Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My new Favorite tool...

With thanks to AVI CHAI for the ISTE experience, Adam Simon for first mentioning using phones in class, and Tech Rav for his post about using polleverywhere.com as a ticket to exit. I confiscated a phone from a kid a few weeks ago and decided that I needed to start using phones in class as a tool. The result is chronicled in last week's E-tone, Beth Tfiloh's weekly newsletter.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Is it time for a Jewish Education Technology Conference?

I recently returned from the Virtual School Symposium Conference in Indianapolis. AVI CHAI sponsored the conference and accommodations for a number of key players who occupy space in the area of technology within the day school movement in North America . Since we are planning for the next version of Gemara Berura to be web-based, this was a great opportunity to learn what else is happening out there in the on-line and blended learning school environments.

One of the more valuable benefits of participating in the conference was the fact that the sponsored invitees had the opportunity to network and schmooze. Using the (catered) report-back sessions (that were scheduled and sponsored by AVI CHAI) as a springboard, the discussions invariably lead to how Jewish day schools could/would/should adopt some of the learning modalities discussed at the conference.

At one of these sessions I raised the idea that it is time to organize a conference dedicated to servicing and furthering the cause Jewish Educational Technology (JET). For the sake of full disclosure I need to reveal my bias. I have been involved in JET for a long time . I believe passionately that we as a community need to ensure the provision of quality JET, and I directed and organized the First International JET conference in Israel back in 1999.

The Gemara Berura related work I do in dozens of schools across N. America allows me a unique insight into how school utilize technology for the furthering of Jewish education. This includes hardware, software, depth of use, teacher readiness, administration readiness, etc. Some of the issues that keep coming up include: the MAC vs. PC debate, especially as it relates to Hebrew and Hebrew software support, should there be computers in every classroom? should student be allowed/encouraged to bring laptops/tablets to school? are interactive whiteboards a necessity for every classroom? what are considered minimal levels of computer competence that teachers (and principals) should be expected to demonstrate in their work in the classroom and administration? etc. And as we move into the online/blended environment models raised at the VSS conference, the issue of how Jewish schools could benefit from these models is also a serious topic that needs to be addressed.

At the network session in which I raised this idea, one of the other participants objected quite strongly, suggesting that in the current economic environment, other venues could be utilized for such JET-related topics to be addressed, such as the National Jewish Day School Conference. We as a small niche community, it was suggested, could not afford or support a separate conference just for JET.

Notwithstanding my learned colleague's opinion, here is why I think we urgently do need a dedicated JET Conference. Technology is not simply a tool. It represents a cultural transformation with its own language, a language that today’s students speak. The level of success regarding the adoption of technology in our schools has overarching implications on the image our schools portray to the community it wishes to serve. Our ability to successfully adapt to these new cultural norms and language will impact on our ability to: recruit and retain our students, teach them effectively, and harness the new opportunities that technology affords to make Jewish schools more sustainable. We need get this one right. I believe that today we aren’t. An annual national Jewish day school conference needs to cater to all issues on the Jewish Education agenda. Attempting to peg on a kind of sub-conference to the main one will not do sufficient justice to the cause. A dedicated JET conference will be held once in a few years, with on-going, online initiatives in-between. We urgently need to begin a collaborative process with a view to develop shared dynamic protocols for many of the types of issues mentioned above. We need to get technology heads together, we to bring school principals together to understand the options, to have educated discussions with the technology department. We need Jewish Studies teachers to adapt to the emerging technologies and learn how to integrate them into their teaching practice. Most importantly we need schools to develop a coherent strategic approach to technology as opposed to the somewhat cumbersome and haphazard approach so many schools still unwittingly adopt.

The question of who should organize and fund such a conference still needs to be addressed.

Thanks again to AVI CHAI for providing us with the opportunity to attend this conference, and to network with such a high quality group of like-minded colleagues.


Rabbi Meir Fachler
Gemara Berura (www.gemaraberura.com )
Phone (US and Israel) (917) 779 8056
Israel cell ++ (972) 52 385 8455

Friday, November 18, 2011

Making it personal..

Making it personal
I come to the world of ed/tech from a decidedly bricks and mortar background.  For close to 25years, my presence in my students’ lives has been built within classroom spaces that I helped create.  Is it possible to bring the intimacy and community that can be created within the walls of a classroom into the world of online/blended teaching?

One of the encouraging answers I got from attending the recent INACOL sessions was a decidedly strong “yes,” with the caveat that presence is only achievable if it becomes an explicit curricular goal. 

Kristin Kipp, a noted teacher from Jeffo Virtual Academy in Colorado, shared many of the ways in which she accomplished presence in her online teaching.  Her blog www.educationfrontier.org offers a practical  ‘nuts and bolts’ look at the life of an online teacher and the constant challenges and opportunities presented by online teaching.

She offered three guiding principals that must be addressed in planning effective online/blended learning:

- connection to content
- connection to other students
- connection to teacher

Some examples of application:
-  connection to content
§  If one wants to promote critical thinking, assignments must be ‘non-googleable’
-  connection to other students
§  Having students facilitate discussion board
§  peer review
§  collaborative learning projects
§  cyber cafĂ© spaces on your LMS
-  connection to teacher
§  providing thoughtful, in depth feedback
§  maintaining contact outside of ‘school hours’
·      as an example, what follows is an excerpt from her December 2010 blog:
My biggest “aha” moment lately has been from a really simple strategy I started using about a month ago, the “Touch base email.”  Basically, I send five types of regular emails during the week:
Attendance emails:  Sent to students with 3+ days of absences and no recent contact
Reminder email:  Send to all students to remind them of the weekly due date
Touch base email:  Sent to students in the B, C, and D range.  Just touch base and make sure they’re doing ok.  I pick about 6 students per week to get this email.
Way to go email:  Sent to students whose grade has gone up by 8% or more in the past week
Weekly email: Sent to all students at the beginning of a new week to remind them to get started on the next week’s work
§  Useful tools for enhancing connection to teacher
·       Voice Thread (http://voicethread.com ) was  suggested as a very powerful tool.
·      Google Moderator (Kristin used this during our session as well)  http://www.google.com/moderator
¨     This is a useful tool that invites students to ask questions, vote on a topic of debate, or make comments during a synchronous lesson.

In a traditional school environment, these three realms of connecting often emerge organically from the physical presence of teacher and students ‘living’ together in the same space. In online teaching, whether synchronous or asynchronous, it is also possible to keep the educational process “personal.” However, it will not happen without the teacher’s continuous conscious effort to do so. 

Susan Yammer
Educational Coordinator, Lookstein LIVE
Lookstein Center, Bar Ilan University

National Online Teacher of the Year, Kristen Kipp, confirmed as a Keynote at North American Jewish Day School Conference 2012

January 15th-17th 2012, is the upcoming North American Jewish Day School Conference in Atlanta, GA. Click here for up to date information on the conference a,nd registration information. However, the current line up of keynotes (including Michael Mino, David Streight, Joy Anderson, and Larry Rosenstock), panels and workshops makes it clear why this is the premiere conference for any and all involved in Jewish education. Today, the most recent confirmed Keynote speaker, only highlight this.

Kristen Kipp, the National Online K-12 Teacher of the Year, will be on of the Monday keynote speakers at the conference. I had the privilege of taking a workshop with her at the recent Virtual School Symposium 2011 and to say she is fantastic would be an understatement. She is a master teacher that embodies everything that is positive about online learning. I learned much about how to teach a successful online course and what I learned was easily applicable to online Jewish education. Feel free to click here and read a previous post here highlighting that session.

To learn more about Kristen, here is a press release by the Southern Regional Education Board of Kristen receiving this prestigious award:

"Kristin Kipp of Evergreen, Colorado, an online English teacher at Jefferson County’s 21st Century Virtual Academy, was named 2011 National Online Teacher of the Year for K-12 education last night by the two nonprofit organizations that founded the program, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

The 2011 SREB/iNACOL National Online Teacher of the Year Award recognizes an outstanding online teacher for exceptional contributions to online K-12 education. The judging committee selected Kipp and four other finalists from 65 nominations of online educators in public schools and state virtual schools in 25 states.

The award winner and four finalists were recognized at the Excellence Dinner during the SREB Educational Technology Cooperative Teaching and Learning Symposium, March 10-11 in Atlanta.

For the past three years, Kipp has been an online English teacher at Jefferson County’s 21st Century Virtual Academy, which is based in Golden and serves high school students throughout Colorado. A nine-year teacher and resident of Evergreen, she teaches 11th- and 12th-graders and is instructional leader for the English department. Called an "extraordinary practitioner," Kipp also serves as a course reviewer/reviser and part-time adjunct English teacher with Colorado Online Learning.

Her director has noted that Kipp "has particular expertise in the art of teaching writing; however, her skills have impact beyond daily instruction." Kipp "uses her expertise to empower students, parents and fellow faculty toward the highest academic standards," and she "creates innovative and engaging" methods that she evaluates constantly in order to maximize the academic potential of her students."

Allison Powell of iNACOL, award winner Kristin Kipp and Myk Garn of SREB

Kipp has noted that she loves online teaching because it often reaches kids that were untouched by the traditional classroom. "I teach at-risk students, gifted and talented students, elite student athletes, pregnant teens, and teen moms. For all of these students, online education opens up opportunities that would otherwise not exist."

Kipp said in accepting the award that it was "the bells and whistles" of online learning that first attracted her to the field. "What has kept me there are the kids," she said. "Some students, without online education, would not be able to graduate from high school." Kipp spoke of several students who have inspired her, including a girl who nearly dropped out after an illness in ninth-grade and now will graduate at the top of her high school class – or another who was pregnant and would have struggled to finish school otherwise. "I can never give up on a kid, no matter how far they fall behind," she said, adding that all students deserve access to high-quality online teachers.

As the National Online Teacher of the Year, she received a crystal Flame of Excellence and will spend a day with Karen Cator, the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. Kipp also gets an all-expenses-paid trip to iNACOL’s Virtual School Symposium this November in Indianapolis and will be featured on the SREB and iNACOL websites. The finalists received award certificates and other honors. Sponsors of the award include Connections Academy LLC, Blackboard Collaborate!, Florida Virtual School, Pearson Foundation, SAS, and emantras.

Additional finalists include: Thomas Landon from Virtual Virginia, Dianna Miller from Florida Virtual School, Emily Parrish from North Carolina Virtual Public School and Andrew Vanden Heuvel from Michigan Virtual School.

"Online learning is the leading edge of American public education. SREB and iNACOL are proud to honor Kristin Kipp and the four other finalists for their excellence and creativity in teaching our growing number of online students," said Myk Garn, the director of the Cooperative.

"Online teaching is a demanding profession with high levels of student interaction, feedback and communication. Research shows that effective online teaching requires exceptional verbal, writing and motivational skills for inspiring today’s students to perform at their highest levels. The online teachers who are national finalists are shining stars with the quality attributes students value most in learning online," said Susan Patrick, President and CEO of iNACOL."

Cross posted in yuelearning.org and yu20.org

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

It's all about the money - or is it?

Last week, along with nine other Jewish educators, I spent two great days at the iNACOL 2011 Virtual School Symposium. In addition to the unique opportunity (thank you Avi Chai Foundation) for collaboration with other Jewish educators, this meeting gave me the opportunity to sit with dedicated and innovative educators from all over the world and discuss how online learning and the blended classroom can impact on and improve all our schools.

Not surprisingly, a much raised topic at the VSS, in addition to online education itself, was the financial aspect of virtual schooling. Most Jewish day schools populations are examining the online and blended classrooms models particularly because they think they may bring financial savings. And, this is also one of reasons that the public school system first considered this type of learning - read more about it here and here.

Why should online learning cost less than the classical classroom? It seems that the greatest savings are in the teacher-student ratio. The nature of the technology allows an online teacher to work with many more students without compromising the teacher-student relationship.

Many of the presenters at VSS were talking about the blended or hybrid classroom. Many educators feel that this model can lower costs (more students per teacher) without compromising learning and it is already being implemented around the world. The blended classroom offers the flexibility of learning online, the ongoing support from a teacher and the comfort of the brick-and-mortar setting.

From discussions I had with others at iNACOL, it seems clear that the need for financial savings encouraged research and innovation in the field of online learning. At first the public school system embraced the virtual classroom because they thought it would solve a number of their problems including financial ones, but they then began to see that this would only be a viable alternative if the online options were at least as good -- or better -- than the bricks and mortar school. Funds were poured into this technology because of the long-term implications and the educators involved saw an opportunity to use these funds to design a the 21st century classroom.

Blended-learning classrooms are more interactive; the students “do and learn” rather than “sit and listen”; these classrooms free the teacher from the ‘housekeeping’ of teaching and allow them to focus on what they love and do best– teach.

Online learning is not just about saving money and it’s not about letting computers teach our children. It’s about letting the students learn as far and as fast as they can. It’s about allowing each student to move safely at her/his own rate. Online and blended learning increases competency-based learning provides students with increased opportunities for real-time feedback (assessment), personalized learning, and experiential-based learning opportunities. Blended learning is about designing platforms that let great teachers have the best tools to teach our children.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It's all about the toys

I definitely want to chime in with my colleagues and agree that my biggest takeaway from the Virtual School Symposium last week in Indianapolis was about the importance of passionate, talented teachers who have control over how and what they offer in their online courses.

That said, it can't be denied that great teachers know how to make use of great resources.
I thought it could be useful to share some of the fun and interesting technologies that I learned about at the VSS. I believe that, used wisely, these tools add value to online learning with their potential for creativity and collaboration:
  • Kristin Kipp, National Online Teacher of the Year (mentioned in several previous posts on this blog), has her students use wikis to create collaborative pages on the literature they are reading (she used Hamlet as her example). As she spoke, I was struck by the notion of dozens of Jewish Day School students nationwide collaborating on creating a wiki on, say, Sefer Shoftim (The Book of Judges);

  • Tara Park, a teacher at the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, demonstrated several online tools that her students use to create fun, interactive materials with which to share what they have learned. Her wikispace demonstrates several of these services, and itself is a great example of cool things that can be done online- tarapark.wikispaces.com

  • Glogster - creates online, interactive posters that are great for arranging research, incorporating video and audio into a visually attractive but simple presentation format- Tara Park's wiki space is actually a Glogster poster. I was skeptical as to the value of this service until she showed us a Glogster made by a student that turned a science report into a visually engaging, warmly personal online presentation;

  • Blabberize - I just noticed this one on her site- a goofy but sort of fun service that takes a still photo and turns it into a talking head, using audio that you upload or record directly into the site;
  • Wordle - creates a word cloud from any text- a nice visual representation of key themes in an article, essay or web page. This could be used as a creative addition to a written assignment, or maybe a way to launch discussion on an established text. Here is a Wordle I made on Genesis, chapter 1 (JPS 1917 edition!) ;
    Wordle: Creation
  • Voicethread was actually suggested to me by Esther Feldman from Lookstein. This fantastic service takes an image and lets users create what is basically an audio daf gemara, adding their voices or text as commentary on the photo. This is a wonderful tool for collaborative projects- many people can add their comments to the core "text," creating a vibrant online conversation.
This is a short list of the services and tools that caught my intention- I encourage readers to add to the list by commenting, and to share your experiences with these tools as well-- both good and bad.

Shimshon Stu Siegel is director of Impact Boston, a residential service learning program for Jewish teens. He also coordinates online learning for the Brandeis Office of High School Programs.

follow shimstu!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hebrew, Hummus and the Value of Virtual Learning

Last week, I was fortunate to be part of the group of Jewish educators at iNACOL’s Virtual School Symposium (VSS) thanks to the generosity of The AVI CHAI Foundation. Overall, the conference symposium was an interesting experience; a mixed bag of panels, presentations and plenaries, punctuated by engrossing conversations with educators in the field, seasoned vendors and successful social entrepreneurs all of whom are creating a new and exciting landscape of learning. Here are few of my reflections:

Online and Blended Learning are Here

Florida Virtual School (FLVS) currently serves over 120,000 students while the Utah State Legislature just passed a law enabling state funding to pay for up to two online or blended learning courses per student per year. By many accounts, the prediction made by Clayton Christiensen in “Distrupting Class” that 50% of all high school courses will be online or blended by 2019 is accurate. Online and Blended learning aren't the future, they are the present.

The Field of Online and Blended Learning is Still Very Young

While many of the presenters at VSS were veteran educators, many had only recently started working in the field of Online and Blended Learning. Throughout the symposium, programs in their first year of existence were vaulted as hallmarks of excellence and many of the key reports in the field have been funded by industry. This all points to a field of education that is still very much in an early stage of development. Key terms and definitions (such as basic terms like "online learning" and "blended learning") need to be nailed down to ensure a common language of practice and more unbiased data points need to be gathered to monitor the overall effectiveness of program and approaches.

Less is Sometimes More

In a lackluster session on gaming in online education FLVS presented their immersive American History Game, “Conspiracy Code.” You can watch the jaw dropping trailer here:

FLVS spent more than $750,000 in building the game (including a proprietary game engine) in partnership with developer 360Ed. By all accounts, the game is fantastic. It looks great, there are built in assessments and a compelling narrative arch. But the game has not been a blockbuster success. FLVS found that most students don’t want a totally immersive gaming experience at school. Furthermore, many students had trouble adapting the knowledge they gained in the game environment to real world situations.

This leads to my point. Sometimes, cheaper, quick to develop “causal” games can have equal to greater effect as the larger, more expensive immersive games. Not only do causal games have a greater appeal across population and gender lines, but they are also easier for educators to integrate in blended settings.

The Blessing of Assimilation

In 1966 Gershon Cohen wrote:

“A frank appraisal of the periods of great Jewish creativity will indicate that not only did a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impede Jewish continuity and creativity, but that in a profound sense this assimilation or acculturation was even a stimulus to original thinking and expression and, consequently, a source of renewed vitality...”

From the adoption of the Hebrew alphabet, to the inclusion of Hummus as part of our national heritage, Jewish encounters with the non-Jewish world have lead to incredible periods of growth, ingenuity and creativity for Judaism. For me, this was very much the case at the VSS. Seeing the current activity dedicated to online learning in the the world of general education has inspired me both from the perspective of what’s out there, and as a reminder that there are talented and dedicated Jewish educators on the cutting edge of digital and online learning.

Thank you again to the AVI CHAI Foundation for providing me the opportunity for this fantastic learning experience.

Rabbi Charlie Schwartz is the Director of Digital Engagement and Learning for The Jewish Theological Seminary. He can be reached at chschwartz@jtsa.edu

Friday, November 11, 2011

Meta-Learnings from Day Two of VSS'11

For me, Day 2 of iNACOL's Virtual School Symposium, consisted of a little bit of humor, some "debate" about the gathering and analysis of data and many practical approaches to blended learning. It's always good to start off the day with a laugh.

As part of the opening keynote session, Jeff Pittman, a teacher for the Florida Virtual School for the past 5 years, traced his professional background. He explained that the pressures of having to cover a mandated curriculum every 90 days caused his enthusiasm and creativity to wane. How did he know that it was time to leave traditional teaching in a "brick and mortar" school? His epiphany took place one day when he was teaching a class and realized that not only was he boring his students, but he was boring himself! And, even worse, there were 20 minutes left in the period and time seemed to be frozen. A few weeks later he found a new and reinvigorated teaching life as a virtual teacher for Florida Virtual School.

Here are some observations and perspectives I picked up during the rest of the day during sessions:

  1. It is heartening to hear how much data is collected on a daily basis about student performance. Using a commercial platform allows us to develop an accessible history of each student and the platform can be updated by learning from the successes and challenges of other sectors that collect similar types of data. However...what teachers really need to know is how "stuff works;" they need the data at their fingertips so they can make decisions for each class they teach and the data has to be "teacher-friendly." In other words, the issue of data collection and analysis is another sub-topic of the general theme of "Open Source vs. Commercial Platform"
  2. How will analytics change our lives? When we can use them to demonstrate mastery and competency while living with all the reporting mandated by the government and the funding realities that come along with those mandates. We need data on 21st century competencies, not high stakes assessments. Teachers want data that will help them impact the learning process so that they can impact outcomes. As I sat and listened to those people who deal with the challenges of data collection and reporting, I couldn't help but be slightly envious and ask myself the question, "When will we in the Jewish day school world be at the point of having this discussion/debate when it comes to the domain of Judaic studies?
  3. In contrast to yesterday, today I heard explicit reference to how the blended model can save money (at least, over a period of time). Money is ultimately saved by increasing the student:teacher ration. This discussion was always within an appropriate larger context--offering quantitative data and qualitative anecdotal evidence about how using one of the formats of blended learning increased scores on standard tests or how empowering this type of educational approach is for students and teachers. In order for me to better understand how money is saved I would appreciate seeing some budget numbers over the course of 3-5 years.
  4. Many of us have used variations on the "station" model for many years in our teaching. It was a staple in early childhood education 30 years ago when I ran a pre-school. Adding the online component seems to be incremental and not revolutionary. The counter-argument offered was that in this updated modality teachers are liberated to be "teachers" and students are more empowered to take charge of their own learning.
  5. When a visitor from "across the pond" asked why most of the models being used and highlighted were "conservative" in their thinking and approach and we were still discussing taxonomies, we were reminded that at this conference last year there was no taxonomy and how this is an emerging field that is still searching for a common language. It was also reassuring to learn that the practitioners who are out there "doing this" are focusing on dreaming and implementing and not labeling.

My final impression of the day and the conference is that there is an excitement, a passion and unbounded energy to grow this burgeoning field in ways we can't imagine. NCLB, Common Core and other acronyms and jargon used in this educational domain will continue to be part of the daily dialogue. But that unbridled enthusiasm to integrate online and blended learning into what currently exists and to move us to different and better educational horizons that will eliminate what currently exists is a present and future that is surely coming and we, in the day school world need to be part of these discussions. And thanks to foundations like the AVI CHAI Foundation, we are!

Teachers As Designers

Online learning will replace teachers. This is the mantra of many fearful brick and mortar educators. Guess what? They are right.....sort of. The fears will not come to fruition because we choose to utilize online learning, whether in a blended or fully online environment. It will come to fruition if we allow how we teach online or blended learning to be dictated by outside content providers. As some have said, "Content is king." I say then kill the king.

Yesterday I was fortunate to choose a break-out session at the Virtual School Symposium 2011 on "Motivating Students Online" facilitated by Andrew Vanden Heuval, an individual rightfully tagged as one to watch. During the session, I met a group of teachers who teach in a blended fashion, which for them meant students study two days online and two days face to face. This particular group of teachers use a prepackaged online curriculum and Learning Management System (LMS) from one of the major providers. What this meant was they used their content and methods of instruction. What quickly surfaced was a frustration with the restrictions this curriculum placed on them.

For various reasons, mainly that the provider funds the school, the teachers are not allowed to customize the curriculum, plus they really couldn't even if they were allowed. Additionally, they felt that the curriculum, which was created for fully online courses, did not lend itself smoothly to a blended course. A fully online course is difficult to use in a blended classroom if it was not created with the blended classroom in mind. Modulation and flexibility are key to a blended curriculum and not available in many, if not most, of commercial online course curriculum.

This group, of what seemed to me to be a caring and competent group of teachers, felt marginalized by the online curriculum. Well, they should feel marginalized because that is what is happening. Of course, one could argue that it is fine if the outcomes are more positive. However, as you might expect, removing the teacher from playing an integral role in the curriculum and instruction did not translate into higher quality or outcomes.

When asked if the teachers wanted the ability to make changes to the curriculum, the group answered with an overwhelming "Yes!." Whether online or offline, the best teachers may use a core curriculum, but infuse their personality, expertise and personalize the curriculum and instruction to the students they know so well. The teacher is at the core of a successful classroom, online or not. If we stifle their ability to be at the core and use their unique skills to create a high quality learning environment we risk negatively impacting our students.

What it comes down to in this new world of online education is that teacher must also be designers. Whether teachers develop their own online curriculum or uses a providers pre-packaged offering, they must have the ability to customize it. They must be able to choose what works and what does not. They must be able to add new content, activities and experiences and remove the ones that they deem ineffective. There are many reason I can understand why it is not in the best interest of a commercial company to allow for such customization, but then we must ask ourselves whether we should continue to use the providers that do not value the teachers role in design? In addition, as we move and hopefully grow our value for student-centric teaching, the need for the teacher to customize and have the ability to be flexible will only increase.

When a school decides to utilize online education they often look at commercial providers to supply them with what they do not how to create. That makes sense. However, in speaking with the group of teachers yesterday and many other schools that are not funded by the provider, the same story was told. They began with the providers prepackaged curriculum, found it to be rigid and after a few years began to train their teachers on how to create their own online curriculum.

I say to us Jewish educators, let us learn from others and skip the three year process of realization that teachers are the best people to rely on to design our online and blended classrooms.

As we are in the first stages as a field of producing Judaics online, let us take advantage of the knowledge gained by others. Yes, we need online content, but why wait for a few commercial companies to tell us how it should be taught? Why wait for a few non-profits to design curriculum and tell us this is what works for everyone? That is not to say commercial options and non-profit development is not important and will add tremendously to the field. However, let us begin by putting our limited resources where they belong; into the teachers. Let us teach them how to instruct online and in a blended class, but not based on one rigid curriculum. Let us give the educators the skills and training they need to be excellent online and blended teachers by also giving them the skills to be designers.

This does not mean that every teacher now must create fully online courses for their classes and be alone in this process. We must do this is as a collaborative and supportive effort across the field. So, what does this look like? Well, that is for another post. Yet, moving forward, at the core of how we do so must be a respect for our teachers by ensuring they have the ability to use and design the curriculum in the way that works best for their students.

This post is crossposted at YUeLearning.org

Eliezer A. Jones, PhD
Educational Technology Specialist

Institute for University-School Partnership
Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration
Yeshiva University

Phone: 917-836-2257

Email: ejones1@yu.edu
skype: eliezerjones
Twitter: DrEliezerJones
CoP: www.YU20.org & www.YUeLearning.org

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Focus on Teaching and Learning: iNACOL Pre-Conference Reflections

While I intuitively felt this for some time, the pre-conference sessions at the iNACOL conference confirmed for me that great teachers share core competencies and dispositions across all domains of learning including online, informal/experiential, and brick and mortar settings. From the sessions led by the National Online Teacher of the Year winner Kristin Kipp (see her blog here http://educationfrontier.org/ and a video about her here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8NpTDsScjg&feature=player_embedded) to the NOTY runners up and other online teachers and leaders, it has been wonderful to be inspired by great teachers. While there is much to do to improve the systems of online learning, from better online teacher training and professional development to more flexible curricula, it is gratifying to see so many people believe in the power of teachers and the impact they can have on student learning. Indeed, we in the Jewish educational world should heed the lesson from many here at this conference not to focus our energies only on content creation to give to teachers but rather to invest in teachers as designers of learning opportunities. A few additional noteworthy takeaways about the role of teaching and learning:

  • The new iNACOL standards for online teachers (http://www.inacol.org/research/nationalstandards/iNACOL_TeachingStandardsv2.pdf) include the full breadth and depth of the role of the online teacher, investing in the teacher to lead, facilitate, and partner with individual students and groups of students to advance learning. I think it is important that these standards be used by online teachers to self-rate and also by those who support online teachers to provide feedback so that individual professional growth plans can be developed with set goals and a support system in place to monitor and help improve teaching and learning. Developing national benchmarks for each standard and their subcomponents could be helpful towards this end.

  • Andrew Vanden Heuval (as he said “rhymes with snow removal”) a NOTY runner up, suggested that the key to learning is exposing our students to the universe – it is the classroom. Thus, whether brick and mortar or online, classrooms are merely platforms for convenient convening of individuals and groups. The key is getting the students out into the world in which they live and leveraging it for learning.

No doubt, we will need to keep in mind the push for online education as a solution to the challenges of day school affordability. However, we must do so with a commitment to the quality of learning, placing instructional design, teaching, and instructional leadership in all settings at the forefront of our Jewish education agenda.

This post is cross-posted at YUeLearning.org

Meta-Learnings from Day One of VSS' 11

I attended two sessions during the Pre-Conference day of the iNACOL Virtual School Symposium (VSS): Blended/Hybrid Learning 101--From Inception to Implementation and Learn Moodle! An Open Source Learning Management System. Here are some of the meta-learnings I garnered during the formal and informal parts of the sessions:

  1. The extremely diverse group of participants and presenters are passionate about this field, its challenges and particularly, its opportunities. They are open and eager to discuss their work and to learn from like-minded individuals. One could develop some powerful Communities of Practice in this group.
  2. The end-goal, the mantra so often cited, is that personalized learning is the end goal and the key path to follow is to make the jobs of teachers easier and/or more efficient so that they can interact with their students in a caring and fostering mode. It's always about the teachers. The notion of using blended learning as a way to save money was never raised.
  3. No one provider does and can ever develop content that will work for all users.
  4. Communication with parents and others is an imperative in bringing about successful implementation.
  5. The brand identifier of this industry is customization. Yet many vendors are trying to deliver a standardized product. This is counterproductive since we see different rates of adapting by teachers and students. We must produce a culture that embeds customization.
  6. Once you start to implement your "program," give yourself time! Have an iterative plan.
  7. The Jewish day school world is fortunate that it does not yet have to deal with many key challenges being faced by conference participants, in particular, legislative mandates and external budget pressures. We have our own issues but it is always good to see them in contrast with those faced by others working in our general domain.
  8. The social constructivist nature of Moodle aligns itself well with our world.
  9. Open source has some challenges, but it sure has many blessings!
  10. Tying ourselves to a non-open source learning management system in this acute time of corporate takeovers causes many to lose sleep and potentially incurs significant financial costs.
I look forward to sharing my meta-learnings from day one of the Conference.

Pre-Day One at VSS11 and Personal Connection Online

Today was the pre-conference at the Virtual School Symposium 2011. First, I want thank the Avi Chai Foundation for bringing a group of excellent educators together who are involved in the field of Jewish education online. Besides the actual sessions, the time spent with this group has been a highlight for me. In the brief time together I see the tremendous positive impact we could have collectively in the area of online/blended Jewish learning.

Today I sat in two four hour sessions. One was on blended learning and the other on Best Practices for Online Teachers. Both had tremendous take aways and I hope to share them with you over the upcoming days. The first one is related to this video below. The Best Practices for Online Teachers was facilitated by Kristen Kipp who is the National Online Teacher of the year for 2011 (Check out her blog educationfrontier.org). In the four hours we were with her, it was clear why. Here is a video highlighting a day in her life and the value of online education.

While there was a lot I took away from this session, Kristen, the panels and the breakout sessions, one thing stood out.

I often get asked how can you create a meaningful relationship with your students online? As an online teacher, I can tell you first hand it is possible and it involves many of the same techniques employed in the classroom. Be genuine, compassionate, caring. Reach out to the students who not engaged. Be fair and inclusive. Show interest in your students. All these things are nessceery in the brick and mortar school and online. The only difference is the medium used to accomplish them. However, what I find is as I explain that a relationship is possible, it is hard for those I am speaking with to fully conceptualize it. This is where Kristen did something great. She had one of her students skype into the session we were all in and talk to us.

The moment the student appeared on the screen live it was clear there was a strong connection with Kristen. There was a joyful smile and a sweet "Hello Ms. Kipp." She was excited to be doing this for her teacher and her teacher was truly proud of what her student was doing. That connection could not be described and only experienced. To highlight the connection, when Kristen was talking about the success of her students later on she got teary eyed. She truly cares.

Day in and day out I am engaging with my online students in the YU School Partnership Certificate Program. I have closer connection with some students over others, but the same goes for when I taught in a brick and mortar. However, while it may be easier and quicker to form relationships with students in a brick and mortar classroom, I do not feel that the quality of that relationship over time is any different.
The bottom line is, we as educators are struggling with the idea on introducing online and blended learning into Jewish education. There is certainly a lot to discuss and best practices to seek out. However, we should not dismiss the power of online or blended learning because we think relationships cannot be built. They can. They are strong. They are real.

I am looking forward to sharing more about today at VSS11 and what I learn tomorrow. This post is cross-posted at YUeLearning.org
Eliezer A. Jones, PhD
Educational Technology Specialist

Institute for University-School Partnership

Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration

Yeshiva University

Phone: 917-836-2257

Email: ejones1@yu.edu

skype: eliezerjones

Twitter: DrEliezerJones

CoP: www.YU20.org & www.YUeLearning.org