Davidson Distance Learning MA Program at JTS

[This post is part of a series from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, The Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University on the online learning experience.]

by Dr. Meredith Katz

The Davidson Distance Learning MA program in Jewish education at The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) offers its students across the country the opportunity to be part of a vibrant learning community. Davidson emphasizes a constructivist approach to teaching and learning, through both the maxim to differentiate in order to “meet the learner where s/he is”, and through the belief that most learning occurs through social interaction. We model these principles in our courses and assignments, many of which encourage students to “try things out” with their own learners and to reflect on their efforts and results. Having entered somewhat warily into online teaching as a digital immigrant in 2010, I have come to embrace the online setting as an ideal laboratory for constructivist teaching.

Our distance learning students are a diverse group in terms of experience, stage of career and geographical location. This diversity results in an initial natural openness to learning from each other, upon which I can build. I structure small group assignments that students do in real time, as well as asynchronous discussion boards and wikis in order to give the students more opportunities to know each other as they respond to narrated PowerPoints, mini-lectures and readings. The interaction in particular between students from areas more isolated from Jewish resources and those in more urban/suburban centers has been illuminating. In particular, educators from more isolated areas push the group to think about what it means to “build Jewish community” for their students when they describe the more regular interactions they have with individuals and organizations that have little familiarity with Jewish history, practices and Sabbath and holiday schedules.

The student diversity also encourages differentiation that I facilitate through several weekly individual interactions with students. I comment on work, clarify questions about assignments and adapt guidelines to apply to multiple Jewish educational settings. Additionally, I respond to contributions on our discussion boards and reach out to individuals to encourage them to contribute their specific expertise to the group. While I do all this with my in-house students, as well, in some ways these student-professor interactions have a stronger impact in the online setting.

When I have asked classes to explain how our courses might be classified as constructivist, students have pointed enthusiastically to the facilitation of opportunities to learn from each other and to the individualized feedback they receive.

This year I designed a new course that serves as a culminating experience for our distance learning students nearing completion of their degrees. In the “Distance Learning Practicum,” students develop and implement change projects in their home institutions, using an action research framework. Action research calls upon practitioners as insider experts to develop research questions form their own concerns of practice. They then investigate these concerns by planning, implementing and evaluating a new approach, collecting data throughout the process. In the spring semester they implemented their projects and learned how to analyze and present data as findings with recommendations.  Critical reflection took place through the online discussion boards and small group exchanges through different stages of the process.  Students helped each other to refine research instruments, code data and edit drafts of all kinds. They shared their findings in real time through Skype conferences and by posting their PowerPoint presentations for the group.

Several of the students’ projects explore the possibilities of expanding the use of technology in their practice and building on the researchers own experiences as online students. Idit BenDavid, a middle school Hebrew teacher at the Epstein School in Atlanta, has experimented with a blended learning approach to teach her students grammar and vocabulary and to deepen their connection to Israel with more authentic Israeli content. As she had hoped, incorporating online applications for students to use at home and in the classroom has helped them to take more control of their own learning. Idit shares that she combines her appreciation of the educational riches available through technology with renewed realization of the crucial role of the teacher in harnessing its power. She comments that the opportunity “to participate in this action research allowed me to have a different perspective about learning. It taught me to really listen and observe. It showed me the value of paying attention to the students’ answers, remarks and opinions while aiming to discover what my students really know, understand and think about.”

Students are also using action research to consider challenges to professional development. Ronit Razinovsky and Ana Turkienicz, both education directors at congregational schools in Westchester, New York, took the opportunity to revive a professional development organization neglected in part due to increasing demands on members’ time in their home institutions. Ronit and Ana surveyed their fellow educators in order to determine their current priorities for a community of practice. They then designed a professional development retreat geared toward reenergizing the group. One of the main purposes of the retreat was to introduce their colleagues to a framework for providing support for each other in an online context. Post-retreat, Ronit and Ana facilitate and model online participation for the group as they continue to train and encourage their colleagues to join them.

I am continually impressed by the rich backgrounds and deep passion for Jewish education shared by the students in our online learning community. My work in the Davidson Distance Learning MA program has provided me with a powerful forum for professional growth as I reimagine my role as a constructivist educator, both in in-house and online settings.

Meredith Katz is the Jim Joseph Senior Scholar of Jewish Education in the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. She teaches courses in Pedagogical Skills, Curriculum, and Staff Development and Supervision, and works extensively with The Davidson School’s distance learning students in the MA and Executive Doctoral programs.