Monday, January 21, 2019

There has been much discussion lately about blended learning and its potential promise for day schools. Chana German, who directs the Lookstein Center’s Virtual Jewish Academy and Russel Neiss, director of educational technology at G-dcast, a website that disseminates educational Torah materials, are at the forefront of this debate. Their extended conversation on the Lookjed website for educators is presented here in an edited and condensed format.

Russel rejects the unproven arguments negating the efficacy of blended learning, i.e., their alleged ability to improve the learning of our students, and their efficiency, i.e., their ability to allegedly save money by putting teachers out of work. Regarding their efficacy: Study after study continue to suggest that while there may be some promise to these approaches, they have not proven to be any more effective at actually increasing student achievement at a K-12 level than “traditional” learning. (See “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies” for a review on the relevant research from 1996-2008.) A recently released National Education Policy Center report, “New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results and the Need for a New Direction for Computer-Mediated Learning” fills in the gaps for the most recent years.

Chana counters by quoting from the same study: “In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. Even when used by itself, online learning appears to offer a modest advantage over conventional classroom instruction.” The article then goes on to list several caveats, which are relevant, although the bottom line is still the bottom line: online learning is more effective than face-to-face instruction.

She invites Russel to read her article “What Jewish Educational Leaders Need to Know about Online Education.” She is also wary about any edtech trend that is going to “save” K-12 education.

Russel writes that on cost savings, the data is no better (and in some cases significantly worse) for the proponents of instruction via ICT. There has not been one single large-scale study showing any significant cost savings of blended learning. The closest we have is a single report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that suggests, given the right circumstances, blended learning can lower the cost of instruction per pupil by an average of around $1,000 annually. This is significant, but is probably not the difference in a family being able to afford day school tuition. With regards to potential variations in the Jewish day school sector, a recent Avi Chai report on blended learning walks back earlier promises of massive cost savings associated with the instructional technique, explicitly stating: “New incubated [blended learning] schools have not yet provided evidence of cost savings.”

The data on a fully online learning environment is somewhat better (savings of roughly $4,000 on average per student). There are a number of (quite excellent) online courses, but they do not constitute a full school curriculum and the majority of schools utilizing these courses are rarely doing so in a fully online environment; they’re doing it in a blended learning schooling structure, therefore mitigating the potential financial gains.

To be sure, there are some fabulous uses for this sort of technology. Blended and online learning have proven themselves to be quite effective at helping at-risk students, or for offering Advanced Placement classes or other electives to individual/small groups of students who it would be otherwise impractical financially to do so. However, we do ourselves, our students and other constituents a disservice when we overstate the ability of these tools and techniques to “transform” Jewish education. At this time, these approaches can merely solve problems at the margins of our educational institutions and ought not to be models around which to build an entire school.

Chana writes that her interest in promoting online learning in Jewish day schools arises from two separate issues: First, the pedagogy. Behind a well-designed online course—and she stresses the term “well-designed”—is the premise that students should be challenged both in terms of content and skill. Of course, this should be the foundation of any face-to-face course, but unfortunately it is not always the case. Good online courses are based in constructivist theory, allow for ample personal reflection and collaborative learning. They also promote the study of “twenty-first century skill set” in a learning environment that lends itself to those skills.

One of the Lookstein Center’s Virtual Jewish Academy’s four strategic objectives over the next five years is to promote the redesign/reimagining of Jewish schools for this century. We are hopeful that schools that undergo an internal assessment of their instruction and implement changes will emerge as more robust institutions.

Second, Jewish day schools have a unique instructional/financial model. While they spend about 70-80 percent of their budget on instruction, they are running at about 70 percent capacity (these are the figures given by Jewish Funders Network on their report on Jewish day school sustainability and affordability). Most Jewish day schools boast low student-teacher ratios. In fact, while a maximum class size may be 25, often classes are made up of 12-18 students. Many schools have even smaller classes. And schools—because they are in competition with other day schools or independent schools, because they are located in small communities, or because they want to meet the needs of their students/parent body—often offer courses at a financial loss. That is, they will offer Advanced Mandarin, Robotics, or Advanced Talmud or whatever the course in demand—to a group of 5 students, without grasping (or disregarding) the financial implications. The math just does not add up: reassigning a teacher to a course like this or hiring a part-time instructor will cost the school more than the proportional tuition that the school will receive in exchange for teaching this course.

What if, in addition to not overspending on these courses, they were able to increase their course offerings and increase their ability to offer individualized attention to students? Perhaps schools would be able to retain their student enrollment, and probably, to increase it. Schools with low enrollment could grow because they would have more course offerings for students. Schools with higher enrollments would be able to keep students in one class and differentiate instead of separate (e.g., 25 students in one class, 26 students divided into two classes of 13 each).

“There is more, but that is, in a nutshell, what we are trying to do. LVJA is a project of The Lookstein Center, an organization that has advocated for Jewish schools and Jewish educators for thirty years. We did not enter the online learning game lightly. We are not claiming to be offering a comprehensive solution to the day school tuition crisis. But we do hope that we are moving in the right direction—pushing schools to reimagine what education looks like and providing a high-quality instructional tool which schools can implement responsibly when appropriate.”

Russel returns to the pedagogic piece. He feels that many of the so-called 21st-century skills (creativity/innovation, research fluency, communication and collaboration, critical thinking/problem solving, etc.) are actually better served offline—and often without computers. The tech can make things more efficient, but how many times have you seen the limitations of a technical tool or the limitations of a particular program/website actually hinder those things?

Chana differs. She sees the package of skills in the context of the Internet. Kids have learned how to communicate and collaborate in face-to-face environments since preschool. But the online version of those skills, skills that students need for their educational and professional skills, can’t be learned in a face-to-face environment.

Russel agrees that this is the crux of the disagreement. In too many school environments (particularly those that are not student-centered or based in constructivism) students do learn how to communicate/collaborate, but in ways that are somewhat antithetical to what we as educators want them to do. As an example: They answer questions with the answer they think we want them to say rather than what they believe. They engage with each other in conversation in ways that demonstrate they “know” how they’re supposed to “communicate” in a classroom setting, but they don’t actually share what they actually believe. They “collaborate” in group work to the extent that they get the work done, but not to push themselves above or beyond the minimum—put simply they have “learned” how to “do school” and to hit all the right metrics on a teacher rubric, but they haven’t actually engaged in any serious thinking or wrestling with the content... “and here’s where you may be right with a well-designed online class.”

Online learning is new to them. And as much as folks talk about “digital natives” since none of us know how one is supposed to engage in an online course—you have an opportunity to start fresh. To make up the rules from the start. To engage with them in a way that frankly, if set up well, doesn’t come with all of the normal baggage of a “normal (or even semi-normal)” classroom setting.

Chana agrees.

Russel writes that this brings us back to how we each read differently the U.S. Dept. of Education’s meta-analysis we were talking about earlier. For him, those caveats are at the core of what makes “good” teaching good, and why he disregards the “bottom line” statement that comes before it—because, without good pedagogy it doesn’t matter if the model is financially viable or not.

“Perhaps I haven’t given enough credence to the power of this stuff being new and the ability to sneak proper pedagogy in through the back... but at the same time, especially in the nature of the work that I’m frequently engaged in now, so many people think that the mere presence of anything digital has magical transformative power, and they could care less about the context of the stuff (pedagogically or historically). I wish that I could say that these folks are the minority—but there is so much more rubbish out there in this space than people actually doing it well.”

Chana: “I agree. Thoughtful and purposeful educational technology projects are few and far between. But maybe we should focus in on your optimism there—a few dedicated and passionate people, new and exciting learning tools, a field that needs intervention. Could be a winning combination.”

Dr. Wallace Greene, a veteran educator, was the director of Jewish Educational Services at the Jewish Federation of Northern NJ for a decade, has served as a day school principal, most notably at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, and was the founder of the Sinai Schools.

By Wallace Greene