Can Online Portals Transform Hebrew Schools?

Can Online Portals Transform Hebrew Schools?

Content providers like Behrman House are looking to take learning beyond the classroom in race to the digital top.

Imagine your child’s Hebrew school homework isn’t on some worksheet crumpled at the bottom of her backpack, forgotten until time to leave the house on Sunday morning.

Instead she’s been logging onto a password-protected website throughout the week, where she’s watched and commented on a video, played some Hebrew decoding games (her performance is automatically reported to the teacher) and discussed the Torah portion with her teacher and classmates. Her assignments, textbooks and other materials — along with contact info and a profile photo for all class members — all appear in one place, accessible 24/7.

What only a few years ago might have sounded like some utopian vision for reworking the much-maligned Hebrew school (also known as congregational, or complementary, school) is today not only possible, but may soon be the new normal.

In January, Behrman House, the leading publisher of textbooks for the Hebrew school market, will roll out its Online Learning Center, a platform enabling all of the above activities and offering digital access to its library of lesson plans, games, articles and textbooks (albeit for a yet-to-be determined price). Meanwhile MicroSteps, an Israeli company that enables nursery school teachers to share information, videos, photos and other materials online with parents, has begun offering similar portals for Hebrew schools.

Proponents of web portals say these “digital classrooms” can dramatically improve Hebrew school, by extending learning time beyond the often-minimal classroom hours, fostering more parental involvement and encouraging more communication throughout the week.

For David Behrman, president and publisher of Behrman House, it’s a question of closing what he calls the “digital gap,” whereby American Jews, up to date in their secular lives, “check our technology — our innovation — at the door when it comes to educating our children in our religion and heritage.”

In a post that appeared this summer on eJewishPhilanthropy, Behrman wrote that, in failing to make use of tech tools, Hebrew schools not only deprive themselves of “powerful ways to engage children” but “send a message: that the latest technologies — the ones our kids find so compelling — aren’t right for the Jewish world. Either they’re irrelevant … or the enterprise of Judaism isn’t important enough for us to use them.”

But are North America’s Hebrew-school teachers — a high-turnover, overwhelmingly part-time workforce, almost half of its members over age 50 — ready to embrace the new high-tech resources? And is Behrman House, a relatively small company, up for the task?

Adena Raub, information manager of the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education (PELIE), which focuses on complementary schools, thinks Jewish educators, particularly in complementary schools, still need help “to make an attitudinal shift about the potential that technology brings to education.”

Toward that end, PELIE is organizing a series of one-day regional “Kadima” (Hebrew for “forward”) conferences to promote technology and provide hands-on training.

Will PELIE encourage teachers at the conference to use the new Behrman House portal?

Raub says she offers “tremendous kudos to Behrman House for being forward-thinking in the learning-management space and going beyond the book,” but her group hasn’t yet decided “if we’ll be featuring specific products” at the conferences.

In development for more than a year, the Online Learning Center is a way to “take what we offer to the next step,” says Vicki Weber, Behrman House’s head of sales, marketing and customer support.

In recent years, the publisher has offered CDs and online bonus materials with many of its books, including interactive Hebrew games and drills. As it became clear that CDs were “a transitional technology,” she says, the company began looking to put more tools and content directly on the Internet.

Why bother with Behrman’s Online Learning Center rather than take advantage of the various free portals for secular education, such as Moodle or Blackboard? Or, why not use rival MicroSteps?

The Online Learning Center differs from all these other options, Weber says, because it “is the only place with access to content and access to an environment you can use in any way you want to.

“Our vision was to create something that had direct access to Jewish content and put it in an environment that is templated — preformatted — so teachers don’t have to spend a lot of time setting it up,” Weber continues. “We recognize that Jewish educators want to be Jewish educators. Most don’t also want to be tech gurus and go out and figure out how to make some of the secular systems work in this environment.”

Through the Online Learning Center, teachers will ultimately have access to all the Behrman House textbooks and related materials the school has purchased (not all are digitized yet), as well as a library of lesson plans, games, videos and other resources — some free, some for a fee.

While much of the library’s material is available elsewhere online, this way “you don’t have to be charging around the Internet looking for things and then determining whether they’re appropriate,” Weber explains. “This is curated content.”

That said, teachers aren’t limited to using Behrman House materials. “You can upload things from any place,” Weber says.

Such materials can be embedded directly onto the class website, so kids don’t get distracted by other things that pop up on YouTube.

The portal will also have a feature allowing teachers to create simple computer games that reinforce specific content the class is studying. For example, a teacher might make a version of Memory with words from a holiday or prayer, or characters from a Bible story.

Whether the Behrman portal, still in the testing stages, takes off — or whether congregational schools ultimately choose other online tools (or opt out of tech resources altogether) — remains to be seen.

Some people in the field say they are unsure whether a relatively small company like Behrman House will be able to offer something that is sophisticated, adaptable and reliable enough.

This summer, leaders of the Jewish Journey Project, an effort bringing together a variety of New York synagogues and Jewish institutions to develop an alternative Hebrew school model, considered using the Online Learning Center for its program, scheduled to launch in September 2012. However, the planning group decided instead to hire someone to custom design a website/portal tailored more to its specific needs.

One synagogue education director in Manhattan who asked not to be identified praises Behrman House for its commitment to innovation, but says, “One of my biggest concerns is, are they really equipped to handle this?”

The director, whose school already uses Behrman House software, says that the company is “beset by technical problems a lot,” with its server “down for a good chunk of the start of this school year,” and CDs that “don’t always work.”

Nonetheless, once technical glitches are worked out, parents have “100 percent satisfaction” with the software and rave about how it makes their children want to do Hebrew homework, the director notes.

In some ways, with portals already in numerous local nursery schools (thanks in part to a relationship established with the Early Childhood and Young Families Department of New York’s Jewish Education Project), a Hebrew school version being used in 27 New York and New Jersey schools, and soon-to-be-launched Android and iPhone-compatible apps, MicroSteps is a few steps ahead of Behrman House. While it lacks Behrman’s vast library of books and educational materials, as well as its name recognition in the Hebrew school world, MicroSteps has the advantage of being a larger company, one that also works in many non-Jewish schools. And unlike the Online Learning Center, its portals can actually help bring in money. In addition to selling photos on the portal, schools can set up a “bookstore” directing users to discounted items at; a percentage of each sale goes to the school, and another percentage goes to MicroSteps.

Asked about the Online Learning Center and MicroSteps, Cyd Weissman, director of innovation in congregational education at the Jewish Education Project, notes that MicroSteps is in “early talks” with her about the Hebrew school version, but, “I don’t feel like I know either product well enough yet” to comment on their relative merits.

However, she emphasized, while Internet tools are essential “to help people connect to one another and to resources,” schools need to also remember that what children “really need is that face-to-face contact and the caring, and the real-life doing, not just living in a virtual world.”

E-mail: Next in the series: High-tech, low-cost Jewish day schools.

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