Aug 112016
 
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During the past year, I have had two opportunities to teach a Judaic studies course online through the Online Judaic Studies Consortium (OJSC). I hope my personal experience will be informative to those of you who currently engage in this kind of teaching and motivating to those of you considering broadening your teaching to include the online classroom.

The course I taught was Mishna. Three different schools participated via a D2L (Brightspace) platform. The course is asynchronous and paced, where students have to complete assignments each week of the course with deliverables mid-week and at the end of each week.

The most enlightening and exciting part of this experience was the singular focus on student work.  The two courses that I taught were fully prepared before I entered my online classroom.  Each day my task was to respond to my students, guide them in their discussions, comment on their assignments and assess their work.  All of these tasks were student-centered, so my role as a teacher was totally focused on my students and their work in my online classroom.

Student-Teacher Interaction

The interactions between students and me were frequent and meaningful.  I was delighted to experience thought-provoking and rich interactions with students in schools across North America.  Students asked excellent questions to which they wanted serious answers.  They also shared personal anecdotes in an open and connected way with me and with their classmates.

News items – a regular part of OJSC courses and the first thing students see when they open the course each day – enabled me to share personal information with my students, inspire them with words of Torah, or make them smile with a graphic or story that related to our studies.

Private Topics (a private discussion space set up between the teacher and each of his/her students) allowed me to communicate with students one-on-one, an excellent vehicle for building personal relationships with students.  I found students to be very forthcoming and open in their Private Topics and to share important information with me in this space.  The online classroom requires students to post and communicate, and those students who do not always participate in their face-to-face classroom often become full participants and find their voices in the online classroom.

Student Interaction

I was delighted to observe the students interacting with each other and responding to their classmates’ work with respect and concern for each other. In their blog posts and discussion forums, Jewish day school students who never met shared their views on the meaning of a Mishna, research on the Tannaim, and Pesach traditions unique to their families. Their conversations were rich and personal, and they exchanged ideas while showing concern and consideration for their fellow students in that exchange.

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Assessment

Assessment in the online space is a wonder of technology which can also inform our face-to-face discussions.  I often had difficulty keeping track of student participation in class discussions in my face-to-face classroom.  The online classroom records every conversation, comment, and response to a classmate; helps the teacher to assess these student comments; and allows the teacher to share his or her feedback with the students.

I felt empowered by the assessment tools which I was using, and found myself often commenting on work each student completed in my online classroom.  Perhaps because my students could not see my smile at their response to another student, I wanted to share my thoughts and words with them more extensively than I ever do in the face-to-face classroom.

Learning Styles

Differentiation of learning is part and parcel of what happens in the online learning environment.  Site coordinators in the schools informed me about student learning styles in advance so that I could modify assignments and expectations accordingly. Students who had difficulty with a particular assignment reached out to me in the Private Topics, and I was quickly able to modify the assignment to best suit their learning styles.

The ability to communicate privately in the online classroom allows room for everyone to speak up and articulate what he or she needs without any compromise to their personal dignity.  This made a huge impression on me, and seemed to encourage students to push themselves to do their absolute best work.
About the Author :  Lisa Micley is program director of the Online Judaic Studies Consortium (OJSC), which offers Judaic studies courses online to help schools enhance their curriculum and to expose students to online learning. She has been working in Jewish education for close to three decades in positions ranging from teacher to program director. She is excited to be working with The Virtual High School on this AVI CHAI funded project.

Contact Lisa Micley at LMicley@TheVHS.org or 978-450-0435 to learn more about teaching for the OJSC and offering high-quality online and blended learning opportunities for your students.

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