Jan 112013
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Following our release of the Online Learning State of the Field Report, Gary Hartstein, Project Director of the DigitalJLearning Network, reflects on the report’s findings and the field from his perspective.

By: Gary Hartstein

In my work with online education in Jewish day schools, I’m often asked two questions: 1) is there accessible research on online learning, and 2) are there resources for quality Judaic online content? I am therefore excited that The AVI CHAI Foundation has commissioned this study. Especially as it pertains to the first question, the results and implications may be eye-opening for those not involved in this area of education. To those of us who are, though, they support what we already know to be true.

As the project director for the DigitalJLearning Network (DJLN), I’m fortunate to work with more than 30 established day schools from around North America that are experimenting with online and blended learning. Our participants span the continuum from community day schools to yeshivas – with a healthy mix in between.

Our DJLN schools fall into two categories of schools identified in the report: early adopters who have been offering online courses for three or more years and new adopters who have begun offering online courses this year. As we’ve seen in DJLN, many schools look to online learning as a way to expand their offerings and provide students with access to classes they wouldn’t have otherwise. For example, if four students want to take a French class and a school has no French teacher, it is most likely cost-prohibitive to hire a teacher just for those four. But with online learning, students can be enrolled in a French class while still being supported by faculty at their “brick and mortar” school.

As the study indicated, while resources such as French classes may be readily procured, our schools are hungry for quality online Judaic resources. I find it encouraging that, in many of our DJLN schools, teachers are beginning to apply blended learning concepts in Judaic subjects, in many cases creating their own blended courses. This is a point not to be overlooked. Those of us who remember the early days of general studies online programs know that many of the original developers started out creating resources for their students in their own classrooms. I am hopeful that we’ll see this pattern replicate in the Jewish education world as well, leading to a sustained improvement in the quality of online Jewish content.

So what does the future of online learning in Jewish schools look like? And how should schools go about doing it? As the study indicated, many Jewish educators are skeptical about the effectiveness of online education. The field is in its infancy. With a little more time, I believe there will be more empirical research showing the efficacy of this “new” model. Until that time, here are a few things to consider:

  • Technology shouldn’t drive curriculum; curriculum drives technology. Therefore, it’s important to identify why and where online learning should be implemented. We don’t “do computers” anymore. Technology is a medium for facilitating learning and is best used when integrated seamlessly.
  • Planning is the key to any successful implementation. Sadly, most Jewish schools don’t have technology plans that strategically align their technology purchases and use with academic needs. This is a critical piece of ANY sustainable technology integration. When schools overlook this piece, money is wasted and people become frustrated.
  • Good planning should also take funding sources into account. It’s not enough to buy 30 computers and put them in a lab. Many schools are moving to carts of laptops or tablets that can be rolled into classrooms and support whole classes. Some have even gone to BYOD, or Bring Your Own Device! Remember, in three years, any technology you buy today will be obsolete.
  • Online learning doesn’t mean an end to teacher-student contact. Some respondents indicated a concern that subjects such as Torah are best taught when “…delivered by a live rabbi.” Online learning (the umbrella term that includes blended learning) can actually enhance the face- to-face learning with a real rabbi, or with any other teacher, if done correctly. I’ve seen it in action, with a live rabbi who creates his own online lessons and activities.
  • The most important thing to remember is that it’s not about the technology. It’s about giving students access to the content and helping them to develop their innate desires to learn. It’s about facilitating their becoming active learners and not just passive recipients of knowledge. And isn’t that what learning really should be anyway?

Gary Hartstein is the Project Director of the DigitalJLearning Network, a joint initiative of The Jewish Education Project and JESNA with funding from The AVI CHAI Foundation.