AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Online learning in day schools: Let’s push the right buttons

Posted by: Michael Berger

July 19, 2011

By: Michael S. Berger
Once again, the Jewish Week has highlighted a growing trend in day schools: the incorporation of on-line courses.  As Clayton Christensen projected in his 2008 Disrupting Class, educational innovation will begin at the margins in an effort to achieve more affordable results, such as in small schools that cannot reach an economy of scale due to their size, or home schooled children.  It would be within 5-10 years that such offerings would be mainstream, Christensen predicted.
With the fundamental questions about the affordability and sustainability of day schools raised by the economic downturn, it is not surprising to see this innovative embrace of technology reach the Jewish day school world, whether in blended formats (where either Judaics or general studies classes are being offered online), or entire schools.  Foundations, such as AVI CHAI, have begun funding these efforts as a truly promising way to bring costs under control and improve educational quality.
In fear of sounding like a Luddite, I wanted to highlight three areas in which such changes might have major consequences for what goes on in a Jewish day school.  I flag them not to try and stop this revolution (no one can), but to offer a call for innovators to choose those models or types of on-line learning that preserve these valuable aspects of the traditional bricks-and-mortar day school:
1)      The social character of learning: Even in schools that highlight small class size as key to good learning, the social dimension of learning — hearing other students’ answers, helping others learn, and collaborating — are prized.  Most educators deem the skill of working together essential for 21st century employment, and so students, especially in high school, need to learn the value of working together.  The online learning must therefore be constructed in ways that enable and encourage this type of collaboration (e.g., openstudy.com) rather than those that incline to the individualistic.
2)       Siphoning off the top: as all educators acknowledge, on-line learning is not for everyone.  The best on-line learners are likely to be the same profile as the generally top students in any class.  Even as schools incorporate on-line learning into their curricula, they must ensure that the total school program remains attractive to these highly motivated and self-disciplined students, lest they accelerate their high school experience leave after only 3 years.  This may remind some (older!) readers of a problem many Jewish high schools faced in the 1970s-80s – top students would leave high school after three years and either go to Israel or start college early.  Leaving aside the question of whether this was good for the students themselves (campuses struggled to integrate not-fully-mature 17 year olds), it often left the high schools bereft of the high-quality student leadership critical to healthy schools.
3)      The communal nature of Jewish education: in almost all Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Community day schools, one sees an emphasis on connecting students to their community – the local one, and/or the Jewish people.  As schools expand their online curricular offerings, how does feeling a part of a bigger story, a love for Israel or a concern for world Jewry get cultivated?  Schools must ensure that the virtual experience nurtures these connections which reinforce actual, collective experiences.
So let’s venture forth into this innovative Promised Land, but remain keenly aware of what we may need to add to guarantee that key elements of a day school’s implicit and hidden curricula remain intact.

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