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Education Corner (May 2013)

Taking Blended Learning into the Judaic Studies Classroom

Sarah Levy

Imagine a world where teachers can have more class time with their students, where discussions don’t have to be bound by when the bell rings, and where differentiation can be taken to a whole different level. Blended learning, a “blend” of technology-mediated learning activities and face-to-face classroom activities, can be used to do all of these things and more. Already in use in secular studies for roughly ten years, the purpose of blended learning is not to replace teachers, but rather, to enhance the learning experience of the students. Judaic Studies teachers now have an opportunity to determine how blended learning can and should be used to teach Jewish text. The resources available that are relevant to Judaic Studies are fairly limited, however, so the question becomes how to bring blended learning into our Judaic Studies classrooms.

Extending the Classroom though Flipped Instruction

“Flipped instruction” involves “flipping” the lesson so that the lecture or learning part of the lesson takes place at home, freeing up time during class for guided practice or application.

The most common method of employing flipped instruction involves having students watch a video or presentation at home that introduces content and then following up with it the next class period.

You could have your students watch G-dcast or other videos that you have prescreened on YouTube (or even have students do the searching and collaborate with each other to determine which videos do the best job of presenting information). Additionally, Aleph Beta Academy (www.alephbeta.com) offers a growing number of different pre-made courses that cover a variety of topics within Tanach, featuring videos that are 5-10 minutes and address different skills and content pieces.

You could also create your own videos using technology like TipCam or Screencast-o-Matic (www.screencast-o-matic.com) to record your voice and screen. Using such technology, you could pre-record a PowerPoint presentation, explain the directions of a project, or introduce a piece of text that will be used the next day in class.

Expanding the Classroom through Discussions

Discussion and student-to-student interaction is an essential component to many of our classrooms: discussion can be used to assess student understanding, to keep students engaged, and to reinforce learned material and take it to the next level. In the quest to cover content and learn skills, however, class discussions may be something that we cut short in the interest of time. Blended learning can offer an opportunity to extend the classroom, allowing for more opportunities for important discussions.

While many class websites have a built-in discussion board feature, other options such as www.edmodo.com and  www.collaborizeclassroom.com offer the same features and more, giving students an opportunity to participate in class discussions virtually.

By using these discussion resources, not only can the conversation extend beyond the classroom, but the more quiet students who do not feel comfortable participating in the class itself or need additional time to formulate answers can be encouraged to share their opinions. The teacher can play a very active role in these discussions, setting a specific time to encourage students to participate in real-time or making sure to moderate the discussion as it happens or take a more hands-off approach, empowering the students to take control of the discussion.

When using online discussions, however, especially when the teacher chooses not to moderate, it is important to set the guidelines with your students as to what the protocol is and what is expected of them. If each student if being asked to be respectful, what does that mean? If they are supposed to use their posts to advance the conversation, what does that look like? To what extent are they expected to read and respond to the posts of others and to comment on their own posts? Online discussion boards, just like traditional assignments, can be graded according to rubrics, making the expectations clear to students.

Differentiating the Classroom

Differentiation is another approach essential to today’s classrooms, allowing students to learn at their own pace or according to their own interests or learning styles. Blended learning can be a way to integrate differentiation into the classroom while avoiding teacher-centered activities.

If the goal of a given lesson is for students to become familiar with the customs and laws of Shavuot and to understand the connection between modern-day practice and traditional sources, for example, assignments could be differentiated for students based on readiness. One group of students could do a “webquest,” looking for the answers to basic questions about what Shavuot is and how it is celebrated. You could have one group of students use a website like www.simplebooklet.com to create a guide that shows how to take the customs and laws and make the most of Shavuot, and you could have another group of students use Movie Maker to create an infomercial, comparing the customs and laws practiced today to the original textual sources. You could then either use your class website or set up a Google Site to post all of the information, and have the students evaluate each other’s based on accuracy and other criteria.

Differentiating through blended learning in this way would allow for the activities to be designed in a way that the students can learn independently without needing much guidance from the teacher. Additionally, by posting the student work on a website, it allows for the students to “present” their work and interact with the work of their classmates without taking away from valuable class time.

Flipped instruction, virtual discussion boards, and differentiation are only a few of the ways that blended learning can be used in today’s Judaic Studies classrooms. Many of the students have already been engaging in blended learning, and many of us are probably already using blended learning in our classrooms (whether or not we realize it). I would encourage you to start using blended learning in a more intentional way by choosing one goal or one lesson and thinking about how blended learning can help enhance your classroom. I would then encourage you to use the listserv as a way to share how you are using blended learning in your classrooms so that we can all make use of this opportunity in a more meaningful way in order to best benefit our students.