Blended learning in Jewish studies – An application of the academic literature
There is ample support in academic literature for the benefits of blended learning, or combining face-to-face classroom methods with computer-mediated activities.
One advantage is facilitation of differentiated instruction. A range of computer-mediated activities allows different students to be challenged at varying levels of difficulty and pace. It also has the potential for real-time teacher feedback of student errors, again allowing for greater differentiation in the classroom.
A study by Dean, Sylwester and Peat (2001) showed that providing several online options in addition to traditional classroom training actually increased what students learned. Another study showed that student interaction and satisfaction improved, along with students learning more, in courses that incorporated blended learning. (DeLacey and Leonard, 2002). Finally, in a meta-analysis of research from 1996 to July 2008, the US Department of Education (2010) found support for the notion that blended learning is more effective than face-to-face or online learning by themselves. Many Jewish day schools struggle to engage students and promote active learning.
There are two questions for us to answer: firstly, why has blended learning produced better results than face-to-face learning or online learning alone? And secondly, would the benefits of blended learning transfer to Judaic studies as well?
Why has blended learning produced better results than face-to-face learning or online learning alone?
The most obvious answer is that there are independent weaknesses to both face-to-face learning and online learning that are cancelled out when the two are intertwined. For example, face-to-face learning often does not lend itself to differentiated instruction as one teacher attempts to provide instruction to an entire class of vastly different learning styles and aptitudes. While more and more teachers are becoming adept at differentiating instruction, it is more likely in a face-to-face environment that students will be forced to learn at a homogenous pace as a class. Online learning, by contrast, while sometimes synchronous, is commonly built with an asynchronous structure, allowing each student to learn at their own pace. Online learning, on the other hand, lacks the human interaction sometimes necessary to pick up on subtle learning difficulties or challenges in understanding a concept that the human touch of face-to-face learning is so adept at catching. Of course this is a brief example, but we can begin to see how the blended learning can create an approach that nullifies the individual weaknesses of its components.
Having examined the benefits of blended learning, and hypothesizing as to their cause, do these benefits translate to Judaic studies and the Jewish day school environment?
You bet they do! In Judaic studies we often struggle to create and develop critical thinking which is ironically at the core of all the texts that we study and teach. The Midrash is incredibly analytical and critical in its analysis of the Torah text, and the Talmudic debates of the Tannaim and Amoraim are as much a lesson in the art of debate and critical thinking as they are of Jewish law! Yet somehow, our students often fail to be intellectually stimulated. Put simply, while our teachers often possess powerfully honed analytical skills, they struggle to prompt students to think for themselves and engage the text in a meaningful and critical manner. This is where blended learning is even more relevant to Judaic studies than secular studies. Our Jewish Interactive software is instructionally designed such that the student can’t go two steps without clicking something or completing some active process. They are forced to learn actively, to drive progression through the program, and to engage in critical analysis of the Torah text. We always build in a textual skills activity into our blended lesson plan so that students are developing the textual skills necessary for high levels of critical analysis of Torah and Talmudic texts.
By taking an honest look at the needs and challenges of Jewish days schools today, we can conclude that aside from the usual advantages, blended learning may ironically be the tool Jewish day schools need to continue learning Torah as we always have; Critically, analytically, and with engaged and active young minds.
Dean, P., Stahl, M., Sylwester, D., & Pear, J. (2001). Effectiveness of Combined Delivery Modalities for Distance Learning and Resident Learning. Quarterly Review Of Distance Education, 2(3), 247-254.
DeLacey, B., & Leonard, D. (2002).Case study on technology and distance in education at the Harvard Business School. Educational Technology & Society, 5(2). Retrieved from http://www.ifets.info/journals/ 5_2/delacey.html
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development and Program Studies Service (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-basedpractices/ finalreport.pdf.