By Yisroel Porath
What does Tomorrow’s Genius have in common with Tanach, Biology, Hebrew Language, Physics, Math, Social Studies, History, Chinese, Environmental Geography, Talmud and English? The answer is that we’re teaching all of these subjects and more – online! When people ask us is if it’s even possible to teach a subject like Biology or Math with a screen and many miles separating between the students and the teachers the answer of course is yes!
In this article I will explain a number of the basic elements of synchronized learning in a virtual classroom setting and why it’s highly recommended for schools to begin exploring this learning method as an opportunity for educational renewal within the school curriculum.
The three advantages of synchronized online learning are:
- Enriched educational content
- Visual content
- Integration of technology in the educational process
Enriched Educational Content
One of the great challenges faced in an online setting is transforming textual based material into an online context. In our early distance learning experiences we thought it would be enough to hear the student on the other end in order to guarantee a successful class – but that expectation lasted for one class only. Online students need blended content. Blended content means taking the text and enriching it with added features and capabilities to make it more lively and engaging. For example, our History teacher was teaching an online class to a group of students who were located in another continent and “met” with the teacher through the class’s smart board. The teacher took the text that he had in front of him and created the following Prezi:
The teacher blended between textual and visual content to enrich the educational experience of the class. The Prezi functions on the basis of a presentation but in contrast to Power Point it’s possible to present the material in a variety of alternative ways. The Prezi that you see above is an overview of what the class learned. In reality, the Prezi zooms-in on a circle and the teacher can focus on the content in each circle individually. This method enabled the students to focus on a specific topic without getting distracted with the other elements of the presentation.
Another example is from a Tanach course. Literary analysis isn’t always an aspect of Tanach that students are enthusiastic to study. In one of my Tanach classes, we encountered a verse that demanded an in-depth literary analysis. After brainstorming possible options of student engagement I had decided to place on the virtual classroom white-board the relevant commentaries and asked each student to choose a different color to annotate on the white-board what they thought was the correct reading of the verse. After the students received permission to begin the annotation, a very interesting process began to take place and the students were contemplating how exactly the verse should be read. They engaged each other in the discussion as I sat back and listened. Not only did they not scribble all over the board, they decided to first solve the issue verbally and use only one color to do the final annotation. This brought up an additional advantage of the online context – the students learned through an experiential process not only a relatively technical issue, but also how to listen and speak to one another in a respective matter.
There’s no doubt that students today are more visual than ever. As teachers, we are always trying to adjust our educational methods to the place where our students are at. Recently, I gave an online demo session in Jewish History to principals of North American Jewish day schools. The goal of the class was to show how it’s possible to learn Jewish history in an online context. The topic of the class was Theodre Herzel’s Uganda Proposal and I had to decide how to present the material. In the end, I created a full presentation on the Uganda proposal with a minimum amount of text involved. The slide below is from that presentation:
The session participants started to engage in a conversation on the various personalities pictured in the slide. One of the principals told me that this is the exact educational approach that his school is moving in the direction of – transitioning from textual based content to visual based content. According to this specific principal, the learning in his school has been far more effective when presented visually as opposed to the standard text oriented class.
The integration of visual and textual content in any class context is a delicate issue and it demands of the teacher a lot of thought and creativity to be able to teach a subject in a variety of methods in order to better engage the students in the learning process.
Integration of Technology in the Educational Process
You’re probably wondering why this wasn’t the first item to be discussed in this article. For us at Tomorrow’s Genius, the most vital component of a class is the content that is being taught and technology is only a means to help our students understand that content. After a year of implementing online classes in Israeli and U.S. schools, we are beginning to see an increase in requests from schools to incorporate new educational methods in their educational processes. As students become more digitally oriented in their everyday lives, schools must continuously keep up with them by creating new, creative and alternative educational approaches.
Technology is just one piece of the TG puzzle. We also invest many of our efforts in building a core group of excellent educators who are comfortable teaching in an online setting just as if it were an offline classroom. The real challenge is actually integrating the online teacher with the schools with which we work. We put a strong emphasis on these issues and work relentlessly to spread the message that technology should not serve as a barrier between the teacher, students and school. There are many examples of how this can be accomplished like holding online PTA meetings, enabling staff and administration to “sit in” on an online class etc… The online classes are included in the school class schedule like any other class as opposed to an after school enrichment course. All of these little details set the tone from the beginning that the integration of technology happens on all levels from the subject being taught to when it’s scheduled in the course of a day at school.
We are also identifying important educational processes as students begin to adjust to the online method. There are many students who have experienced more educational and academic success when learning with technology than when they were succeeding in the regular classroom. We’ve noticed that students who experienced difficulty learning a specific subject in a regular class were able to build a more positive approach to the once hated subject when they started learning online and saw the material presented in a different way.
In conclusion, online learning with its visual presentation can offer significant benefits to the students of today’s digital generation. At Tomorrow’s Genius we are continuously refining our own online teaching methods as we gain more experience in the field. We are excited to be a major player on this new educational frontier.