Is Blended Learning a 21st c. Silver Bullet or Snake Oil? (Spoilers: It’s Neither.)

By Dr. Dan Mendelsohn Aviv

I was tempted to start this piece with a list of bona fides, about how long I have been teaching in Jewish day schools, my administrative experience, my research and writing about the paradigms driving Jewish learning, as well as technology, Jewish learning and identity. But mindful of creeping apophasis, I decided not to dwell on that and move on to the question at hand.

I am aware of the many critiques of integrating technology in the Jewish classroom. I recall Russel Neiss’ epic 2013 takedown where he flatly dismissed blended learning and other attempts at deploying tech to make Jewish education more affordable. I was largely convinced by Neiss’s argument… but with an important caveat.

I, like Neiss, am agnostic about silver bullets in Jewish education, especially if the target and sole purpose is affordability. This is especially critical if you make Jewish learning affordable on the backs of teachers.

However, what if your goal is not necessarily to make Jewish education more affordable? What if your goal is to free a centuries-old, robust and flexible practice from being shoehorned into an industrialized, standardized model that also happens to be unsustainable? What if you could reimagine Jewish learning itself, and, in the process, save a little?

Sounds like snake oil, no?

However, reimagining Jewish learning is not a scam, nor a thing that all the cool kids are doing these days. Jews have always been early adopters, eager to deploy technology to create efficiencies and revolutionize learning. Within two generations of the advent of the printing press, Jews produced the first editions of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah and Jacob ben Asher’s Arba’ah Turim. This revolutionized learning in the 15th century. It also compelled scribes to redefine their profession. There were some who regarded this change as an attack on melekhet ha-kodesh, the sacred practice of hand-writing books, but there were others who regarded moveable-type printing as the “crown of science” and melekhet shmayaim – a divine craft.

If that example is a bit far-removed, Jews also fully embraced networked computing in its early years to talk about Judaism, Jewish learning and Jewish issues. We were the first group to get permission to set up our own religion-specific newsgroup in USENET back in February of 1984.

Blended learning is our printing press. We have half a generation of experimentation and iteration. We have many successes and many failures. We have learned so much more about blended learning and best practices since the 2010 U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis which cited gains for blended learners, but not as much as blended evangelists would like.

However, we cannot talk about the benefits of blended learning though without addressing the pachyderm on the premises: cost.

Neiss, among others, have asserted that the savings would be negligible. Gutting the faculty (a school’s largest line item in the budget) would only really save $1,000, and fully replacing humans with online versions would potentially save $4,000 a year. However, as the 2017 Avi Chai report “New Schools, New Directions” recounts, three Jewish blended learning schools in the United States, without exception, had a tuition cost that was substantially lower than other day schools in their area. One school asked for $5,000. Another asked for $8,600. The third asked for $12,000, which though the highest of the trio, was 50% less than other schools in region. Again, Neiss is not wrong when he asserts that “[w]hat people are really talking about when they discuss the massive cost savings associated with using technology in education is about replacing teachers with technology.” Blended learning institutions have less teachers than traditional schools. The three schools described in the Avi Chai Foundation report did as well.

There was less need for scribes after the printing press. There was less need for horse groomers after the automobile. And in the blended environment, there will be less need for teachers. Teaching will continue – but teaching will change. Yes, there is substantive difference between teachers and horse groomers. We do not bemoan the demise of the latter. Our sense of ourselves as a people is deeply rooted in our teachers as we see them as the guarantors of our future. After all, they teach our children. They love our kids too.

The blended Jewish initiative we are launching in 2018 does not seek to do away with teachers. We provide an alternative to the inefficient factory model in which teachers have worked for centuries. In our blended Jewish model, student-teacher ratios are irrelevant as teachers and students can interact individually and more regularly, augmenting the essential face to face with Skype, text messaging and email. Technology can liberate learning from the tyranny of the bell or the schedule. Learning can happen anytime and anywhere.

However, in all the talk about blended learning and its impact on tuition and faculty, we cannot overlook the opportunities blended learning affords learners. The factory model of traditional education works well enough for just enough kids, but the number of students who bristle at the industrialized standards of schooling is broaching a critical mass. Our Blended Jewish appeals to the student who would like to accelerate their learning as well as the student who might need more time to better comprehend a concept. We appeal to the student who would like to have greater control over their time and their routine. We also appeal to the student who is an unconventional learner for whom the traditional classroom just doesn’t inspire.

Our Blended Jewish is neither silver bullet nor snake oil. It will not be for everyone. It will not suit traditional educators, pedagogies or learners. It might not even look or smell like “school.” However, it is a viable alternative – and as we look ahead to the challenges facing the Jewish people in the 21st century, keeping up with change is not good enough. We need to outpace it.

Dr. Dan Mendelsohn Aviv is a Jewish educator, published author and host of TanakhCast. With esteemed partners Sholom Eisenstat and Frank Samuels, they are (IY”H) launching a Blended Jewish high school in Toronto, Ontario in 2018.