Sunday, May 15, 2011

Embracing Online & Blended Learning

In February, at the North American Jewish Day School Conference, The Jewish Education Project, Jesna and The Avi Chai Foundation announced a partnership promoting Jewish day schools to “explore online learning”. They offered an online space, digitaljlearning, providing a description of online learning, as well as Jewish day school success stories in utilizing online learning as part of their instructional repertoire.

Their website makes the case for online learning in Jewish day schools:
Schools should consider the benefits of online learning such as greater accessibility, the potential for individualized learning, improving the quality of instruction and enhancing students' learning. Online learning can also be cost effective, for example in providing courses to small numbers of students where it is not otherwise economically feasible because of their limited number. 

A quick search online reveals many examples of attempts at online learning in Jewish education, including learning Hebrew Online, college courses and degrees by Gratz and Hebrew College, Bar Mitzvah lessons, Hebrew School and even online smicha. Most of this programs exclusively function online, but many institutions are considering blended learning as well.  Wikipedia defines Blended Learning as the mixing of different learning environments, by mixing synchronous and asynchronous instruction. This takes place with integration of traditional face-to-face and computer mediated instruction.

The choice for determining whether a course should be online, face-to-face or blended depends on the analysis of the competencies at stake, the nature and location of the audience, and the resources available. The mix of technologies and interactions results in a constructive socially supported learning experience. Changes the role of the teacher to dynamic learning facilitator, preparing students for engagement in self directed learning both in their computer driven and face-to-face interactions.

With all this organizational and foundation support for online learning in Judaism, the questions remains what shape will online learning take within Jewish education, and whether this format truly does serve the mission of Jewish education. In their article “Can Blended Learning Enhance Jewish Education? A Call to Action”, Richard D. Solomon and Paul A. Flexner, articulate an understanding of the research behind online and blended learning and its role and function within Jewish education. Solomon and Flexner conclude that the effectiveness of online and blended learning depends on the personnel utilizing the technology and framing the learning. They question whether enough educators have been appropriately trained to understand the benefits and value of blended and online learning.

Solomon and Flexner suggest that:
rigorous research be conducted in real and virtual classrooms and professional development settings to determine if blended learning will enhance Jewish education and teacher training.  Furthermore, we strongly suggest that Jewish educators be trained extensively in the proper use of the Web 2.0 technologies.  It is only when we can test our assumptions in the real world that we will fully understand the power of Web 2.0 technology which has and is becoming such a central component of our lives in the 21st century.

Investing in training teachers to develop and teach online and blended classes could greatly improve the reach and affordability of Jewish education.  Blended learning will enhance student learning and engagement, while improving access and flexibility. However, to cultivate a beneficial blend, Jewish educators must generate a balanced blended that does not engage in purposeless add on, via the mixing and matching of online and traditional learning experiences.  Educators must explicitly consider the student’s learning outcomes by applying the right learning technologies to match the right personal learning style.  Blended learning must still generate a strong relationship between the educator and student, but must transition from focusing on the teacher to the student, from the content to the experience and from the technologies involved to the pedagogy utilized.

Blended learning will enable educational institutions to encounter a diverse student body and differentiate learning for individual student needs. Most importantly, for the future of Jewish education, blended learning will address many of the key obstacles to many who cannot or opt of engaging in Jewish education.  Blended learning offers a unique entry point for families and individuals whose personal commitments require increased flexibility, remote access.  Through a truly blended experienced, focused on the student’s needs, rather than the teacher’s, will offer preferred student autonomy to learn at their own pace, with a designed structure carefully provided facilitation and necessary support materials.

I would love to conduct an experiment in blending learning that would enable multiple day schools to enable their high school students to learn together in a project based learning course. This course would provide an online space for resources, discussion and exhibition, enabling students from different schools to interact, learn from each other and get to know each other. At each home school, a facilitator would be available to guide the learning from student and serve as a face-to-face instructor to support the learner's in their own school. This program could also enable students to learn from and get know other great educators at school that without the blended learning's online platform, they would never have met. In this case, blended learning would offer students a new community of learners, new teachers to be inspired by and the flexibility to create a self-direction and self-determined learning experience, which many of many students think. I wonder how soon high school would be willing to experiment with this model.

With foundations, like Avi Chai, and organizations, like Jewish Education Project and Jesna, leading the way, we can create an environment for teacher and institutional experimentation for online learning. Yet, Jewish education will only harness the true potential of online and blended learning if there is continued support for training and research side-by-side with the new implementation of programs.

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