Online Curricula: Literacy with Flexibility

PubliHaYidion Journal Covershed in the Spring 2016 HaYidion

By Ilana Lipman, Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy Director of Curriculum Development

It was about 30 seconds before the bell rang to signal the beginning of class when Matan approached me. “Mrs. Lipman?” I held my breath. Poor Matan. He was such a curious, thoughtful, hard-working student. I knew he had spent more time than any other student studying for the Shmuel Bet test. It seemed almost unfair to write that B- on the top of his exam, yet rubrics are rubrics and Matan had failed to satisfy the requirements that were demanded to attain an A or an A-. Matan knew that many of his peers had likely scored better grades than he, yet he still came to class full of enthusiasm. I mentally prepared myself for Matan to ask how he could improve his grade and how I could answer him without discouraging him. But his comment surprised me. He did not ask me about his grade.

“Mrs. Lipman, you will never believe what I read over the weekend. I was reading some of the eulogies, and I couldn’t believe how similar they were to the eulogy that David gave to Shaul and Yonatan. It’s like…it’s almost like David inspired our leaders. Do you think the President knows any of the Shmuel Bet stories?”

Matan was referring to the recent assignment he had received in History class. The assignment asked students to explore some eulogies given by world leaders following tragic deaths. Matan, going above and beyond the requirements of the assignment, had connected his history assignment—and the news—to our study of Shmuel Bet. There was no rubric criteria available for synthesizing knowledge from multiple subjects and comparing it to events from current events. Matan’s strengths and curiosity were not rewarded by assignment grades, and yet it seemed to me that he deserved to receive credit for his efforts and creative thinking.

Six years later, through my work at the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy, I understand how online courses can benefit and reward students like Matan. Quality online learning programs provide both a set curriculum that covers all standards/benchmarks that are deemed necessary to master a specific subject while simultaneously catering to the students’ curiosity and interest, ultimately allowing them to carve their own paths of learning based on what fascinates them. Specifically, when constructing a shared conception of Jewish literacy and translating it into a curriculum, online and digital learning environments can be even more powerful than traditional approaches.

A good online course includes a set curriculum with clear, measurable objectives, as well as content that teaches towards these objectives. It requires formative assessment throughout, ensuring that students master each piece of the material before moving on to a new subject. Well-written online materials carefully guide students to move from the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy—remembering and understanding—to the higher levels of evaluation and creation.

In a traditional classroom setting, the teacher chooses to focus on particular aspects of a given curriculum and skip other aspects (with or without regard to student interest) and also determines the pace of the course. In the online classroom, however, the student covers all mandatory aspects of the curriculum, and it is the student—as opposed to the teacher—who determines the direction and pace of the course. Students are therefore neither bored nor overwhelmed; rather, they are consistently challenged in a way that motivates them to want to learn more.

For example, imagine that a core Jewish literacy curriculum includes information about the shofar—what it is, when it is sounded, and what is its meaning. A student who is interested in design and engineering for example, might be interested in learning how to make a shofar. Lucky for that student, the online course provides links to a video workshop that the student can watch and learn how to make his own shofar. The student can make the shofar, snap some photographs, and send them out to his peers in his online classroom. Meanwhile, another student is fascinated by different types of shofarot around the world, so she follows a link to a video of a shofar factory in Northern Israel that showcases a museum of shofarot. She muses about the range of shofarot in a discussion post. Both students come out of the lesson with the basic knowledge of what is a shofar, when and how it is used. And each student has the opportunity to explore a specific aspect of shofar that fascinates him/her and shares this with peers.

Online curricula is unique in that it can simultaneously construct a shared conception of Jewish literacy and maintain flexibility so that students can explore their passions and interests, as opposed to traditional curricula that may present a curriculum but cannot reach individual students with their own diverse learning interests. Part of why online learning can achieve these goals is because it can incorporate a range of resources that appeal to different learning modalities, as opposed to the linear nature of traditional curricula. Ultimately, flexibility is one of the key characteristics of online learning. The core curriculum remains the same, but the ways in which students can access, practice and master the material are endless. The student becomes the master of his/her own learning process. The teacher takes on a new role as well—no longer the “sage on the stage,” the teacher becomes the “guide on the side,” evaluating data and student work, then providing students with the tools that they need to access and master material. Students create their own material, share new ideas with their cohorts, and obtain constructive feedback regarding those ideas.

One might well argue that a talented and experienced teacher who knows how to differentiate should be able to solve these challenges using traditional curricula. While it is true that a differentiated classroom does allow all different types of learners to feel challenged in school, there are limitations. Often the material is still teacher-driven—the teacher assigns the students specific tasks to complete, or content to read. The reality often becomes that students with the most diverse learning needs work independently, remaining in the physical classroom but engaging in different activities than the majority of their peers.

Online learning, through its variety of different models, can offer solutions to these challenges. For example, many online learning models expose students to optional enrichment opportunities from which they can choose. These may take the form of supplemental articles to read, games to play that enable students to master a particular skill set, videos to watch that bring to life a specific concept, a group websites to explore, and more. Students pursue their own paths within the course, while still feeling part of a classroom community. How? They work in cohorts, collaborating with like-minded peers across the country and even around the world. Students take charge of their own learning: pursuing items of interest, sharing their discoveries with their peers, and thereby enriching the learning experience for everyone.

What about students who do not show an interest in optional materials? These students may find themselves clicking on an item just because another student pointed it out. This in itself is a paradigm shift—just as teachers move from “sages” to “guides,” the students become seekers, learning how to both take charge of their own learning and make sense of content independently in a way that makes sense to them.

This paradigm shift can be greatly helpful when considering how to construct a Jewish literacy curriculum. Jewish literacy is a collection of facts: identifying artifacts, memorizing brakhot and the situations in which they are appropriate, classifying Jewish texts, locating the source of a quotation and contextualizing it, etc. But literacy is almost meaningless unless students relate it to themselves. Unless I get my feet wet or my hands dirty, I am left with a fact collection. Student agency allows all students to select directions that are of interest to them so that they can then link facts to their beings. Online learning is one method of promoting that student agency.

It is important to note that iNACOL’s (International Association for K-12 Online Learning, www.inacol.org) national standards for online courses include several rubrics for programs, course development, and course instruction. These rubrics assert that content choice and enrichment are neither afterthoughts nor footnotes; rather, they are built into all high quality online courses. The following are some examples:

“The course is organized by units and lessons that fall into a logical sequence. Each unit and lesson includes an overview describing objectives, activities, assignments, assessments, and resources to provide multiple learning opportunities for students to master the content.” (Standard B2) “The course and course instructor provide students with multiple learning paths, based on student needs that engage students in a variety of ways.” (Standard B4) “Students have access to resources that enrich the course content. A wide variety of supplemental tools and resources are clearly identified and readily available within the learning management system.” (Standard B11)

Students today have so much choice about the content and sources of information that they listen to, read, and watch. They have become conditioned to expecting almost unlimited options, yet traditional approaches to learning continue to limit these choices. It is unnatural for today’s students to have no (or at best, limited) choices or no avenue to explore their interests within a particular framework. Fortunately, online learning is able to meet the needs of today’s student consumers and allow them to challenge, to be challenged, and to engage with their Judaic studies classes. In the words of one of Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy’s high school students, “I really liked how we got to learn at our own pace and in different ways. I thought it was very interesting, and different from a normal Tanakh class. I think I like learning like this better than how I normally learn Tanakh.” May it be that all of our students find points of engagement and interest in their Jewish learning.

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