Can Blended Learning Enhance Jewish Education? A Call to Action Featured
Over the last decade, distance learning has taken on a new and exciting look as the educational world is quickly moving from a print and classroom based experience to e-learning. Hardly a year goes by without someone introducing a new platform that expands the opportunities and ease for instructors and learners to explore serious topics without ever seeing each other in a face-to-face traditional classroom environment. Many universities are taking the lead in these new endeavors with academics being the first to both explore the new possibilities and to examine the results in their research. This is not to discount the contributions of the corporate world which often is at the forefront of adopting new technologies for meetings and training purposes.
In the last few years, the technology that is behind these new approaches to learning has taken a leap forward with the advent of Web 2.0 technology, a collection of internet tools for information sharing, data analysis, collaborative writing, knowledge construction, and dissemination. These new internet tools provide an ever expanding base through which instructors and learners can explore their topics, ideas, and insights in both asynchronous (i.e. not at the same time) and synchronous (i.e. at the same time) formats. Blended online learning (BOL) ,a term created by Dr. Nellie M. Deutsch, is used to describe this form of learning program.
Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is to examine the interface of this new technology with Jewish education. Toward that end, we will explore five key questions:
1) What is online learning?
2) What is blended learning and how is it similar to and different from face-to-face learning in a traditional classroom?
3) What does research tell us about the effects of blended instruction on teaching and learning?
4) To what extent is online learning being incorporated in Jewish education?
5) Can blended learning enhance Jewish education?
1. What is online learning?
Online learning or e-learning is instruction delivered on a computer via the Internet. With the development of new Web 2.0 technologies, the opportunities to deliver instructional materials outside of the classroom are growing rapidly. For example, the wiki, Google Docs, and Google Wave are just three of the many new tools that enable instructors and learners to collaboratively create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations both synchronously and asynchronously. Photo montages are easily created through Picassa and Flickr. Teachers and students are creating educational products and projects by uploading their power point presentations through Slideshare and Authorstream, and by uploading their movies onto YouTube and QuickTime Player. Moreover, students and teachers are webconferencing in real time though Skype, Ichat, and Oovoo.
There appears to be no end in sight to the creation of new tools for instruction, learning, and teacher professional development. For a fuller view of some of the newest tools available to educators, this website includes a short description and samples of how each tool may be utilized in a Jewish educational setting.
2. What is blended online learning and how is it similar to and different from face-to-face learning in a traditional classroom?
As defined earlier, blended learning refers to the combination of traditional face-to-face instruction in a real classroom or the new style of online learning that is asynchronous with the introduction of the new asynchronous and synchronous internet tools. Thus, blended or hybrid learning is similar to face-to-face instruction in that it incorporates traditional real time classroom teaching. The difference is that blended learning adds the application of web technology in and outside of the traditional classroom setting. Therefore, in a blended learning instructional environment a teacher might use a smart board to access information on the web, and teach his or her students how to use the synchronous and asynchronous tools while participating in the real or virtual class. In fact, in some blended learning classrooms each student has access to his or her own computer. Students in a blended learning environment are now expected to use web technology to enhance their knowledge base of the subject, and complete their individual and small group assignments and projects online.
Recently a new concept has emerged, blended online learning (BOL). This refers to instruction that totally occurs outside of the traditional classroom setting. With BOL all instruction is online with both real time (i.e. synchronous) face-to-face teaching taking place in a virtual classroom through web-conferencing, and the use of asynchronous tools (i.e. not real time) such as email and social network sites like Facebook or Twitter. Although it is possible to design a course utilizing web tools only, most courses have adopted one of learning management systems like Moodle or Blackboard which already include or provide easy access to the many web tools on the internet.
3. What does research tell us about the effects of blended learning on teaching and learning?
Although there is not an abundance of research on the above question, we can share some preliminary indications on the efficacy of blended instruction on student learning and other variables.
In 2009 the United States Department of Education issued a report, “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning” (Jones et al., 2009); it was a meta-analysis involving research published from 1996 to July 2008 in which the USDE analyzed more than 1,100 empirical studies of online learning in both K-12 and post secondary education. The rationale for this meta-analysis was to compare the results between online courses and face to face classroom based courses for similar groups of students. Consistent throughout the report was the finding that online courses are at least as strong and may even have the advantage in terms of improving student achievement and potentially expanding the amount of engaged time students spend learning. Furthermore, and of greater importance to this article, the study found some evidence to support the proposition that blended learning is more effective than either face-to-face or online learning by themselves.
Hrastinski (2008) informs us that students who use synchronous e-learning tools like videoconferencing, and instant messaging create social bonds and a support structure for planning task, doing group work and fostering classroom community. However, Hrastinki also notes that “when discussing complex issues, in which time for reflection is needed, it seems preferable to switch to asynchronous e-learning and use media such as e-mail, discussion boards and blogs.” Thus, asynchronous learning may stimulate higher levels of creative and critical thinking.
In a related finding, McBrien and Jones (2009) found that students who do not generally participate in classroom discussions in a traditional classroom are more likely to express their thoughts online. They write that the “online platform allowed students, particularly shy students, to feel more comfortable expressing their opinions”. This finding coincides with the seminal research of M.B Rowe’s (1986) which positively correlated higher rates of classroom participation with increased ‘wait time’, the time the teacher gives a student to reflect before answering a question.
Research on the effects of building classroom community reveal a positive correlation between the classroom community building activities and improved academic motivation and achievement [D. Solomon et al. (2000); Battistich, & Horn (1997); Shouse (1996)], the development of pro-social and emotional competencies [D. Solomon et al. (2000)], and ethical and altruistic behavior [Battistich & D. Solomon, (1997); Higgins & Kohlberg (1984)]. Given the fact that classroom community can be enhanced through blended learning, these are significant findings.
One of the challenges in teaching is the need to provide provisions for students to make up work after an absence. By moving from a strictly classroom-based approach to one that includes online learning, students are able to retrieve the lessons which are archived and receive their assignments electronically. Through the use of web tools like Jing or Screencast, the teacher is able to describe, narrate and even make video tutorials on any classroom assignment or activity that a student has missed. Moreover, with present web technology the teacher can check on the progress of student work while they are collaborating online in or outside of the classroom. By using a play back or revision history tool, a feature on some wikis, Google Docs and Type With Me, the teacher can now actually see the evolution in the creation of a student product or project. Thus, by clicking onto a time slider icon on one of these web tools, the teacher can observe how the document, spreadsheet, or power point presentation was created over time.
Finally, blended learning is a reflection of the “ever-accelerating pace of a changing and uncertain world. To be successful today’s learners must be equipped with the appropriate skills and knowledge needed to master the interconnected forces of speed, complexity and uncertainty.” (Farrell, 2009) In a constructivist or active learning environment where blended online learning is the format, the role of the teacher is to be a facilitator of learning rather than a knowledge transmitter. Under the guidance of the teacher, students will explore multiple sources on a particular topic either on their own or in small groups. In this case, the teacher becomes a mentor or guide for the students rather than a disseminator of knowledge. In this way the students are being empowered to examine sources, analyze content, construct knowledge, create meaning, and share information with the members of the class and others.
4. To what extent is online learning being incorporated in Jewish education?
Since the mid 1990’s, a variety of Jewish institutions in North America have experimented with forms of distance learning. These have included the use of video conferencing as well as the internet. The three programs that have achieved market penetration were Siegal College of Judaic Studies in Cleveland which developed a Masters program in Jewish Education utilizing videoconferencing and both the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Gratz College and the Hebrew College in Boston which adopted an internet framework for graduate study in Jewish education leading to graduate degrees.
More recently, with the ubiquitous nature of the computer and the internet in Jewish homes, many K-12 schools have gone paperless with their communications between the school and home. This includes the use of e-newsletters to parents, announcements of programs in email notices, and more relevant to our purpose, a direct connection between the teachers and parents using a combination of email and individual class websites or pages on the school website. These new technologies have increased the level of involvement of parents in their children’s education. However, when the question arises about moving from the level of utilizing the internet for the purposes mentioned above to the creation of either online learning or blended online learning experiences for the students, the Jewish community has only scratched the surface.
In the day school community, online courses are offered through the Lookstein Center at the high school level with schools in North America and England opening the option to their students. On a more ambitious level, a new school opened this year with 14 students in Los Angeles that provides online courses in a charter school setting. According to its founder, “This hybrid model combines day school culture, online charter school classes, and online and traditional Judaic Studies classes, all within a brick-and-mortar building where students would socialize, interact and work together.” (Greene, 2009). However, most day schools have yet to move in this direction with several directors indicating a reluctance to opening the doors for students to enroll in courses that do not include a significant component of class time in their schools.
Congregational schools are equally reluctant to move in the direction of online learning because their primary goal is the building of Jewish identity and community which requires a physical presence. However, a number are providing opportunities for their students to use a combination of CD’s and online materials for enrichment purposes outside of class (Wiener, 2010). The one exception is Ezra Habonim, The Niles Township Jewish Congregation outside of Chicago which is initiating the “world’s first and only internet based Hebrew school for children ages 8 to 13” (Ezra Habonim). On the high school level, the High School of Gratz College in Philadelphia has developed a number of online courses for students in distant communities where there is not a local option or where students are able to enhance their local or synagogue options through an online course. One other example is the work of Chabad which has created an online Jewish education program for the children of their schlichim around the world.
Although the field of Jewish education continues to lag behind general education, the signs of the Jewish community beginning to adopt online and blended online approaches to Jewish learning for the K-12 learners as well as the post secondary community are beginning to appear. Looking forward, there are a myriad of opportunities for Jewish schools and communities to adopt the new technologies and approaches to expand the offerings for Jewish learning at all levels of the system. According to Jonathan Woocher (2008), Jewish day and congregational schools have yet to take advantage of the new Web 2.0 technologies to enhance Jewish education. He writes that the “new technologies have been a gloss added to a system that remains fundamentally unchanged...” and adds “the world has changed, and Jewish education has not changed enough to keep pace.”
5. How can blended learning enhance Jewish education?
The quality of Jewish education in North America is often subject to the experience and background of the educators who are charged with its implementation. Although there has been a qualitative improvement in the personnel over the last 30 years, there remain significant gaps in the abilities of many educators, especially the teachers, in delivering a quality education to the learners. In studies by Avi Chai, JESNA and Brandeis’ Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, the shortage of educators with the requisite backgrounds to staff the various schools and educational programs continues to be one of the principle concerns of the North America Jewish community.
With the advent of the Web 2.0 on the internet, many new options have opened for addressing this weakness in the system. Of greatest import is the ability to connect scholars or qualified instructors with learners through distance learning. As has been indicated above, there are already examples where universities and schools are building in new options for their high school learners to connect through the internet with academics who are in distant locations (Lookstein, Gratz, etc…). We have also noted that several universities have established online graduate programs in order to facilitate the pursuance of a degree for students who live far from the host campus. These programs were created, for the most part, utilizing the most basic of the Web 2.0 tools and are primarily asynchronous in their format.
Web 2.0 opens up many new options for the Jewish community to enhance the quality of learning at all levels of the system. In the K-12 system, students who are increasingly familiar with Web 2.0 tools are searching for opportunities to expand their learning in ever greater numbers in a wide range of areas. As the Jewish community becomes more familiar with the technology, more courses that appeal to this population will be offered. Schools, both day and congregational/communal, with their limited faculties will be able to expand their offerings to meet the interests and demands of their students by accepting the new online format for academic credit. Initially, this will be most common at the high school level but should move down to the middle school and even upper elementary levels over time.
However, the online asynchronous courses are only the beginning. Web 2.0 provides options for the students to connect with each other in blended online formats across distance and time zones. As the faculty learns the various techniques they will be in a better position to encourage the students to explore the ideas and concepts of the courses with their classmates, wherever they happen to be located. These communities of learners will connect students with other students in ways that were limited to pen pal relationships in the past. By creating these communities of learners, Web 2.0 will open the world of learning to students in ways heretofore only imagined in the past. With the various tools, the faculty will be able to monitor the conversations and provide individualized encouragement and guidance to their students throughout the course. Universities that are on the cutting edge are already implementing blended courses that engage learners in these ways.
This focus on the students in the schools will only be effective when the teachers in the schools as well as those who instruct the courses online learn the value and benefits of blended online learning. This transition to the new Web 2.0 technology among faculty members will take place in two very distinct ways. The first and easiest will be when young teachers who have grown up as digital natives enter the profession and bring with them the knowledge and comfort level with the technology to begin implementing the new approaches in their own teaching. The second, however, will require more investment. Existing faculty and administration who are digital immigrants will need to learn how to use Web 2.0 systems. This will require serious professional development to introduce the faculty to the new methods and tools that are available to them. Whether through local programs which bring the faculty together in a room filled with computers or by engaging the teachers in online courses, Jewish schools and communities will need to invest in the personal growth of the teachers.
The use of Web 2.0 in Jewish education will open new avenues for engaging the students of all ages in more in-depth learning opportunities than currently exist in many communities and schools. Experts and scholars who tend to live in larger Jewish communities in North America and in Israel will be able to share their knowledge and understanding of the Jewish tradition with learners throughout the community, especially in smaller communities that are severely lacking in knowledgeable faculty. Whether it is courses designed specifically for the K-12 students or the adults in their communities, learning will take place in new environments that will engage the learners in meaningful and significant ways. By adopting the tools that are already available on the internet, the Jewish community will be able to greatly enhance the educational offerings at every level of the system.
Blended learning is either a combination of face-to-face classroom teaching with an online component, or a mix of both asynchronous and synchronous instruction taking place entirely on the internet, also termed blended online learning. This paper provides examples of how blended instruction can enhance the quality of the Jewish learning experience for both K-12 students and post secondary learners whether as students, faculty members or adult learners. With the rapid expansion of internet based tools, the opportunity to create a new and expanding environment for Jewish learning has arrived. It is important for Jewish educators to bring learning to every interested member of the community who seeks to expand his or her knowledge and understanding of Judaism.
We have suggested that blended learning can enhance Jewish education by:
facilitating higher levels of student thinking and achievement
enabling students to construct and disseminate knowledge
empowering quiet students to participate more actively in classroom discussions
transforming the classroom into a community of learners
empower faculties to create online communities of practice within and outside of the school building
providing the teacher with new ways to disseminate knowledge, facilitate learning, and evaluate student on-task behavior
In conclusion, our suggestions are based on our investigation of (a) the preliminary research on blended learning and (b) the new web technologies that are now available to the educational community and the Jewish educational establishment. We 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.
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