It’s not just the local founders of Yeshivat He’atid who believe its increased use of computer educational technology constitutes the wave of the future.
The Avi Chai Foundation, a major funder of Jewish day school education, is supporting the school with a significant grant while helping other schools launch similar programs.
Still, while some put their faith in technology, others are more cautious, stressing the continued important role of the individual teacher.
“We believe that the model for blended learning – which includes significant face-to-face time with an instructor as well as time that is technology based – is an important model for the day school to implement,” said Rachel Abrahams, a program officer for the foundation.
“It holds potential from both an educational perspective and a financial perspective,” she said. “We feel it’s very important to support the experiment. We’re going to have to spend the next three, four years watching to see if it’s a fruitful approach.”
Two blended learning schools have already opened this year: The Pre-Collegiate Learning Center in East Brunswick, and a new school in Baltimore.
Avi Chai has also created a Digital Jewish Learning Network, which currently enables 18 schools to experiment with online learning, sharing what they learn about choosing the right courses and monitoring students. The Frisch School and the Yavneh Academy, both in Paramus, are participants in the network.
In addition, the organization is working to seed the creation of an online Jewish studies curriculum.
The head of Yeshivat He’atid, Rabbi Netanel Gralla, said that while there are tens of thousands of online courses and educational programs, that bounty doesn’t exist – at least not yet – in the world of Jewish studies.
Avi Chai is working to change that. Last week, it helped send 10 Jewish educators to a national conference on online learning.
The organization is also looking more closely at the Hebrew-language curricula it has sponsored to determine “how to move into the 21st century and not just be paper-based.”
For NETA – a curriculum dealing with Hebrew instruction for grades 6-12 – “What we want to do is use technology to do some of the things we already do but better, more quickly, easily, effectively, economically,” said Naomi Stillman, NETA’s associate director. “There are also new things we hope to do.”
Locally, the NETA curriculum is used at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, and Yavneh Academy and Ben Porat Yosef, both in Paramus.
Stillman said she didn’t believe computer learning could ever replace a teacher.
She said she is skeptical of students “actually mastering a language, especially in this age range, primarily with web-based or online computer tools. Look at the number of people who have the Rosetta Stone foreign language software sitting on their shelf next to ‘War and Peace’ as something to do some day.”
Technology will clearly improve some aspects of the program, said Stillman. For example, she noted, moving the spoken-language recordings from CDs to the web will be more convenient for many teachers.
Work is under way on creating initial online units, said Stillman, and already developers have learned that teachers are indispensable.
“We thought you could teach the grammatical aspect via the computer with minimal teacher intervention. Even that isn’t the case. You need to integrate it so the teacher can pick up where the computer-based activity left off and activate the student’s knowledge.”
Stillman also dismissed some of the enthusiasm surrounding online language programs.
“We have yet to see evidence that a purely computer-based language learning system exists that works well for most people most of the time.
“I’m not yet convinced that computers on their own can really bring about the kind of mastery of language or excitement of language that a real, authentic dialogue or intellectual experience can bring about,” she said.
But looking ahead several years to 2017 – when next year’s first-graders at Yeshivat He’Atid enter sixth grade and are eligible for the NETA curriculum – Stillman thinks the students “will be able to access all the materials online, and that includes audio, visual, as well as textual material and so on. I think they will be truly interactive with the computer, not just flashcards. Grammar instruction will be online, probably at any level.” And possibly, she said, the computer will help with reading comprehension and writing.
Stillman does not believe that speech recognition will be good enough to use for Hebrew instruction.
One major obstacle NETA and other Jewish curriculum-development projects face is the small size of the Jewish day school market. NETA has 15,000 participating students in 115 schools around the world.
“It’s a tiny number compared to a metropolitan school district,” she said. “It’s one of the limiting factors we have in the continued development of many quality technologies.”