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


Anonymous said...

Chech out the NY Times article on digital learning. The results so far are quite mixed.

Eli said...

See a few posts responding to these NY times articles here on this blog.