Blended Learning: The Newest Frontier in Jewish Education?

by | in President's Message

How do we significantly cut costs while not compromising on quality?

This is the question facing every Jewish day school in the country struggling with the escalating costs of Jewish education. Admittedly, there is no simple answer to this question; no silver bullet.

The Orthodox Union is fully committed to building legislative support for school choice (http://www.ou.org/texas-school-choice; http://www.ou.org/teach-nys) and with communal support, we will, please God, prevail. But this approach requires patience; it will take time.

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A more immediate solution may, however, be on the horizon. In my own community of Bergen County, New Jersey, one school has quietly begun a revolutionary experiment in Jewish education that has significantly reduced tuition costs. Yeshivat He’Atid, which opened this past September with 116 students, embraces a new and innovative—if somewhat controversial—educational approach known as “blended learning.” Remarkably, Yeshivat He’Atid’s tuition is 40 percent less than other schools in Bergen County.

What is blended learning and how does it manage to dramatically cut costs? Blended learning combines independent computer instruction with face-to-face traditional classroom methods. While my experience as an educator has been limited to teaching on the graduate school level for the past several decades, I believe that blended learning, while still in the experimental stages, may be one of the most exciting developments in the world of education, with particular effectiveness in grades one through twelve.

Envision twenty-first-century classrooms outfitted with big screens, laptops and software that teaches students everything from converting percents to decimals to writing persuasive essays. This groundbreaking educational model is increasingly found in public schools across the country. Imagine students using specially-designed interactive software programs to master Hebrew grammar and Chumash—the possibilities are endless! Indeed, many yeshivot have been slowly introducing digital media into their limudei kodesh classes. For instance, The Frisch School in New Jersey recently developed an iPad app for Gemara. And while educational software for Judaic studies is currently limited, companies and vendors are hard at work developing such materials. One extraordinary resource is the Aleph Beta Academy, launched by Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, regional director of New York NCSY.

With the explosion in digital learning across the country, not surprisingly, Jewish schools have begun to take notice. Tiferet Academy in the Five Towns and Westchester Torah Academy, both scheduled to open this fall, will be blended learning schools. Ohr Chadash Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, is yet another model of digital learning, and similar schools have sprung up in East Brunswick, New Jersey; Sharon, Massachusetts; Los Angeles, California and Seattle, Washington.

Advocates of blended learning—such as Meir Nordlicht, a board member of Westchester Torah Academy, and Gershon Distenfeld, chairman of the board of Yeshivat He’Atid—claim that it not only cuts costs, but it also provides a superior education. Teachers are able to customize computer activities for students based on skills and abilities, eliminating the need for both an enrichment program as well as a resource room. Moreover, because of the individualized learning component, classes can be larger than those in traditional schools. A higher student/teacher ratio also translates into savings. Furthermore, in some schools students take independent courses under the supervision of a facilitator (as opposed to a highly-paid teacher).

Nordlicht and Distenfeld contend that blended learning helps bring kids up to speed, teaching them twenty-first-century skills while ensuring that each child receives an individualized, personalized approach. Computer programs are continually assessing a child’s performance, providing invaluable feedback to the teacher. Most importantly, students get to learn at their own pace.

And yet, while I am excited about the possibilities of using digital learning to teach Chumash, Rashi and Gemara, I am cautiously optimistic. I know that opponents of blended learning also make compelling arguments. There is no hard data proving that blended learning impacts academic performance. It is foolish, opponents say, to jump headfirst into embracing a new educational approach when there is no evidence that the results will be any better. Moreover, many argue that in a blended classroom, students have to be self-motivated, and that blended learning overemphasizes digital skills over the fundamentals such as math, reading and writing. Many also argue that there’s no substitute for teacher-student interaction. One critic, cited in a New York Times article, referred to blended learning as little more than a “high-tech babysitter.”

In fact, blended learning does entail changing the teacher’s role. In a blended classroom, teachers guide more than they lecture, although effective programs strive to strike a balance.

Of course, the sacred rebbe-talmid relationship can never be replaced by a computer screen. A screen could never convey hashkafah or inculcate middot. And I certainly don’t believe that a software program, no matter how sophisticated, can teach one to “lain a gemara.”

In Baltimore, Rabbi Akevy Greenblatt of Ohr Chadash is another passionate advocate of blended learning. The school has the lowest tuition in Baltimore for its grade levels. When the school was in the formation stage, there was some opposition to giving students iPads and Internet access. “Computers,” he told parents, “are not dangerous if students are taught to use them properly.”

Even established schools such as Yavneh Academy in Paramus, New Jersey, are gradually introducing blended learning, giving students some control over the pace and content of their learning. Currently, the Avi Chai Foundation is working with thirty-six established yeshivot and day schools nationally to set up blended learning programs, according to program officer Rachel Abrahams.

Whether it is a new or established school, there will be costs to incorporate the technology. Expenses include computers and software, licensing fees for the software, specialized furniture, wiring and, of course, teacher training. Schools must be aware that cost savings may not be realized in the first year, during which philanthropy must fill the gap.

Is blended learning the panacea for which parents and educators have been searching? Is this approach feasible or even desirable for every Jewish day school and yeshivah? Do yeshivot and day schools have an obligation going forward to consider blended learning?

The jury is still out. Currently, all we can say with certainty is that this is an exciting venture in Jewish education that holds much promise. We have no guarantees that it will work. However, it is our responsibility to try various approaches and models to enable us to provide quality education at an affordable cost. And with God’s help, we will be successful.

Special thanks to Stephen Steiner, director of OU public relations, in preparing this article.

To learn more about blended learning, contact Rachel Abrahams, program officer, Avi Chai (212) 396-8850; Gershon Distenfeld, gershon.distenfeld@gmail.com; Meir Nordlicht through Jeff Kiderman, executive director of the Affordable Jewish Education Project, jeff@ajeproject.org; Rabbi Akevy Greenblatt at rabbigreenblatt@ocabaltimore.org; Rabbi Aaron Ross at aaron.ross@yavnehacademy.org and Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone at alightstone@gmail.com.

In addition, the following print sources and videos are available: 

http://digitaljlearning.org/what-is-online-learning; http://digitaljlearning.org/online-learning/research; http://www.youtube.com/user/educationelements/videos.

 

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2013.

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