HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Video Conferencing

by Esther Feldman Issue: iSchool

Video conferencing technology for schools has been readily accessible for many years, but there are few Jewish day schools that employ this technology. In addition to the classic distance learning lessons, today there are countless students in educational institutions around the world who regularly benefit from these video conference platforms in their schools. On a daily basis there are hundreds of museums, universities, community centers, science centers, art institutes and cultural centers offering ongoing video conferences and lessons—as well as contacts and collaboration with artists, scientists and other experts—to schools and their students.

The potential benefits from the use of video conference in Jewish day schools are compelling. In outlying areas and smaller cities throughout the US, the typical day school’s access to outstanding educators and/or educational programs is severely limited due to the dearth of qualified Jewish educators in such communities. Through the medium of video conferencing, day school students can be given the opportunity to study with premier educators from all parts of the world and from Israel in particular. Video conferencing with Israel highlights the schools’ and students’ connection to the land of Israel. “Ki mi-Tzion teitzei Torah”: the learning is coming from Israel. The students get a powerful message about their relationship to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel.

In outlying areas and smaller cities throughout the US, the typical day school’s access to outstanding educators is severely limited. Through the medium of video conferencing, day school students can be given the opportunity to study with premier educators from all parts of the world and from Israel in particular.

Proper use of this medium succeeds in offering greater exposure to inspiring educators with the ability to motivate the students in their Jewish studies learning.

Over the past five years The Lookstein Center, with the support and generosity of the AVI CHAI Foundation, has provided 17 different day schools the opportunity to benefit from a master Jewish studies educator in Israel via an Internet-based video conferencing platform. In the current academic year, eleven schools are using the VC (video conference) platform to broadcast lessons twice or three times a week to their Jewish studies classes. This article discusses the various challenges involved in setting up and running a class over a video conference system as well as various educational best practices for insuring a reliable educational experience.

Four years ago the Lookstein Center began the program with streaming live classes two or three times weekly into three Jewish studies classrooms: grades 6 and 7 in N. E. Miles, Birmingham, Alabama, grade 6 in the Jewish Academy, El Paso, Texas, and to high school students in Jesse Schwartz in Phoenix, Arizona. In Birmingham the video conference teachers taught Bible, in El Paso, they taught Israel studies, and in Phoenix, the teacher taught prayer. Today, Lookstein Center educators teach a variety of Jewish studies subjects, based on the unique needs of the different schools, including Israel studies, Bible, prophets, Jewish history, prayer, Jewish law and Mishnah, Bar/Bat mitzvah preparatory classes, etc.

In addition to the Lookstein Center “remote teacher,” in every class there is always an on-site adult, usually a novice teacher. This person is responsible for insuring discipline as well as ongoing communication between the remote teacher and the school administration. Many of the teachers have developed the relationship into successful collaborative/supportive co-teaching partnerships, where the remote teacher takes the lead role and the on-site teacher rotates among students to provide support. The development of these relationships added an unforeseen professional development facet to the program, offering novice and/or inexperienced educators the unique opportunity to observe as well as collaborate with a master educator at work in a classroom setting.

Teaching over a video conference platform demands different skill sets and innovative methodologies from the teacher.

Classrooms must be physically well organized. The VC teacher’s line of vision is limited, and the more dominant students are more likely to sit closer to the camera.

Teachers have to be careful not to let a few voices rule. They must implement methods to insure participation from all students. The Lookstein Center educators use blogs and web platforms to promote equal as well as ongoing participation.

Classroom management is essential. The VC classroom is very structured and the remote teacher must be very organized and well prepared with worksheets and graphic organizers.

The remote teacher must be exceptionally creative and work hard at promoting both interaction with the students as well as integration with technology. The successful “remote classes” like those in this program utilize interactive educational methodologies such as multiple intelligences curricula and project-based learning.

Semadar Goldstein, a remote teacher in elementary schools in Vancouver, Birmingham and Philadelphia, uses multiple intelligences curricula and engages the children in many physical activities. She has the children acting out plays to better understand the battles of Joshua. They prepare the skits in the classroom, and then Semadar views them onscreen in Israel, on the other side of the world. The VC medium allows ongoing recording during the classroom session. Later the activities can be shared with the students, other teachers in the schools and the students’ families.

In the high school classroom, the successful VC teacher involves the students in lengthy discussions. These discussions do not end with the teacher logging off, but are continued after class, online, on the classroom blog designed for this purpose. The VC high school teacher’s use of other technologies such as blogs and websites to support the class work impacts positively on the students’ relationship to the teacher and the subject matter. Zvi Grumet, a member of The Lookstein Center evaluation team, observed one such class and had the following comments:

“[The VC teacher]…is a dynamic presence and invests considerable energy to elicit and maintain active involvement from the students. He asks provocative questions to draw the students into the learning…”

“The use of the blog was a valuable means of getting feedback and homework from the students, despite a community culture which may not be supportive of homework in Jewish Studies.”

Charisma is difficult to broadcast to an ongoing class over a screen. The teachers cannot rely on the strength of their presence in the classroom or their personal relationship with the students. They need to rely on sound classroom methodologies to help the students focus on each lesson, particularly as the year progresses and the fascination with the technology diminishes. Well organized classes with prepared work plans and short quizzes are helpful in keeping the students focused.

“Short quizzes are an effective method to keep the 9th graders focused on the materials and help them to summarize the ‘lessons learned’” (M. Rosenberg, a Lookstein Center VC educator)

After working with these classes for five years, The Lookstein Center has found that the following can be particularly helpful:

  • Graphic organizers for the students
  • Assessment tools
  • Worksheets
  • Highly Interactive lessons
  • Ongoing group work

Eliciting discussion and supervising small group work is challenging but essential to the students’ satisfaction with the platform.

In conclusion, a successful video conference class provides a unique educational experience for both the student and teacher. It is very organized, extremely interactive, as well as educationally challenging and stimulating.

Mrs. Katz, a remote teacher, summarizes best her firsthand experience:

“I have been teaching at Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston for the past three years. Twice a week I have been the face on their screen, teaching students from grades five through eight about Zionism, Israel, and current events. This autumn I finally got to meet my students. Traveling to Charleston for the day allowed me to become a three-dimensional teacher as opposed to a cyber teacher. I was overwhelmed by how close the students felt to me. There certainly is a distance when I am sitting in Israel and they are in their classroom in the States that can’t be avoided. Yet they reacted and interacted with me as though there was no distance at all.

“In small Jewish communities, remote teaching is a wonderful opportunity to expand the educational horizons and opportunities for students. Simply by introducing them to a teacher from Israel, they were able to have a firsthand account of what Israel is like—what the politics are like, what Israel’s accomplishments are, even what day to day life is like. … I believe that the excitement of connecting to someone online and someone far away motivates them to participate and engages them in a very concrete way. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Charleston, but in the meantime I am thrilled to be part of an educational experience that puts my face up on their screen.”

Esther Feldman, director of Information and Technology Services at The Lookstein Center, Bar-Ilan University, is responsible for the development of educational technology projects at the Center and together with Shalom Berger, EdD, leads the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship. She can be reached at esther@lookstein.org.

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iSchool

Schools need strategic leadership to select from the onslaught of new technological offerings and to keep the rudder always pointed toward effective education. This issue provides both perspectives that can inform leadership strategy and information about some of the directions and initiatives employing current technology to strengthen education.

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