There’s an old joke in education, and I’m sorry I don’t know its source:

Take someone from any profession 100 years ago and show them their profession today: They will be wowed. Floored. Won’t believe their eyes. Medicine. Media. Entertainment. The list is endless. Except for one, which looks pretty much the same: Education.

Well, I’m happy to say that in the last few years, that this joke has become less and less true.

I’ve been in education for nearly 20 years. I was a classroom teacher for many years. But for the past ten years, I’ve been an online teacher. I’m the Founder and co-Director of JETS (Jerusalem EdTech Solutions), an online and distance learning provider. I also train and supervise other online teachers, and teach both synchronously and asynchronously to teachers and students in the US, Canada, Germany, Poland, Israel, Australia and the Czech Republic.

My average student lives 10,000 miles away. I communicate with both synchronous (live classes) and asynchronous students (not-live) using an LMS or “learning management system” (see more about my favorite ones in this blog post).

Whenever a student posts on our LMS, I get an email. I use LMS’s during live sessions, when my students face my image on a screen, with laptops open on their desks, and during asynchronous sessions, when they post responses to curriculum I’ve designed for them. (In the images here, the kids attend an Orthodox high school, where boys and girls are separated, so I appear on a SMART board in both rooms simultaneously! How’s that for being in two places at the same time?)

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My St. Louis boy & girl groups at Yeshivat Kadimah

 

 

 

 

Online learning is a phenomena that breaks the mold for education. Teachers and students converse from thousands of miles away. We have limitless knowledge available at the tap of a finger. But now that we have all these options, what is the best formula to maximize these amazing benefits? Certainly an educator from a hundred years ago, in a little red schoolhouse, could never have imagined the resources available in education today. I can hardly believe it myself, and I feel like I make pretty good use of online tools, social media, and connecting. The possibilities are endless and often overwhelming.

Why school?

This led me to wonder: What is the best way to learn using our current resources? Should kids bother going to school at all? All they seem to need is a computer or handheld device with internet. Certainly, going to school should be meaningful beyond technology. How can we be sure schools are meeting that benchmark?

will-richardson-TEDI watched with interest PLP co-founder (with Sheryl Nussbaum Beach) Will Richardson’s TedX video on ‘Why School?’ I echo the sentiments he expresses throughout, and strongly support the conclusion he shared from John Seely Brown:

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

I’m sure many of us who are parents and educators (I have four kids of my own as well) can offer personal examples of how our children and students are figuring things out alone and not only value their own initiated learning, but enjoy it thoroughly.

School essentials today

In graduate school 15 years ago, I had to complete an assignment:  ‘What is your ideal school?’ I built a careful curriculum highlighting what I felt were the essential subjects students should learn. Being a practicing Jew, a portion of that curriculum was taken up with Jewish studies and learning Jewish practices. Being a yoga instructor and a former practitioner of martial arts, I also required each student to master a sport or martial art. I felt it teaches good health, self-discipline and essential forms of self defense.

Now that learning is wired and connected, there are quite a few more options to throw into my ideal school:

Digital Literacy

Digital Literacy is no longer an option for teaching kids. I believe it’s a requirement. Some youth grow up as digital natives and figure out online navigating on their own. Others don’t. Here are what I think are some guidelines for what must be taught in schools. Here are some definitions: the Google digital literacy curriculum and the Curriculum and Leadership Journal.

Teaching Internet Research Strategies

Searching the web for information is overwhelming. I remember going to the Beverly Hills public library in high school to begin research on the dreaded Term Paper. It was also overwhelming. A four-story building packed with thousands of books. Armed with index cards outlining each topic I was to research, and a hand-written outline, I spent hours sifting through books, encyclopedias and magazines – often assisted by a kindly librarian – dutifully making list after list of authors’ names and publishing companies. It was a major undertaking, but I had a plan and just had to implement it, time consuming as it was.

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Are students given a plan in internet research? What has replaced the term paper? Here’s one article that got me started. I will be using these six steps with my online students in St. Louis when we meet again to review their personal Jewish History projects.

Global Citizenship

What does it mean to be a citizen of the world today? When I was a kid, we learned “current events,” where our teacher kept us abreast of important headlines. We did not need to discuss them or give our opinion, we just needed to know them. Being a part of a connected world today means that students should not only learn about what is going on in other parts of the world, but seek to understand events, offer opinions and become involved. The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”  – Thomas Paine

Here are some quotes from Pinterest on ideas of global citizenship. And this Edutopia PDF has some great ideas about 21st Century Learning and Global Citizenship.

The 4 C’s of 21st Century Learning

The 4 C’s, identified by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, are described here. They include Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, Collaboration and Communication.

Howard Gardner, founder of Multiple Intelligences, promoted many of these ideas years ago when he wrote his breakthrough books. This elementary school in Chula Vista, CA, the Howard Gardner Community School, seems to include all of these elements (except the Jewish Studies ones), including spending time in the community.

As a teacher, I had to complete ‘teacher training’ in grad school. Doctors have residency. A hundred years ago, there were apprentices. What better way for students to learn about the real world than to partake in it?

smadar-headset-225The month of August in Israel is called ‘Grandmother month (hodesh Savtot),’ because many working parents leave their children with their parents so they can go to work. But a large number of parents take their children to work with them and kids appear in all kinds of work environments, which puts a smile on my face; pull your car into the mechanic, and an 8-year old is watching his dad jack up a car. A 15-year old helps his dad sort mail at the post office. Two siblings help their mom ring up a purchase at a computer store.

This month is often annoying to parents, but if there was a set schedule, with planned outcomes, blogs, visible learning with both community and school support, the process could change into a valuable learning opportunity, which floats right up Gardner’s alley.

Some other questions about 21st Century learning

Are they 21st century goals, and are they practical? I feel the following factors are up for discussion: What are the ideal amounts of:

  • face to face hours between a student and a teacher?
  • time with an online teacher, able to deliver an area of expertise not available in that student’s hometown?
  • asynchronous hours devoted to learning?
  • mentorship hours (face to face & virtual)?
  • ‘play time’ – like Google employees receive?’ Time when are students able to exercise and explore their own passions, connect to their own network, and develop, share and teach their own ideas, develop their own creativity and passion?

Technology is a must

After seeing the benefits of utilizing learning management systems and online tools, I loathe to think of a learning environment without these technologies available. I think there should be a healthy division of the above factors in a 21st century school devoted to helping the whole child.

My students and I cherish using online tools and LMS’s that provide instant access to our peers’ thoughts, encouraging collaboration and group facilitation of a task. Polls, comments and online discussion forums are basic elements of our lessons.

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Here is what one 10th grader recently wrote on a feedback survey:

I’m really enjoying this class and the pace it is moving at. I don’t feel behind or rushed but we are definitely covering alot of material in class. (Please don’t move faster! :) My favorite part of this class is the writing and ability to express my opinion and have a response to everything. I also really like the connection of Tanach (Bible Studies) to modern issues- this is FANTASTIC!

I’m happy to share the LMS I use for my online Jewish History students. If you’d like to take a peek, please drop me an email at Smadar@jetsisrael.com. I’ll be in touch.

SO, what do you think? What are the ideal amounts of each type of learning?

What is your ideal school?

About the author
Smadar Goldstein is an online educator based in Jerusalem, Israel, who has taught in over 20 schools in three continents, and feels the potential of online learning has just begun. Smadar is the Founder and Director of JETS, Judaic online and distance learning providers. She's passionate about merging the movements of yoga into online learning. Follow Smadar on Twitter @jetsisrael.