Reflections on creating my first blended learning course

Reflections on creating my first blended learning course

Today, I finished my 8th class in Introduction to Independent Torah Learning that was a blended learning course with both a live and online component.  Here are some of my reflections about my first go at this kind of course design.

Background: 


Separating the gap between the Can’s and the Cannot’s in Torah Learning

I began teaching Chumash in 2001. Every year, there were two kinds of students in a class – those who could translate pesukim independently and those who could not. The more I taught, the more these distinctions became clear. I began to wonder how to give students who could not translate independently the tools so they could do so and match their Judaic achievements to their secular ones.

Bridging the divide in high school – When I moved to Rochester, I began teaching in a high school with only 15 students. My chumash classes became a perfect laboratory for action research. With only 15 students in a class, it is possible to really collaborate with the students. They helped me refine my teaching by giving me a lot of feedback (one assessment tool I used). Through their feedback, and constant data mining, I developed the ITL (independent Torah Learning) system  based on the theory of the Zone of Proximal Development and constructivisim to teach all students how to translate pesukim.

Teaching it right in elementary school – A few years ago, I began to teach third graders. Teaching this age was very instructive for refining my system  because they haven’t yet learned how to learn incorrectly. There is nothing to unteach.  Moreover, because third graders are  concrete learners and because I could collaborate with the math and ELA teacher, I was able to create materials for different kinds of learners because I could pinpoint their learning needs.  I further refined my system so the third graders could translate pesukim independently. The ITL system was highly effective.  My son was in my class, so I have also been able to track his progress applying the skills we learned and his recall of vocabulary as he began to learn Mishnah with my husband this summer.

Would it work with adults? – This summer, a baalas teshuva asked me to teach her Chumash. This was the chance I had been waiting for to see if adult learners would be successful learning with this system. I decided to include an online component since much of the work requires drills and practice which is unnecessary to do in a class setting. I had set a goal for myself last summer to learn Moodle so I chose that platform, learned animation techniques in powerpoint,  found a gracious host, some engaging review tools (dahbear, classtools.net) and free screencasting software called ActivePresenter.

My Audience
My class ended up being 6 adult women who are Orthodox. The majority became religious in their teens or early adult hood, none had a day school education through high school. All were professionals with advanced degrees.

Results 


From the first class, the results were immediate and exciting. We began from the beginning – I taught how to find a perek and pasuk in Chumash and defining the 5 books of Moshe. By the 8th class, the women were  translating the pesukim from the hebrew text with help for only the most obscure conjugations and words (i.e. Pual tense). 

Class structure – The structure of each unit was the same. We began with vocabulary, moved on to grammar rules, translated a group of Pesukim with each woman taking turns to read and translate, and then we analyzed the pesukim, either looking at each word or at the whole unit for themes. For me, the most fun was when we  were analyzing the position of rashi and ramban together rather than lecturing like the “sage on the stage”

Delivery – Using Powerpoint, and its animations were very helpful. I was able to include graphics and color coding that can’t be done on a blackboard alone. I had a  computer and projector which was pretty cheap, and it did what I needed it to do. After each new skill taught, we did exercises to apply the skill immediately so there was immediate reinforcement of new concepts.

Online content – After each lesson, I put a screencast up of the lesson.  review games for the vocabulary, and multiple choice quizzes on words in context.  If this had been a college course with accountability, I would have included online research about concepts and people that we couldn’t address in class (Lot and his appearance throughout Tanach, the role of Sarah as the wife of Avram)

Time – The one negative was the time it took to prepare the class. Before each unit, I had to prepare extensive handouts on all the vocabulary. The initial powerpoints took a tremendous amount of time to create. Now I am able to cut and paste but that still adds hours to the preparation.

Online component=NO LIFE The online component  took even more time. a lot, a lot of time. I had to create quizzes in csv format. Nikud (hebrew punctuation)  is not supported in excel.  I made tables in Word, converted them to text, copied it to Notepad and saved it in a UTF-8 file format. Typing the quizzes, uploading them, creating the links all took hours of time for material that takes 5 minutes to use.

Thumbs up for dahbear & classtools! I found dahbear.org, and classtools.net the most promising tools because they create engaging content that the students will use over and over again to review.  dahbear was great but classtools.net has this awesome arcade review game where students can blast vocabulary words with what sounds like cannon fire. The game speeds up so it is more addicting than flaschcards. Dahbear has multiple choice quizzes and the font is readable on all machines. Plus it is compatable with the ipod/ipad.

The moodle multiple choice quizzes were cumbersome to create but are beneficial in that it gives immediate feedback.

Creating screencasts? mixed reviews The same content that was engaging in class and can be lightened up with situational humor becomes more stale online. I wish I had time to watch the best screencasts out there so I can improve my technique. But I have no time because of how intense it is to create the blended learning component. I did improve slightly as I went along and learned to use a highlighted mouse hover.  If you want to give me feedback – I would love to hear some.

Takeaways

  1. ITL works! this was perhaps the most exciting result of this class. Adults, children and teens benefit from a structured skill building class based on the principle of Zone of Proximal Development. There is great promise for replicating this system in other classrooms and schools.
  2. Adult Learners are diverse – I needed to use my whole teaching arsenal including visual cues, mnemonics and “recognition before recall” to reach each adult learner just like I would have had to do in my classroom. Being aware of learning disabilities and styles is just as important for teaching adults as children.
  3. ITL style courses are necessary
    There is a real need for classes that teaches Jewish literacy to adult learners. Accomplished professionals with PhDs should be able to learn the basics in a way that is not condescending. Right now there is a lot of inspiration but it doesn’t make the learner the center of the learning experience. After listening to most shiurim online, will the learner be able to pick up a Jewish text on his own and learn with greater ease? While Artscroll is a wonderful tool, we need to figure out how to move people past this stage to translating on their own.
  4. Online learning for Jewish literacy and skills for adults needs to happen –  Online learning would be a great tool for this population. Adult learners are self-motivated. The skills and content are concrete and can be tested and reviewed online.
  5. Live classes inspire effort and comraderie – Nothing replaces a live debate as two students grapple over a text together. The physical proximity, and the social and  sensory experience is a very motivating component of a classroom. The teacher can modify the class on the fly based on the facial expressions and interest of a particular group.
  6. Online classes are time intensive and won’t save $ – Online classes shouldn’t be created to save money but to serve a need. It takes too much time (right now) to prepare the live class well, and create the online modules. The software needed to do it right also cost $. There are free programs but by using them, you miss out on leveraging the best features of online learning. Online Learning can reach motivated learners who don’t have access in their community
  7. Content is king– technology is only there to serve a pedagogic purpose. The online learning components should  only be use if a similar exercise would be helpful in a regular classroom.

It’s been a great month.  I’m excited to do this work again


Here are some of the more technical aspects of the Course for those who are interested:


Course Objectives:

  • Students will be able to find a perek and pasuk in a chumash
  • Students will translate selected nouns and shorashim out of context
  • Students will translate noun prefixes and possessive suffixes out of context
  • Students will be able to translate nouns with specific prefixes and possessive suffixes
  • Students will be able to identify shorashim in a conjugated verb in context in the chumash.
  • Students will be able to translated conjugated verbs in the pasuk by breaking apart the word using rules of dikduk
  • Students will be able to break pesukim into phrases using taamei hamikra
  • Students will identify textual ambiguity, redundancy and improper use of grammar and formulate questions about the text
  • Students will recall details from story after reading pesukim independently
  • Students will ask philosophic questions based on themes in the pesukim.
Audience
Adult women who did not have a day school education. Many became religious in their teens or early adult hood. All were professionals with advanced degrees.
Live class materials
Reference materials (given in sheet protectors)
  • List of shorashim
    with blanks to fill in translations , common shorashim bolded,  *’s next to already learned shorashim,
  • List of nouns, blanks next to nouns already learned, rest translated
  • List of prefixs,
    blanks next to prefixes already learned, rest translated
  • List of suffixes, blanks next to suffixes already learned, rest translated
  • List of grammar rules with examples
  • linear translation sheets with blanks for any concepts that had been taught
 
Online Course setup
  • All the handouts for each class
  • Screencasts for each part of the class
    1. Vocabulary – nouns, verbs, prefixes, suffixes. I included visuals for each noun and verb. ( I had created many visuals this past year for a student who was a very visual learner)
    2. Grammar Rules – animated powerpoint that conjugated verbs using color coding so that even students with a non-verbal learning disability could pick out the difference in the conjugation.
    3. Analysis – step by step analysis of both the words and themes as well as analysis of the commentaries
  • Review games for nouns/verbs/prefixes & suffixes
    • dah bear
    • classtools.net
  • Quizzes
    • multiple choice and matching quizzes on nouns and verbs as they appear in the context of the pesukim through moodle