Education for the 21st Century: Equipping Jewish Educators with New Tools and Strategies

by Dawne Bear Novicoff

For those of us involved in the field of education – either as professionals or as parents – we are perpetually reminded about how education is rapidly changing in order to stay in step with the 21st century learners – the digital natives who populate our classes, campuses and homes.

As these young learners habitually explore the newest ways to connect with their networks using the latest technology, 21st century educators are challenged with adapting and adopting new practices to engage with their students in meaningful learning in a myriad of settings.

The Jewish education space is no different. Yet often our educator training institutions are under resourced. Compared to other sectors of higher education, we lag in supporting faculty to advance and to explore new technologies and offer our students a window into some of the new dimensions of 21st century education.

Over the past five years, I have had the privilege to “watch from the front row” as the field has in fact made significant improvements in this area. The Jim Joseph Foundation’s Education Initiative – the cluster of grants, $45-million in total, to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, The Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University – has greatly expanded and enhanced the schools’ program offerings and it has dramatically increased the number of Jewish educators trained. In the critical early program development of these grants, each institution identified technology enhancements and eLearning development as key ingredients to their success at attracting more (and new) students to their respective programs. The Foundation has worked closely with colleagues at these institutions to make this vision of success a reality.

Today, all three institutions offer a diverse array of fully online and hybrid degree and certification programs, attracting Jewish educators and aspiring educators from around the country. To complement the development of these new offerings, HUC, JTS and YU continue to implement practices to support faculty who teach in these new environments. The institutions understand that to fully leverage new technologies for learning purposes, educators need training to develop specific strategies and skillsets.

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the final showcase (graduation) of one such program – the eLearning Faculty Fellowship, an inter-institutional collaboration project of the Education Initiative.

Eighteen faculty members from all three institutions participated in the fellowship to gain skills and technology tools to enhance their practice. These faculty members represent a wide range of experience using technology in their classrooms and in their instruction. Some of the educators already taught online or hybrid courses and others had little experience using any technology in their classrooms.

With expert instruction from the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), the educators embarked on an eLearning journey and found relevance and application for their work. The Fellowship included a series of online sessions, three in-person seminars and individual project work. The final showcase combined panel discussions, project presentations and a facilitated group reflection to encourage the fellows to engage and share with one another and members of faculty and administration from each of the three schools.

As part of the showcase session, the fellows shared their thoughts on the impact of this training on their teaching and implications for their institutions. Fellows also offered compelling examples of new tools, experimentation, and the utilization and relevance these skills bring to bear on both online and in-classroom education:

“I now know what an LMS [learning management system] is and I have been able to use it to communicate with my students, for them to post responses that are then read globally and reflected upon, and to provide handout materials. I created an online classroom which was something very exciting because it got everyone to work together. For another class I am using a different learning management system. I now have a totally different form of teaching than [what] I have done in the past and it really helped my students master the material a lot more.”

“I want to train my students, who are day school teachers, to be able to do something for their own students one day. So it’s not only for me about just using the technology myself and with my class; it’s giving the next generation the tools so they can in turn do something for their students. So that kind of changes the nature of the choices that I make, because I want to give them more creative tools, design-oriented tools, not just give them a learning experience in higher education. So I integrated several tools that I was exposed to, specifically Piaza, Voice Thread, Wiki Spaces.”

“I joined the fellowship because I felt that I was just being carried along with whatever technology or whatever program was thrown my way. I wanted to think about it in a more organized way. As a result of eLFF (the Fellowship), I might be actually using less technology than before. But I’m using it in a much more informed manner. I can now ask myself clearly, what do I want to achieve by it? Why am I using this? I’m more able to weigh the potential advantages and pitfalls of each tool.”

In her concluding remarks to the fellows at the showcase, Dr. Debby Miller, Associate Director of the Melton Research Center at the Jewish Theological Seminary, articulated how the eLearning Collaborative was the right vehicle for this type of learning:

“The eLearning Faculty Fellows have learned and will continue to learn how to use educational technology to enhance their teaching more along the lines of artists than musicians: First they learn from their masters – the experts in educational technology from CCNMTL and their own institutions. During in-person workshops, they have worked together, to practice and gain experience in the use of the techniques, tools and in the applications of those tools in their classes. Like the artist, the professor may learn with a colleague, but will probably initially apply that learning alone.

“But not quite alone: because the other partners are the learners – those for whom all the effort, ultimately, is made. They shape the learning as they make sense of it for themselves; but they also influence the teachers, as they use the new technique and are mindful of the students’ responses, constantly reflecting on and re-shaping their teaching.

“To the extent that each professor shares that process, asks questions among colleagues on the Learning Management System and discusses his or her learning, the collaboration becomes closer, and the learning multiplies.”

Aside from the technical training that each of the eighteen educators gained, the fellowship created an inter-institutional faculty network where none existed. The fellows’ growth as a cohort and their plans for ongoing collaborative engagement provide an important framework to help them utilize these tools in various educational settings. Now, as Cohort 1 moves on from the fellowship and engages students in new ways, a second cohort embarks on its own eLearning journey to become more effective educators for the 21st century.

Dawne Bear Novicoff is a senior program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation. Cohort 2 of the eLearning Faculty Fellowship begins later this spring.

cross-posted on the Jim Joseph Foundation blog