Mar 142017

In 2010, AVI CHAI began supporting projects that focused on blended and online learning.  Our motivation and goal was two-fold: 1) to improve the quality of education by increasing individualized instruction and enabling students to develop skills and ways of thinking needed in the 21st Century, and 2) to bring down the cost of education.  From the very start, we developed a three prong approach: a) work with established schools to integrate online and blended learning into their systems (b) incubate new schools that will start with a low tuition and high quality education proposition based on blended learning, serving as proof points and a disruptive force to influence established schools and (c) stimulate the beginnings of Judaic studies offerings online.

Supporting new schools amounted to backing entrepreneurs who were willing to experiment with the model of a day school by incorporating online learning in service of both educational and cost-saving goals. As part of our strategy to encourage these budding efforts, we made initial grants of $50,000, often used at least in part for consultation with blended learning experts, and then two-year operating grants totaling $300,000.

We saw the new schools as revolutionary, quickly offering new models to study and show the field.  This was to be in parallel with work in established schools which was evolutionary, as laid out in Disrupting Class by Christiansen and Horn – schools will first find the niche where online learning helps solve a need and then slowly use it more centrally. We expected that having new schools in the field would serve as a catalyst to propel the established schools forward – especially as parents and lay leaders of the older schools sought the educational and tuition benefits available in the newer schools.

Early on, the Foundation engaged Dr. Leslie Santee Siskin to study and document the projects we were supporting (You can find her previous reports HERE).  Her latest report, New Schools, New Directions — Approaches to Online/Blended Learning, is an analysis of the new schools effort, focusing on three new schools funded by the foundation. The schools reflect a range of grade levels, affiliations, and educational design models. When selected, all were beginning to put their plans into action. These schools were observed two to three times a year over a three-year period. Conforming to norms of academic research for confidentiality, we have used pseudonyms for all individual schools (Darom, Zafon, and Mizrah).

As you will read, only one school, Zafon, remains open in 2017. The report tries to posit some reasons for its success, but more importantly, discusses the challenges that Darom and Mizrah faced in becoming sustainable. Their demise had little to do with blended learning, instead showing the risk-averse nature of parents to enroll their high school age children in small new schools.  AVI CHAI expected that only some of these schools would succeed, and believes that the field needs both successes and failures to learn from.  The report has a robust section on “Lessons Learned,” valuable for those contemplating starting new schools, as well as for established schools and communal leaders.

The heroes of this story are the school leaders, who should be recognized for their dreams and for their valiant efforts to establish schools that would break the mold. They created interesting, active models of learning and engagement. They gave rise to the dream of affordable, high-quality day school education. As a field, we need to continue to support disruption to make progress.

May 072015

On Monday, Senior Program Officer Rachel Mohl Abrahams hosted a webinar, “State of the Field of JDS Online/Blended Learning.” The webinar aimed to explore the findings from two recent AVI CHAI research reports: “Online/Blended Learning State of the Field Survey,” a quantitative report by Anne Deeter, and “Moving Forward,” an interim report of select AVI CHAI blended learning initiatives in Jewish day schools by Dr. Leslie Siskin.  The full webinar can be viewed here. This blog post aims to provide an overview of some of the trends which AVI CHAI is observing in the field.

  • The reports document tremendous growth in the field, from 23.4% of schools reporting the use of some type of online/blended learning in 2012 to 79% of schools in 2014. None of the responding schools plan to reduce or eliminate online/blended learning in any form.
  • Schools that have received support from funded initiatives in online/blended learning appear to be leading the way in this work. These pioneers include participants in the DigitalJLearning Network, Torah UMesorah’s blended learning program, ISTE conferences, and edJEWcon workshops.
  • Siskin identified eight elements of blended learning. Depending on the school, one sees emphasis and progress in certain elements and less in others. One-fifth (21%) of Jewish day schools have moved beyond online lessons and supplemental online enrichment to deliver hybrid courses, flipped classrooms, or fully online courses. AVI CHAI staff continues to think of ways to help more schools adopt more advanced models of blended learning.
  • The growth of online/blended learning raises additional challenges. The primary hurdle faced is faculty development, with more than three in four (77.7%) responding schools reporting the need to developtheir teachers’ abilities to effectively deliver online instruction. There are also shared concerns about the academic quality, customer service and responsiveness of existing content providers – as well as school-based technical capacity issues of wiring and bandwidth.
  • Online/blended learning remains largely a secular studies venture, with 14.3% of responding schools reporting that they offer Judaic studies courses or instruction online and 15.9% offering Hebrew language learning online. AVI CHAI is hoping that our work to support the development of excellent Jewish studies programs online – iTaL AM, NETA/CET, the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy, and the Online Judaic Studies Consortium at VHS – will raise these numbers over the next few years.

Rachel also presented AVI CHAI’s focus and priorities in this work. She shared AVI CHAI’s two-fold goal in supporting only/blended learning initiatives:

  • To improve the quality of education. While we are beginning to see evidence that educational goals are being met, we do not yet have quantitative data on educational outcomes. However, we can report on perceived impact. Schools indicate that they are finding online/blended learning valuable in providing differentiated learning environments, thereby meeting the individual learning needs of students; in spurring growth in academic achievement and student engagement; and in creating a “school without walls,” connected with other schools, resources, and students around the world.
  • To bring down the cost of day school education. It is still too early to demonstrate cost savings results. We are currently developing , and plan to publish, case studies of day schools deeply engaged in blended learning that will hope will elucidate the progress that is being made.

AVI CHAI’s next steps include work in: continued professional development, the development of excellent Jewish Studies programs, and reaching a better understanding of evidence-based practices for online/blended learning.

The webinar concluded with a recommendation to consider: What are YOUR next steps?

Watch the full webinar recording at: https://avichai.org/webinars

Feb 102015

documentThe beginning of a new calendar year is often the time for “State of…” reports. President Obama just gave the State of the Union address, and many mayors have delivered “State of the City” speeches as well.  At AVI CHAI, we are preparing to release two “State of the Field” reports looking at the state of blended/online learning in the field of Jewish day schools.  One is an update reporting on new developments since the report we released in 2012 by Anne Deeter, “Online Learning State of the Field Survey.” The second is a qualitative analysis by Dr. Leslie Siskin of the progress of day schools involved in some of AVI CHAI’s funded initiatives in blended/online learning.

As a precursor to the release of these reports, we thought it would be interesting for day school educators and lay leaders to learn more about this modality of instruction in similar settings.  Most of the data on blended/online learning that has been released so far is from the field of public education. While it is instructive, the settings are often very different from day schools.    We were pleased to sponsor a piece on private schools in “KEEPING PACE with K-12 Digital Learning,” a report released annually by the Evergeen Education Group.  For additional information, see pages 23-26 of the report and this post on their blog.  Furthermore, we were pleased to learn of a report published by the OESIS Group (Online/Blended Education Symposia for Independent Schools) entitled, “Learning Innovation Report on US Independent Schools 2014-15.”

I found the report’s findings very interesting and want to share my thoughts about them in the context of our work in Jewish day schools.  Here is a summarized version of some of the report conclusions:

  • Close to 20% of independent schools in the U.S. are in advanced stages of blended learning adoption, with 12% having 75% of their teachers blending classes and 6% having more than 50% blending classes. As a whole, 41% of schools report that they are implementing blended learning, and 51% report that they are exploring it.
  •  The two most significant benefits of blended learning reported by independent schools are “accessing better content beyond standard textbook sources” and “creating time to personalize student instruction.”  Another key conclusion from the survey is the attractiveness for schools and teachers of using blended learning for higher order elements of the learning universe; to be more specific, using it to target creativity, synthesis, evaluation and critical thinking through project-based learning and student collaboration.
  • A striking observation is the fact that these schools consider blended learning less as an opportunity for “enabling more formative assessments,” or “getting more data for intervention.”  Whether this is rooted in the general antipathy of independent schools to close scrutiny of data or is driven by other instructional preferences or by lack of training or technology assets, it is an important observation and one deserving of closer examination.  The report notes that hallmarks of more advanced models of blended learning that are often found in leading public school models include a significant data culture that values formative assessments highly and stresses student agency, the self-pacing of elements of student learning, and maximized scheduling flexibility.

The report clearly shows that private schools are adopting online and blended learning; the movement is not only a public school phenomenon to increase performance levels of low achieving students.  Even in schools where parents pay tuition and demand excellence in education, teachers are utilizing blended and online tools. The timeline of transforming classes into a blended format varied among the schools. The report concludes that, with an aggressive approach, such a goal could be achieved within three years, although it seems more likely that it will take three to five years.  We are finding a similar trajectory among Jewish day schools, whose blended/online learning development is being supported by initiatives such as digitaljlearning.org and bolddayschools.org.

Independent schools and teachers agree that creating time for teachers to transform courses during a busy school year is the number one barrier to greater blended learning adoption.   The other significant obstacle, at least as identified by school administrators, is a lack of professional development funds allocated in the budget.  These are challenges for Jewish day schools as well, and school leaders as well as funders need to consider these needs as they embark on blended learning.

Perhaps due to the way AVI CHAI has focused our initiatives, I see many of our schools as ahead of the independent schools and closer to the “more advanced models of blended learning that are often found in leading public school models,” striving for data driven, personalized pathways.  We have not ‘settled’ with implementing blended learning to allow for more instructional time or “just” to make time for collaboration or project based learning.  I think we have pushed harder and asked schools to consider making even more drastic changes to their instructional models.  We agree with Karin Chenoweth who writes in the February 2015 edition of Educational Leadership (“How Do We Get There from Here?”):

The general outline of ‘what works’ to improve schools for all kids isn’t a mystery. Research and experience have identified…practices that typically yield improvement:

  • Have a laser-like focus on what kids need to learn.
  • Collaborate on how to teach that content by unpacking standards, mapping curriculum, designing lessons, and constructing assessments that measure whether students master those lessons.
  • Use the results of formative assessments to see which kids got it, and need enrichment, and which ones didn’t, and need additional help.
  • Find patterns in data and use them to improve instruction (My students haven’t learned as many sight words as yours. What do you do that I should try?)

Data-driven instruction is new to many day school leaders and teachers, and we are proud of the numerous schools that have begun to shift to more personalized instruction based on formative assessments.

Interestingly, there is no analysis about cost, whether it is a driver or whether the model has any implications on finances.  In our milieu, we are finding that many schools are reluctant to take their educational innovations to the next step, where they could realize cost savings. Perhaps with more parent education and with time, schools will continue down this innovative and daring path.

Stay tuned for the release of day school data within the month! We welcome your comments and questions here or by email at rabrahams@avichaina.org.

Mar 192014

By: Rachel Mohl Abrahams

Earlier this month at the iJED conference, AVI CHAI hosted a café that was devoted to online and blended learning.  Throughout the conference, attendees could come in and have a cup of coffee, relax, network with colleagues and find out more about online/blended learning from the iJED Cafe vendors and presenters.

For those of you who could not be there, we now share a roundup of the various panels and presentations:

We began with a session on “Getting Started with Blended Learning.”  Rather than explain blended learning in a frontal manner, Gary Hartstein of the DigitalJLearning Network and Dr. Eliezer Jones of the YU School Partnership led an exploration of what blended learning entails in a format that modeled a blended station rotation classroom.  You can watch how they introduced this interactive exercise here (and at right). You can also watch a short video interview with the DigitalJLearning Network, which helps Jewish day schools integrate online and blended learning into their classroom environments.

To dive deeper into what blended learning actually looks like in today’s Jewish day schools, the café hosted two panels with school leaders who are on the front lines in implementing blended learning in their schools.  The first, entitled “What It Takes to Be BOLD,” was comprised of three heads of school from BOLD Day Schools, established Jewish day schools implementing blended learning in their classrooms. The project, funded by the Affordable Jewish Education Projectthe Kohelet Foundation and AVI CHAI, launched this past fall. You can hear the leaders of Magen David Yeshiva High SchoolThe Moriah School, and Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey speak about the initiative here (and above), and you can learn more about BOLD Day Schools at www.bolddayschools.org.

The second panel hosted educators from new day schools which use blended learning as their primary model of education.  Leaders from The Binah School in Sharon, MA; Yeshiva High Tech in Los Angeles, Yeshivat He’Atid in Teaneck, NJ and Westchester Torah Academy answered many questions from the audience about their educational and financial models.  See an excerpt here (and at right).

Participants also had the opportunity to hear about some new and exciting initiatives in the area of Judaic Studies online resource development and delivery.

The Lookstein Center announced the establishment of The Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy, an online school that provides Judaic Studies courses for middle and high school. Chana German, Director of the Academy, explains the project in this short clip (and at right). Gemara Berura just launched a new blended learning platform for the study of Talmud. Coming off their work on Whack-a-Haman, Jewish Interactive showcased the various applications they have created and is currently looking for schools who want to partner on creating 21st century learning experiences in Judaic Studies. Mekorot is testing its new blended learning courses and is looking for pilot schools. We also heard from Aleph Beta Jerusalem Online University, Behrman House’s Online Learning Center and Thumbprint.

There is a flurry of activity in this new educational arena, and AVI CHAI was pleased to see that many school leaders at the conference were interested in the café offerings. If you want to learn more about AVI CHAI’s work in this area, you can listen to an interview I gave at the conference (March 3 show, starting at 18:30 minutes), and feel free to email me with any follow-up questions at rabrahams@avichaina.org.

Rachel Mohl Abrahams is Senior Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.


Dec 262013

By: Rachel Mohl Abrahams

Recently I was pleased to present on a Jewish Funders Network webinar entitled, “The Education Evolution: Learn How Funders Can Shape the Future of Technology in Jewish Classrooms.” It addressed how the field of educational technology is ripe for collaboration between funders of all areas of Jewish education. I represented AVI CHAI, which funds in the day school arena, alongside Devin Schain and Sarah Steinberg, representing Shalom Learning, an initiative to enhance the traditional Hebrew School model through the use of technology.

Educational technology is an exciting area: it’s a new and developing field which is constantly changing. Moreover, because it is an emerging field, there are a myriad of funding opportunities.  In whichever niche of education a funder may be interested in, there is some connection to ed tech; for example: curriculum development, teacher training, supporting individual schools, educational entrepreneurs/product development for Jewish Studies, and university education.  In fact, ed tech is relevant to all students, in all settings.

Additionally, there are many opportunities for work cross-setting. For instance, content, products, and teacher training developed for the day school market could all be adapted – or even developed in parallel – for use in congregational settings, and vice versa. For the last two years, AVI CHAI worked with PELIE (unfortunately no longer in existence), a funding body in supplementary school education. Each funded a group of participants from our respective milieus to attend the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, the premier forum for ed tech professional development which attracts more than 18,000 participants each year. While we were there, we ran activities for our groups together, as well as for each group separately. We also partnered with PELIE to run two regional ed tech conferences (Kadima), out of the belief that, if we were both training educators about ed tech and social media, there was no reason to train them separately. Other areas ripe for collaboration cross-platform include content development: for instance, high school students in Hebrew high school could take some of the same courses as certain Jewish day school students. AVI CHAI is now thinking about universities developing Jewish Studies courses for undergraduates that high school students in Jewish day schools could also take advantage of. Those courses could be available to Jewish high school students in other settings as well. There are so many opportunities for the cross-pollination of interests.

I’d like to share the slides from the webinar. They provide a brief overview of trends in educational technology, as well as of AVI CHAI’s work in this area. You can learn more about DigitalJLearning, a network for established Jewish day schools who are experimenting with implementing online/blended learning (a project of the Jewish Education Project) here; and more about BOLD (Blending Online Learning in Day Schools), which supports established day schools making deeper dives into becoming blended learning schools (co-funded with the Affordable Jewish Education Project and the Kohelet Foundation) here.

Rachel Mohl Abrahams is Senior Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Nov 132013

Keeping PaceBy: Rachel Mohl Abrahams

Last week at the iNacol conference, the Evergreen Education Group released the 2013 edition of “Keeping Pace with K-12 Online & Blended Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice.” This is the tenth annual report examining the status of K-12 online learning across the country, including the latest policies, practices, and trends. This year, AVI CHAI participated in the sponsorship of the report. We wanted to begin to look at how private schools are adopting blended and online learning and also how the states are accommodating private school students.

As “Keeping Pace” reports, private schools have been slower to jump on the blended/online learning bandwagon for several reasons. Especially when the field was originally more focused on online learning, many private schools did not understand its benefits to their milieu. Most of their students are high-performing; they already can offer varied classes; and they pride themselves on the high caliber of their teaching staff. Additionally, private school parents often questioned why their children would be learning from the same computer-based courses that public school students were taking.

But that has begun to change. As the benefits of data collection and personalized learning have become a larger piece of the story and as the blended learning model has been on the rise, private schools have begun to adopt these methodologies as well.  They can tailor blended and online learning to suit their needs and to expand their course offerings, even while teachers remain crucial to the instruction.

We are beginning to see organizations like the National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS) discuss the issue and point to exemplars among their ranks. The Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools took place for the first time in 2013. There are consortia forming of independent schools as well.

Parochial schools are exploring this model for an additional reason: cost-savings and affordability. Both Catholic and Jewish schools have begun to implement blended learning to improve instruction while reducing their costs.

The cost savings is derived from increasing the student/teacher ratio. This means fewer teachers handle more students as they rotate between face-to-face and online activities. Schools can eliminate small sized “sections” within one subject area, or use online learning for classes with few students.  We believe that this new model could eventually lead to a 15% reduction in costs, which can translate to tuition savings. 

Schools may also be able to use online learning to attract families that were not attending either because their child‘s special needs were not adequately addressed or perhaps because the course catalog offered by the school was not broad enough. These families bring additional income.

The most cost-savings will come from enrolling in state funded programs. In the Jewish day school context, students could be enrolled in general studies courses. The possibility of this option varies according to state policy. This year’s “Keeping Pace” report provides in-depth profiles on online/blended learning in each state, including state policies regarding private school students. Currently only eight states have supplemental programs that allow private school students to enroll, while 21 states do not.  In the remaining states, there are some state-supported online course options, but on a school-by-school or program basis instead of state policy. There are also many nuances to the issue. For instance, sometimes students are allowed to take courses, but for a fee. In other cases, students need to become “public school students” on the roster in order to enroll and are then included in state-reported numbers of public school students, making it difficult to determine how many independent school students are taking publicly funded courses.

The full “Keeping Pace” report, available here, allows readers to find information specific to their state. In addition, information about online/blended learning in private schools is available on the AVI CHAI site. We hope that various sectors will learn from one another’s experiences as this new area of the field continues to develop.

Rachel Mohl Abrahams is Senior Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.


Experience the Harvard Principals’ Center Summer Institute

 Posted by on February 21, 2012 at 10:04 am  1 Response »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Feb 212012

This summer, AVI CHAI will sponsor up to 15 day school leaders to attend an institute at The Principals’ Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We encourage school leaders to apply:

Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership (AOL)
June 26 – July 3, 2012

1–5 Years of Leadership Experience
This institute helps you to identify areas of school improvement, establish priorities, develop strategies and build a base of support around a change initiative. You will explore successful models for school improvement, learn how to lead and manage change and understand how to implement curriculum innovation. Through research-based curriculum, you will focus on effective supervision and evaluation, multiple approaches to solving leadership challenges and how to best support teaching and learning in the classroom. Upon completion of the program you will have examined your own leadership challenges in the context of instructional improvement and learned methods to lead and manage your school more effectively.

Please note: To enable and support day school leaders to apply their Harvard learning to their day school contexts, we have added two components to this program:
1) A day of professional development IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING the Institute (afternoon of July 2nd through the 3rd) that allows participants to process the overall experience and begin to think about its relevance and application to day schools.
2) Monthly conference calls during the coming academic year that each address a specific topic presented over the summer and discuss practical ways of using those insights or implementing those strategies in one’s own day school.

In order to receive AVI CHAI funding for the Institute, applicants must participate in BOTH these additional components, which will be led by a Harvard group facilitator who is herself an experienced day school principal.

What if I want to apply to Leadership: An Evolving Vision?
In years past, AVI CHAI sponsored participants in two Harvard Principals’ Center Institutes, however, this year one of the institutes begins on a Friday and so we made a decision to raise the number of funded slots in AOL and to not sponsor participants to LEV.

How do I apply?
Click here to access the online application. Incomplete forms will not be considered for AVI CHAI funding. Decisions regarding acceptance to the program by The Principals’ Center and AVI CHAI sponsorship will be sent to applicants by mid-May.

Sponsorship Details:
AVI CHAI sponsorship covers tuition and hotel accommodations (not including parking). Kosher breakfast and lunch are provided throughout the institute. In addition, AVI CHAI will sponsor select kosher dinners during the institute exclusively for day school participants. Additional dinners, or those before or after the times of the Institutes, and travel to and from Harvard, are the responsibility of the applicant.

AVI CHAI Selection Criteria:

  • Educational leaders with significant decision-making responsibilities (typically school heads, principals or vice-principals);
  • Size of school and number of teachers the leader supervises;
  • Number of years at current school, and number of years in current position;
  • Whether members of the school’s current administration have attended a summer institute at HGSE (and when).

Preference is given to Judaic Studies leaders. AVI CHAI will select a group of leaders from diverse schools to enhance the experience. If multiple leaders from a single school apply, each of their applications will be considered on an individual basis.

For questions regarding the application process, contact Clara Hill, The Principals’ Center Enrollment Coordinator at 617-495-1825, or principals@gse.harvard.edu

For questions regarding AVI CHAI funding, contact Nechama Goldberg

Application Deadline: March 23, 2012

Apply Today

Oct 252011

By: Rachel Mohl Abrahams

Last month in the Forward, Rachel Burstein wrote about day schools focusing on themes of Jewish persecution. She claims that in her courses in Brooklyn College, she could always identify the day school graduates based on their selections of topics they wished to cover in her world history course: typically, the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition.  She is concerned that these students’ view of Jewish history is skewed, that it is mostly a story of suffering.  “Absent was any sense that the Jews could shape their own destiny, that they were active participants in history.”

I share Ms. Burstein’s concern about teachers focusing on the Holocaust and Jews being the “underdog” or “scapegoat” throughout history. My children certainly hear too much about how non-Jews don’t like Jews. I believe this is an attempt to dissuade the students from being interested in socializing with non-Jews.  Little is taught about either the resistance movement or the righteous gentiles who saved many Jews.

If we want young Jews today to be interested in Judaism, the history of the Jewish people must be presented in a more balanced way.  The story of Jewish peoplehood is one of self-determination and perseverance. The history of Zionism and the State of Israel is not just a tale of establishing a safe haven from persecution. It’s the story of the Jewish people establishing a homeland where we govern ourselves, have an army and set the course for the Jewish people’s future.

It is an educational challenge to ensure that Jewish history is an integral part of the day school curriculum with all the other subjects we need to cover. It is an even greater challenge to present Jewish history in a dynamic way, teaching the story of “Jewish existence – and not just persecution – over  time.”  How does your school meet this challenge?

Rachel Mohl Abrahams a Senior Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.You can follow her on Twitter @rachelmabrahams.

Jun 032011

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for contributing to and following the AVI CHAI educational technology blog over the last three years. Many of you have completed exciting projects that you took beyond the parameters of the original funding. As we wind down AVI CHAI’s funding of classroom based experiments, we are proud of the work you have done and shared.

AVI CHAI will continue to fund initiatives in the area of educational technology and we will be using the ed tech blog for new purposes within that field. Most immediately, we are sponsoring 10 people to attend the Games for Change conference at the end of June in New York City. We are pleased to support an inaugural cohort that will begin to think about the implications of gaming for Jewish education. Each of the attendees will be posting at least twice on the ed tech blog.

A week later we are funding 10 day school leaders to attend the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference in Philadelphia and will ask those participants to blog and share their learnings with the field. AVI CHAI staff may also post about technology innovations.

We hope you will follow, learn and comment so we can continue learning together about the many ways to integrate technology into day schools. Previous contributors are invited to continue to blog and comment (we are not withdrawing your posting rights).

You can also join the conversation on Twitter by following the #jed21 hashtag. (If you don’t know what that is, find out!)

Rachel Mohl Abrahams