As online learning opportunities are becoming increasingly more widespread and popular, we want to ensure that our students are prepared with the skills they need to be successful in a virtual classroom. This year, all 8th grade students are studying Jewish history in an online course offered through the Online Jewish Studies Consortium, a network that delivers high-quality online Judaic studies courses to day school students throughout North America. Our 8th graders were initially hesitant about using such a novel platform for this course. However, they quickly developed the digital skills needed for success in an online learning environment, and they already recognize the benefits of online learning over learning in the traditional classroom.
When I walk into my 8th grade Judaic studies classroom, I see students deeply engrossed in their work: reading academically rigorous articles, recording video-blogs, responding to classmates’ posts in an online discussion forum, and making connections between their own lives and the lives of their Jewish ancestors who lived thousands of years before them. From an educational perspective, I couldn’t ask for more engaged student learning, and the students also recognize that this format is developmentally appropriate for them. Talia Abu explains, “I like that we have freedom in this course. Every day, we come into class and work at our own pace. We don’t have to try to pay attention to a teacher lecturing, which can be really hard for us.” We know that focusing is challenging for middle school students, and the course allows our students to regulate themselves, taking breaks when needed before diving back into their work. When I asked the students what skills they are developing through this course, almost all of the students responded quickly with “time management.” We carved out time and a space for our students to complete their online coursework throughout the week, and our students are learning how to pace themselves in order to meet their weekly deadlines.
The structure of the online course is also helping our students strengthen their verbal skills. “I’m getting better at sharing my opinions because I don’t have to do it in front of the whole class,” Eduardo Galicot explains about the online discussion forums, to which every student must respond with his/her original thoughts before reading or commenting on the opinions of classmates. This model guarantees the participation of every student in discussions, and our students recognize that they are sharing more insightful thoughts than ever before. Jordan Sherr says, “Normally [in a traditional classroom], I would just say ‘I agree with what you said,’ but in this class you have to actually respond to what people are saying. You have to form your opinion.”
Our students recognize myriad academic and executive skills they are strengthening in this course, but the most surprising aspect is how interactive the experience is. Eli Lerner acknowledges this shock: “I can interact with my teacher even though he doesn’t even live in San Diego. The class is really interactive. I feel like I’m having a personal conversation with someone in every assignment.” The teacher to whom Eli refers is Rabbi Jeff Schrager, the lead instructor who teaches the course from his home in Israel and who regularly video-chats with the students. Our students feel their direct access to Rabbi Schrager is a gift; Shaye Youngleson illustrates this sentiment, explaining, “I really like how we have a teacher from Israel. At a small school, there are only so many teachers we can have access to. I like that online learning connects me with a teacher outside of my school.” In addition to Rabbi Schrager, I closely monitor the students’ progress and support the development of the digital skills they will need in any future class, online or traditional. “Together, the two teachers offer two different points of view and support systems,” Diego Kohan regards is the biggest benefit of the course. Although the course is online, the students interact with much more than just their computer screens. The students all receive the attention they need in order to be successful.
These students will undoubtedly have more opportunities to study online in the future–and over half of them are already certain they want to! I am confident that after this year’s exposure to online learning in a supervised and supportive environment, our students are prepared to navigate the world of online learning independently.