HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Blogs and Jewish Education

by Caren N. Levine Issue: Technology and Jewish Education
TOPICS : Technology

You’ve heard of them. You’ve read them. You may even publish one. But what exactly are blogs and how can they be used for Jewish education?

Blogs belong to a family of social media technologies that also include podcasts, wikis, social networking sites, content sharing communities like YouTube, del.icio.us, ccMixter, and Flickr, and tools like RSS feeds (Really Simple Syndication - more about this below). These social media, used alone or in combination, facilitate online collaboration, information sharing and data organization, community building, and social connections among participants.

These resources represent a shift from the first beginnings of web culture to what is often referred to as Web 2.0, an online culture that is increasingly dependent on a more collaborative, user-driven Internet-based platform and an open source ethos of sharing and expanding each other’s work. One of the hallmarks of the Web 2.0 culture is the ability to incorporate a combination of applications that integrate with each other to provide a customized user environment.

Educators are beginning to explore how these tools can be used to enhance and extend their work. Blogs are particularly useful for promoting communication and collaboration in educational settings.

What Are Blogs?

At their most basic level, blogs are websites that function as online journals. They are often authored by one person, but can also be shared by multiple writers. Blog services provide users with customizable templates, obviating the need for special skills in programming or html. These templates make online publishing available to anyone with an Internet connection and the willingness to learn a new medium.

In terms of format, blogs are made up of entries that are usually organized chronologically, the most recent listed first. These entries are often cross-indexed on the blog according to category tags that are designated by the author. Entries can also be saved chronologically on the blog’s online archive. Blogs typically include links to external sites selected by the author. These links reflect the author’s favorite sites or sites that are related to the blog’s topic. In addition to text content, many blogs include combinations of audio files, photographs, and/or video clips. Blogs might be further customized to incorporate material from secondary sites like adding photographs from Flickr or headlines from news agencies.

Blog culture encourages reader comments and cross-references to other blogs. Most bloggers allow readers to interact with them through comments which can be posted automatically, or by approval of the blog owner. Blogs can also be set to allow comments only from registered users. In addition, some blog sites enable linkback software, like TrackBack, that notifies authors when specific entries have been cited by other bloggers, facilitating cross-talk from blog to blog.

There are many free sites for blogging, including Blogger and WordPress. Some blogsites are designed specifically with the educational community in mind. Class BlogMeister, for example, includes a comment approval option so that teachers can review student material and suggest revisions prior to publishing. Edublog.org is another education-oriented blog provider.

Searching for Blogs

Blogs that are visible to the public can be located through regular search engines such as Google by using key words, just as one would find a website. There are also searchable blog indexes that focus exclusively on locating public blogs. These include Bloglines, BlogPulse, Google Blog Search and Technorati. Many of these sites support searches in Hebrew and other languages in addition to English.

Staying Organized: Personalized Information Feeds

With regular websites, users generally bookmark their favorite sites and return to them periodically to check for new material. Blogs, however, tend to be updated more frequently than static websites. Software is available that collects and sends new material to the user in one place through syndication feeds like RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Online newspapers and other dynamic websites also encourage users to take advantage of these feeds. The feeds are sent to the user and accessed through an aggregator (or newsreader) service such as Bloglines or Google Reader. Users can log onto their newsreader account and scan through the different feeds from their favorite sites. They can also connect to those sites directly for more information.

Edublogs, Jedublogs

Educators are experimenting with the use of blogs in their work. Some early adopters coined the term “edublogs.” Many of these educational bloggers are pushing the traditional concept of blogging to develop highly creative projects.

Blogs in education tend to reflect a variety of genres. The blogs described below are examples of different types of education blogs. Please note that it is not clear that all of these blog genres currently exist specifically for Jewish education (“jedublogs?”).

Educational Stakeholders

Blogs about Jewish education - these sites tend to offer information, resources, policy, advocacy, and commentary related to aspects of Jewish education.

Personal voices - independent voices examining issues related to Jewish education; sometimes articles related to Jewish education are posted on individuals’ blogs that address a wide range of topics on Jewish culture.

Educator Blogs

Teacher journals - online diaries describing personal experiences and commentary by educators; these are often projects initiated by individuals and not under school auspices.

Administrator journals - online diaries that share perspectives and experiences of school administrators; these are often personal journals and not under school auspices.

Professional development - sites that provide “just in time” and individualized learning opportunities; blogs that support reflective practice through journaling, feedback, etc.

Communities of practice - sites devoted to specific issues related to the profession; collaborative spaces to share and refine ideas.

Student Blogs

Student journals - online entries describing personal experiences and observations by students; these might be self-initiated diaries or related to school projects.

Curricular Resources

Online resource centers - access to curricular resources, annotated links to content and pedagogy, repository for original resources.

Learning Blogs

Student learning - curriculum-related blogs created for, and often by, students to engage with learning through writing, information and communication technology (ICT) skills, podcasts, videocasts, map tools, multimedia presentations and projects, etc.

Digital portfolios - blogs developed for assessing learning including presentation of work, revisions, critiques, and personal reflections.

Community

School collaborations - online space for classroom projects, including those that are inter-class, inter-school, and international.

Mentorships - shared collaborative space for online mentorships, including student-mentor and teacher- mentor relationships.

Travel journals - educational reports from travelers around the world, interacting with readers who share their experiences virtually.

Social action blogs - sites that promote Jewish social action and related projects.

School Blogs

Schools and other institutions of higher learning - school communications shared by the administration, teachers, parents, and students (school news, homework assignments, important bulletins, messages from the head of school and rabbi, etc.)

Organization/Institution Affiliated Blogs

Organizations - blogs associated with institutions and organizations; these sites are often developed in conjunction with their organizational websites and offer additional, more regularly updated information and resources of interest to their membership.

Conference Blogs

Conferences - official reports by organizers and unofficial reports and insights related to conference events by participants.

Communication Medium and Collaborative Tool

A blog is a communication medium. Educators have found enormous potential in blogs as a means to develop reading, writing, and information and communication technology (ICT) literacies. They also view it as a tool for collaboration, information gathering, knowledge building, and publishing.

Imagine:

  • Students in a writing class use blogs as their personal notebooks that they share with their teacher for feedback on content and writing skills. The teacher and other students in their writing groups provide comments to help the authors refine, clarify, and strengthen their ideas. The blog preserves a running commentary as the work is created. Students also use images, original videos and podcasts to help tell their stories and to develop visual literacy and communications skills.
  • A Jewish history class creates a “you are there” blog in which they write from the perspective of famous personalities or from a specific historical period.
  • Learners in a North American class collaborate with Israeli counterparts to compare and contrast their everyday lives. Learners interview their grandparents and other older adults about their experiences growing up Jewish at a particular time or place. These can be edited and presented as video clips or audiocasts. They can also track their families’ immigration patterns on Google Earth and link it to their blog.
  • Jewish family educators post weekly guides related to the Torah portion for family discussions around the dinner table. Families can build on this material, sharing their insights and related family customs with each other online.
  • Congregational school students use a blog to continue their work on class social action projects even though they are not in the school building.
  • Administrators post weekly updates about school events. Teachers use the blog to remind students and their families about homework assignments and to keep them abreast of exciting class projects.
  • A beginning teacher in a day school keeps a blog journal that he shares with his mentor. The teacher journals about challenges he is facing in his new position. Each week he chooses a particular area to develop. His mentor reacts to his postings by providing feedback and perspective based on his/her own experiences. The teacher posts video clips of this work to his blog and reflects on what he had planned and what occurred in practice. Similarly, his mentor can post video clips that demonstrate alternative methodologies.

Listed below are some examples of blogs that focus on aspects of Jewish education:

Avi Chai Educational Technology Grant

(http://edtechexp.blogspot.com)

HUC-JIR Student Blogs

(www.huc.edu/blogHUC)

jlearn2.0: Jewish learning in a digital world, Caren Levine

(www.jlearn20.blogspot.com)

LAMED: articles and commentary for Jewish education, ATID

(http://lamed.blogspot.com)

New Jewish Education, Saul Kaiserman (http://newjewisheducation.blogspot.com)

SchmoozEd: Schmoozing About Education, Lookstein Center

(http://schmoozed.lookstein.org)

In addition, bloggers who write about Jewish culture often include commentary on issues related to Jewish education.

Considerations

Note that some blog sites might be blocked by school web filters. One solution is for the school to host blog software in-house.

Administrators and teachers should be reminded that appropriate security measures need to be taken to assure student safety and privacy. For example, blogs can be kept private, and unlisted in search engines, with only pre-identified members granted permission to read or post comments. Another way to protect students is to have them use a pen name for any work that is publicly accessible.

As with any technology-based activity, it is important that the school community - students, faculty, staff, and parents - are aware of and abides by the school’s acceptable use policies and rules of netiquette.

And Finally…

The best way to learn more about blogs is to use them. Find some blogs of interest and read them; even better, start your own. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to be public. Be aware that although blogs are relatively easy to set up, there still is a learning curve. But as you become more familiar with the medium, and more comfortable communicating in it, you will discover its strengths and limitations. Experiment and see how blogs might fit into your educational setting.

Blogs and Wikis:

David Warlick’s 2c Worth:

http://davidwarlick.com/2cents

EduBlog Awards:

www.incsub.org/awards

EduBlog Insights:

http://anne.teachesme.com

JakesOnline: www.jakesonline.org

Speed of Creativity:

http://speedofcreativity.org

SupportBlogging:

http://supportblogging.wikispaces.com/

Weblogg-ed: http://weblogg-ed.com

Articles and Ebooks:

Coming of Age: An Introduction to the New World Wide Web, edited by Terry Freedman:

www.shambles.net/web2/comingofage

Weblogs in the Classroom:

www.det.wa.edu.au/education/cmis/eval/curriculum/ict/weblogs

Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, by Marc Prensky: www.marcprensky.com

Educating the Net Generation, edited by Diana G. Oblinger and James L. Oblinger:

www.educause.edu/educatingthenetgen

Educause Learning Initiative’s 7 Things You Should Know About… series (including an article on blogs): www.educause.edu/7ThingsYouShouldKnowAboutSeries/7495

Learning and Leading with Technology, published by ISTE: www.iste.org; see especially March 2006 issue

What is Social Media? published by Spannerworks: www.spannerworks.com

Blog Providers:

Blogger: www.blogger.com

ClassBlogMeister:

http://classblogmeister.com

Edublog.org: http://edublogs.org

WordPress: http://wordpress.com

Blog Searches:

Bloglines: www.bloglines.com

BlogPulse: http://blogpulse.com

Google Blog Search:

http://blogsearch.google.com

Technorati: http://technorati.com

Blog Aggregators / Newsreaders:

Bloglines: www.bloglines.com

Google Reader: http://google.com/reader

Caren N. Levine is the founder and principal of Etheoreal, a consultancy for educational technology, and is the publisher of jlearn2.0, a blog about Jewish digital learning (www.jlearn20.blogspot.com). Caren can be reached at caren@etheoreal.com.

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