HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Web Tools for Jewish Formal and Informal Experiential Education

by Richard D. Solomon and Deborah Price Nagler Issue: Formal-Informal Education

The Web offers an enormous panorama of new options to expand and improve informal education. Go to ravsak.org for this article with hyperlinks.

Upon observing that the Holy One was adding crowns to the letters of the Torah, Moses inquired: “What is their purpose?” God replied: “In a future generation there will be a man who will teach scores of laws from each mark.” Moses asked to see this teacher and when he turned he found himself at the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom.

Moses was confused and overwhelmed. He could not understand the lesson. Then one of the students asked: “Rabbi, what is the source for this decision?” Rabbi Akiva replied: “It is the Law of Moses from Sinai.” Only then did Moses relax. (Based on Talmud Menachot 29b)

As technology gains rapid footholds in education, many teachers, particularly those trained in the twentieth century, can sympathize with Moses. The changes that are beginning to take place will in time become a sea change. It is easy to imagine standing in the back of the room, filled with confusion while observing the interplay of technology and teaching.

Since Jewish education aims to cultivate identity and connection, Jewish educators should be in the vanguard of social network use in the Jewish community.

Future classrooms will bear little resemblance to those of the previous century. Already, the boundaries between formal Jewish education, i.e., traditional classroom learning, and informal or experiential Jewish education, i.e., camp, youth programs , trips to Israel, etc., have begun to blur. The rapid evolution of computer hardware (Smart Boards, laptops, and mobile devices) and Web 2.0 applications are bringing the outside world into the classroom and learning spaces into the outside world. This integration of formal and informal experiential education in new technological platforms has been described as Jewish Integrated Experiential Education, or JIEE.

Yet for those who wish to break through their bewilderment at the burgeoning of technological resources for formal and informal education, there is a simple key for understanding and using these applications. Educational technology can be summarized with five Cs: Connectivity, Communication, Collaboration, Creative Expression, and Customization. This paper will describe each of these elements and offer specific examples of how digital applications can be employed.

Connectivity

“Social networking technologies are powerful tools for enhancing the process of learning to be, of defining our identities” (Heidi Jacobs, Curriculum 21). Since Jewish education has a similar charge, namely that of cultivating identity and connection, Jewish educators should be in the vanguard of social network use in the Jewish community. Klal Yisrael in the context of social networks can be vibrant, far reaching, and meaningful. Web tools, such as Facebook, MySpace, and Bebo can be used to

Cultivate and share knowledge:

  • Research topics or questions that are “crowdsourced” on social networks result in interesting and wide-ranging resources. Social bookmarking tools, including delicious, diigo, reddit, and many others offer a means of building a knowledge community. Here participants can store and tag websites, as well as disseminate these resources with classmates and friends.

Support social justice or tzedakah projects:

  • Facebook pages, for example, are a venue for sharing media, announcing events, gathering feedback and recruiting participation.
  • Foster student interaction beyond the walls of the classroom in a manner that does not depend upon geography or scheduling. Closed social networks, like Ning or Edmodo are sites where only registered participants can engage, interact, and share.

Because so many of today’s students are already participating in social networks of all kinds, it is critical for Judaics teachers to understand this medium and to teach good digital citizenship and responsible behavior. Jewish values such as derech eretz apply in all venues, whether real or virtual.

Communication

Are paper and pencil passé? Not yet, but blogging and micro-blogging are among today’s most popular online tools for written expression. In a formal classroom setting, free blogging tools like Wordpress, Blogger, and Edublogs allow students to participate in class-supported blogs, to showcase writing or research, or to create a personal journal. In an experiential learning context, blogs can be a means of documenting activities such as trips and chesed projects. They are a wonderful way to convey the story of participation in Jewish community life.

Twitter is an example of a widely-used micro-blogging tool. Each “tweet” or communication is limited to 140 characters. The concise nature of Twitter challenges the user to offer brief, clear statements. Built-in search tools enable the learner to search for relevant tweets and Twitter’s social networking capacity means that specific contributors can be “followed.” The result is that there are dozens of ways to use Twitter in the classroom. For example: Post a tweet as a story starter and have the students continue the story with their own tweets. Tweet in the persona of a historical figure and have students respond with relevant questions. Tweet a language or math challenge and see who is the first to respond with the correct answer; and many, many more. As with blogging, tweeting updates on extracurricular activities, trips, or tzedakah campaigns are another way to generate excitement about community activity.

Inevitably, online research will lead students to the blogs of “experts” in one or another field. Digital literacy, like the nondigital variety, includes the ability to discern fact from fiction, fact from opinion, and statements that are credible and documented from those that are unsubstantiated. While teaching this skill of digital literacy, your class may want to follow the blog of an expert as a source for class discussion.

Collaboration

According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, collaboration skills are among the chief competencies that our students will need in order to succeed in the future (www.p21.org). Globalization, rapid technological change and an unpredictable job market are just a few of the reasons given for the necessity of cultivating collaborative skills.

“Cooperative learning”—think “chevruta study”—is not a new concept for Jewish education. Today’s online tools, however, bring collaboration to new levels by removing the barriers of time and distance. Telephone and video-conferencing tools, like Skype or Oovoo, mean that students can learn together anywhere, any time. Teachers and students in Israel and other Jewish communities can be a regular part of classroom study. Distance learning can take the form of webinars, lectures, and discussion, as well as virtual break-out groups that provide additional opportunities for student collaboration.

The real game changer in virtual cooperative learning has been the emergence of the user-content Web, which enables the user to interact with websites. A Wiki is one type of interactive website where the users can easily create and edit pages. The most familiar example of a Wiki is Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia with a million and a half articles created by thousands of volunteers in just a few years.

Wikispaces, Google Sites, Socialtext, and pbworks are among the many free wiki applications available for education. Collaboration on a Wiki is an excellent means of developing classroom and school community. Writing and research projects can be developed, edited, and shared in one site. Pictures and video, as well as links to other websites can be added as enhancements. When complete, the Judaic knowledge product can then be archived and made available as a resource for future learners. One of the key principles of JIEE is student centered learning. Imagine the excitement and engagement of students who are empowered to collaboratively build such a repository of Judaic knowledge.

Creative Expression

“Research strongly suggests that learning will be stronger and retrieval of information will be easier if more senses are involved” (Marilee Sprenger, Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age). The incorporation of technology in JIEE offers the opportunity to use multiple modalities. Beyond the written and verbal products produced in a blog or vlog (video blog), the student can be involved in:

These are just a few examples of the types of work product that can be included in a student’s digital portfolio. As schools begin to adopt alternative forms of assessment digital portfolios that follow the student from grades K through 12 will become normative.

Pew research has found that 97% of today’s teens play video games. These games are interactive, long and complex, yet teens find them highly engaging and motivational. Good learning principles, like strategic thinking, discovery and problem solving, are often key ingredients in the gaming experience making them an educational ally for the savvy teacher. Games can also provide opportunities for “transformational play,” where the student “becomes a protagonist who uses the knowledge, skills, and concepts embedded in curricular content to make sense of a fictional situation and make choices that transform that situation” (Barab, Gresalfi, and Arici). Quest Atlantis, SvivaIsrael.org, and ActiveWorlds.com are examples of 3D immersive online environments where curricular goals can be met. An online search for educational games, serious games, or games4change.org will provide a wealth of resources for use in the classroom.

Game design is another popular arena for the development of logic, critical thinking skills and learning by doing. GameSalad and Gamestar Mechanic are two examples of programs that have been developed with the classroom in mind.

Customization

Technology has been a boon to special education, enabling schools and communities to be more inclusive and attentive to the needs of differentiated learners. Assistive technologies like voice recognition programs, touch screens, and optical scanners are among the many tools now available for students with physical disabilities. Mobile devices, like iPad and iPod, offer a wide range of affordable programs to support student learning. Even universally available programs like Word contain tools that can help slower learners succeed. For example, the AutoSummarize option will highlight key points in a text or create an executive summary. Windows also comes with a basic screen reader called Narrator. For more information about these and other tools visit http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/help/accessibility.

Jewish tradition suggests that we educate our children by beginning in their own starting place. Whether that means addressing the interests or abilities of the students, the use of technology in a JIEE learning environment offers a rich array of opportunities for students of all ages.

Conclusion

The rubric or “keys” to educational technology described in this article have been described individually as a means of simplifying a vast and growing field for novice technology users.

The five Cs, Connectivity, Communication, Collaboration, Creative Expression, and Customization, are rarely found in isolation. The beauty of these tools lies in the connective capacity of Web 2.0. The social networks, communication platforms, knowledge and media storage applications, collaborative tools, media creation devices, and supportive technologies frequently mix together to form what is called the Personal Learning Network (PLN). A PLN launched in the context of a Jewish school has the capacity to grow and endure throughout the student’s lifetime.

Appropriate application of this technology, as through a Jewish Integrated Experiential Education program, can have a multiplier effect on the educational efforts of the school and the individual. We have the opportunity for learning that is unbound by geography, unfettered by limited budgets, and unchained from traditional textbooks. It is an exciting prospect as long as we can continue to respond to the questioners in the same way that Rabbi Akiva did, with consistent clarity of purpose: that of delivering effective Jewish education rooted in Jewish values and tradition.♦

To Learn More

To see a listing of web tools, tutorials, and classroom applications, many referred to in this article, go here for A (animation tools) to M (music tools): http://tinyurl.com/WebTools4Ed1, and here for P (painting and drawing tools) to W (word collage tools): http://tinyurl.com/WebTools4Ed2.

Barab, S., Gresalfi, M . & Arici, A., “Why Educators Should Care About Games,” Educational Leadership, 67:1.

Lenhart, A., “Teens, Video Games and Civics,” Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Solomon, Richard, “Linking the Silos Between Jewish Formal and Informal Education: Jewish Integrated Experiential Education.”

For a more elaborate explanation of Jewish integrated experiential learning activities, go to http://tinyurl.com/3h83x3d and http://tinyurl.com/4ygd39y.

Dr. Richard Solomon works with faculties to create online communities of practice; he is well known through his blog, Mentoring Jewish Students and Teachers, his book, Toolbox for Teachers and Mentors, his website, Jewish-eduction.org and as the co-writer of BabagaNewz’s “Tech Tuesday.” He can be reached at rdsolomonphd@gmail.com.

Deborah Price Nagler is a frequent technology consultant to day schools. She is Director of the Gratz College Certificate Program in Educational Technology and Director of Simnik.com, a project dedicated to the development of 3D, online, immersive environments for education and training. She can be reached at Deborahnagler@gmail.com.

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