Jewish eLearning fellowship brings together institutions from across denominations

By Sean Savage/JNS.org

With the rise of numerous open online courses such as Khan Academy, Coursera, and other digital platforms, universities are feeling a greater need to embrace new technology as would-be students seek out more modern, effective ways to learn. To help the Jewish community adapt to the times, the new eLearning Faculty Fellowship aims to cultivate creativity and collaboration regarding the use of educational technology at higher education institutions across the denominational spectrum.

Click photo to download. Caption: From left to right: Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Yeshiva University, all in New York City. The institutions are all part of the new Jewish eLearning Faculty Fellowship. Credit: Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons.

The fellowship, run by Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), brings together faculty members at the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform), and Yeshiva University (Orthodox).

“I’ve always been interested in developing my own digital literacy and want to help my students learn responsible practices in and out of the classroom. The fellowship was a great opportunity to learn some new platforms on my own and bring that to my students,” Dr. Barbara Mann, associate professor of Jewish Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, told JNS.org.

Sponsored by major grants of $15 million to each participating institution as part of the Inter-Institutional eLearning Collaborative of the Jim Joseph Foundation—a private foundation incorporated in 2005 that has awarded more than $267 million, largely in the field of Jewish education—the fellowship began with its first cohort in early May.

“The participants are expected to practice using these tools and eventually develop an educational project that seeks to improve their teaching using technologies explored,” Maurice Matiz, vice executive director and director of technology at CCNMTL, told JNS.org.

Mann said that one of the projects that she will be working on as part of the program is introducing blogging to her students. She sees this as an opportunity for her and her students to learn more about the powerful platform, as well as improve their writing skills.

“Over the year the cohort will participate in five in-person sessions and five online [at-your-own-pace] sessions,” Matiz said.

As part of the ongoing course, the participants will be exposed to some of the leading experts and cutting-edge tools in educational technology.

“The group, led by our educational technologists, Dan Beeby and Tucker Harding, has already looked at a number of annotation tools such as NB (http://nb.mit.edu) and AnnotateIt (http://annotateit.org/). The group has also been exposed to platforms such as Canvas, Wikispaces, and Google Docs,” Matiz said.

Ever since the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s, educators have touted their belief that the use of technology in the classroom would revolutionize education. Yet some have questioned technology’s actual impact, given the enormous sums of money spent to bring laptops, tablets and other software tools into the classroom. According to a June 2013 report on online education technology in The Economist, the latest innovations may finally bring about a revolution in education.

“A number of big changes are coming at the same time: high-speed mobile networks, cheap tablet devices, the ability to process huge amounts of data cheaply, sophisticated online gaming and adaptive-learning software,” writes The Economist.

For Jewish educators, the eLearning Faculty Fellowship seeks to create a collaborative environment among some of the premier Jewish institutions in the U.S., to learn and evaluate a variety of different educational technology tools that will help educators, students, and institutions stay ahead of the curve. 

“There is no doubt that technology is changing higher education,” Matiz said. “We just hope to influence the change to be on the side of student learning. That is, continually highlight the possibilities to improve cognitive gains rather than thinking of technology as simply a delivery system. The latter is important and necessary for dealing with scale and cost, but we must advocate the use of these technologies to engage, motivate, and inspire students, many of whom come to higher education already experienced at using advanced technologies in their high schools.”

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Posted on July 22, 2013 and filed under Education, Special Sections.