those plans serve the overall mission of an institution. Since I favor the inquiry-based learning approach, I’d add to a sustainability plan involvement of the teachers and students in making their school financially sound. Financial health, in other words, should be part of the school culture, just as spiritual, emotional and physical health are.

    I agree with you, Russel, that endowment building is also important to a school’s financial health, but I’m concerned about the emphasis on vouchers (the next panacea, as blended learning is right now?) because it seems to shift financial responsibility onto another party, Uncle Sam. I haven’t explored the details of voucher plans, but we’re such an affluent community. I need someone to assure me that giving money to our private schools isn’t somehow harming those on a lower socioeconomic level.

    Sustainability should go hand in hand with discussions about what new models of 21st-century learning a school may want to employ. No one can afford to be financially irresponsible, nor should we be. I just don’t think there’s one model out there that’s perfect for all JDS, and I know I continue to be perplexed by blended learning’s being touted as the latest fix-it for our money problems. I think we need to be more creative in our approaches to solving our financial woes and look at our schools and all our stakeholders in more holistic ways.

  9. Jon Mitzmacher

    We believe – at our school and at edJEWcon – that it is about “TEACHING & LEARNING” not “TECHNOLOGY”. And that means it’s about teachers…excellent teachers can amplify and harness the power of technology to do things we could never have done before. And that is amazing and is the power of this thing we call “21st century learning” without defining it often or more clearly enough. But it takes teachers.

    I’m all for making day school more affordable. And I’m all for replacing teachers who are ineffective. And I’m all for utilizing the latest technology.

    I’m just not sure they all go together in as neat a package as we may wish.

    Great post!

  10. JedChamp

    Your arguments are very powerful in the short term, but what about looking forward? For example, what if blended learning allows us to lower costs by moving from traditional school buildings, or limit ing the amount of time students spend in schools?

    Feasibility of this example aside, do you foresee any long-term affordability solutions that blended learning could be a large part of? If so, keeping status quo in terms of school costs would be fine, while incorporating blended learning with an eye towards the future.

  11. Joshua Gutoff

    Thanks for an important piece, Russel; it reminded me of some of the writings of Neil Postman, who had much to say on this topic. One issue that I haven’t seen addressed is that while technology may – repeat, may – be useful as an aid to the transmission of information, or the development of certain formal skills, much of Jewish education, (supplementary ed. in particular, but day school as well) is concerned with the development of attitudes and dispositions. Identity development is formed through connections with both peers and adult role models, and an educational strategy that focuses on reducing the amount of human contact will invariably fail at that.

  12. Stephen Kepher

    A great article and wonderful discussion. My favorite Director of Finance would always point out to the Board that there are three basic factors at independent schools: class size, faculty salaries and tuition. A school can have any two of the following: small classes, high faculty salaries and low tuition – but not all three. If you want small classes and high (i.e. a living wage) salaries and benefits, then you have to have a high tuition. If you want lower rates of tuition then you have to have either large class sizes or low faculty salaries. This, of course, raises questions about your core values as well as what the market may allow (e.g. is there enough interest in your program to allow for a pool of applicants that will lead to full enrollment at any class size…etc.) Somewhere in the midst of all this is the intersection of affordability and sustainability. That could be an interesting discussion.

  13. Isaac Shalev

    Even stipulating that the last word on blended learning and costs savings is that it adds up to $1,000/pupil, that’s a pretty significant number – something in the neighborhood of 5-10% of tuition. Why would we turn our noses up at these savings? For a school with 500 students, that’s half a million dollars of community and philanthropic money saved!

    But the greater question is why should we base our cost-savings expectations on only one study? If we are truly evidence-based practitioners, then this piece is premature in its dismissal of the cost-saving potential of blended learning. Surely, more research is warranted.

  14. Russel

    Hey Isaac,

    1a. I think you miss my point. I’m all for cost-savings — I’m just not for lying to people and pretending these cost savings come from ‘technology.’ They come from ‘reducing labor costs’ i.e. increasing class sizes, and replacing teachers. So in your supposed 500 student school, the $500,000 comes not via some magic coupons you get from putting technology into a classroom, but by getting rid of 6-10 teachers and increasing your class size by half a dozen or more students. Read the study, it’s pretty clear. I’m all for looking for labor efficiencies, but using tech to replace teachers is bad policy for cost savings, and worse for student pedagogy.

    2. I’m all for more research, (although there have in fact been several other studies that are not k-12 focused that point to the similar findings), but the math is pretty straight forward, and frankly, to continue pouring copious amounts of cash to subsidize something that the best research to date says doesn’t really get you the most bang for your buck isn’t the model of efficiency that we allegedly hope for re: day school affordability.

  15. Russel

    Stephen: Word. Agree with everything you said.

    Joshua: Glad you caught the influence of Postman 😉 I’m also indebted to Larry Cuban for a lot of the theoretical framework and historic context as well. I also think your point about holistic education is a critical one that is oft ignored in the context of school planning in general (even as many of our parents send kids to day schools because they want those nebulous ‘jewish values’) — but you know, this is the PEJE blog, so we only get to talk affordability. 😉

  16. Isaac Shalev

    Russell, technology usually achieves cost savings by reducing labor inputs on a per unit basis. This isn’t a dirty secret. But it’s a mistake to believe that this is bad for teachers or for teaching. If we can reduce the costs of day school education while maintaining its quality we will have much higher demand for it. More demand means more students, more schools, and more teachers. Isn’t that the vision we all share for day school education?

  17. Pingback: Blended Learning: Some Love It, Some Hate It—But Everyone’s Talking About It. | PEJE Blog

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