Michael Cohen is perhaps better known by his online moniker - The Tech Rabbi. An acclaimed educator and Apple Distinguished Educator, we spoke with him about the work he's being doing, his go-to apps and his approach to all things iPad.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
As a Hasidic Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, G-d plays a pretty big role in my life, and family as well. One of the unique outlooks of Hasidic Judaism is that G-d isn’t just in “heaven”. Instead, G-d is the very fabric of the universe. Through this lens, I have been on a journey of trying to better understand humankind’s quest for knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, and the role technology plays. After graduating from Art School, I began to realize that I had a gift of teaching and helping others.
When I committed to education as a profession, I wanted its foundation to be based on two quotes that are very dear to me. The first from Ethics of our Fathers, “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” and “The human condition is to want to share things - thoughts, ideas, and opinions." from Paulo Coelho. There are many levels to how these two quotes coalesce together for me, but the essence of their connection is that there is something bigger than ourselves. With this outlook, I can appreciate the value in both sharing my learning, as well as learning from what is shared with me. This is why I am so drawn to technology and how humankind has been constantly moving in a direction for thousands of years trying to develop faster and more efficient ways of sharing ideas, ideas we are proud of.
You've built quite the reputation as The Tech Rabbi. Was this a name you came up with?
Thus far it has been a very humbling experience. There are many educators that I meet at conferences and on social media who are really interested in what I have to say. To sort of stand out in the crowd, I realized next to growing a really large beard, I need something more. Thats where the The Tech Rabbi comes in. See, there are lots of Rabbis, and lots of tech enthusiasts, but I noticed a serious lack of Tech Rabbis so I decided to take up arms and fill the void.
How long have you been using the iPad in your classroom?
I have been using the iPad in the classroom since “the iPad”. I feel like the iPad 1 was sort of a gimmick. It wasn't till a 10 pack of iPad 2s was donated that I saw a significant impact on learning in the classroom. The camera and various creative apps were the game changer for me.
What do you consider to be the single biggest benefit that mobile technology can offer to educators?
It gives educators more freedom in the classroom. Guiding all students along the same linear learning experience is next to impossible. With technology as a tool in the classroom, Differentiation, Personalized Learning, and Unexpected Outcomes can become the norm, and allow the teacher to become a facilitator in the midst of student learning.
What would be your advice to educators that are reticent to try using mobile technology in their practice?
Sit in on a class where technology is part of a fluid learning experience. Teachers need to understand that the days of waiting till you become an expert are gone. Since many teachers are not comfortable looking “uneducated” in front of their students for fear of revealing weakness, it's best to see how others teachers at your school use technology to support learning.
Tell us about your "invisible" iPad philosophy.
I coined the term Invisible iPad while at ISTE 2012. I was overwhelmed by the number of sessions promoting 10,000 apps, and top apps for specific subjects. Something just felt wrong about it. I don’t want to be critical of these outlooks because I think they have their place, but I do not think they allow technology, and in this case the iPad to truly push the limits of how students can learn, or showcase their learning. This is how the Invisible iPad philosophy was born. It focuses on purposeful and thoughtful uses of technology that empower students to create a product of learning they are proud of rather than simply consuming information through even the most engaging app.
Can you share a little about a particular project that you've led that you're proud of?
My main focus at the moment is interactive books. Students in various grades have been using this process to create some amazing projects that are evidence of some awesome learning. Notable examples are a 3rd grade Native American Project and an 8th grade Revolutionary War Publication. Both examples charged the students with teaching their peers the topic they chose to research. This gives students both a general understanding of the unit, as well as a deeper understanding of a specific event or individual.
What are your go-to apps on a daily basis?
For me it's all about the creation based apps. Book Creator, Explain Everything, iMovie, Keynote, and Chatterpix have all been playing a regular role in my work and the students and teachers I support.
What about a "desert island app" -the one app you just couldn't live without?
The Camera app. Without it, the iPad is just a touchy-feely typewriter.
Have you had any experience with BYOD schemes?
I supported BYOD for 2 years during our iPad pilot. If schools can't afford to provide devices then BYOD is a must. It's hard to manage and support since you cannot regulate and standard, but if it's the only option then it must be embraced.
You recently became an Apple Distinguished Educator. What did this mean to you?
I wasn’t sure what it meant till I spent five days at the Apple Institute with other ADEs. Now, I understand it means that my mission as an educator is bigger than myself. Some look at it as a status symbol, but I see it as a charge to be an advisor, author, ambassador and advocate for those around me. Apple products are amazingly powerful, but technology is only as innovative as we are, and I hope to help others realize their full potential.
What's next for you Michael?
I am in the process of finishing up my Masters and pondering the idea of writing a book. I have a few conferences that I hope to present at and have high hopes for my SXSWEdu proposal - The Myth of the Magical Device with Sabba Quidwai (@AskMsQ) and Carl Hooker (@MrHooker). Only G-d knows the rest.
What's the best way for people to connect with you?