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Technology and Blended Learning In Schools: What Parents Need To Know

By Tova Ovits · January 28, 2014

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Is technology in the classroom a good thing or just the cool, new thing? That depends on how it’s used!

Gary Hartstein, Director of the DigitalJLearning Network  (DJLN), says that the technology used in schools should support the schools’ educational goals. Schools shouldn’t create goals based on new technology that’s suddenly available. When purchasing new technology, schools need to keep in mindthat “learning drives technology.”

I recently heard Mr. Hartstein speak about blended learning in Jewish schools at a Parent Leadership meeting I attended at The Jewish Education Projectin New York City. At DJLN, a program of The Jewish Education Project, Mr. Hartstein connects the members of Network schools to each other and to external resources to support their online and blended learning. Shulamith School for Girls of Brooklyn and Luria Academy are two schools in Brooklyn, NY that are part of the Network and had parent representatives at the meeting.

Mr. Hartstein explained that the educational technology spectrum ranges from technology use through technology integration. A computer lab allows for technology use, but tweeting in class integrates technology into the classroom if the teacher uses the tweets to “take the temperature” of the class and confirm that the students understand the material. The same tools can also be used in different ways, falling in different places on this spectrum. For instance, a Smart Board can be technology use or integration: do the students passively watch PowerPoint presentations, or are the presentations interactive?

“Online learning” is an umbrella term that covers fully online learning and blended learning, a mix of online and in-person instruction. Online learning is most often used in middle school and high school, and allows for asynchronous learning that can be done anytime, anywhere, and is always accessible, with campus support and faculty monitoring. Blended learning has significant content online and significant content face-to-face. It maximizes teacher time in the classroom, as students work independently and the teacher rotates 1:1 time.

Both offer options for differentiation among students, working with their differing aptitudes and levels of understanding. The models allow students to watch videos at their own pace, answer questions, and have the teacher reinforce the lesson the next class. The goal is to help children learn not just the facts, but also the learning skills they need for life.

We learned about two models of blended learning: rotational models and flex labs. Rotational models have centers that generate data for the teacher as the students rotate through class and computer time to individualize learning. Flex labs pull students out of class in small groups to individualize learning.

One concern that came up among group members regarding technology in education was their children’s safety online and learning the difference between valid and invalid sources online.

At home, parents can set rules about technology use and teach their children about identifying good resources online. If the children have an online assignment, parents can set up the steps to look up the information. The children drive the learning, and the parents can step in to help. It’s also important for parents to talk to children about information literacy: How do you know which link to click on in a Google search? How do you know if a link leads to a reliable source? Does the Wikipedia article have a source you can trust?

Additionally, many students only want to use only online resources. In response to this, teachers can supplement material in class, or even require that students use books or other offline resources in their research.

“Changing how we do things doesn’t mean changing the respect toward the material,” said Mr. Hartstein.

I’ve personally experienced the benefits of blended learning as a parent, watching the way my child learns in his school. My 6thgrader’s rebbi at Yeshiva Derech Hatorah in Brooklyn, NY, posts Smart Board information on Edmodo so the students can access it while doing their homework or studying for a test. The boys chat with each other and can ask the rebbi questions from home using the Edmodo website or app.

The common educational model today is based on the Industrial Revolution – geared to produce good citizens who can get stable jobs. However, teaching in 2014 needs to be different, as our children’s future jobs might not exist today! We now need to communicate with different modalities; on-demand learning is important. It’s intrinsically motivational to students to learn things that are exciting to them, and blended learning helps keep things exciting.

Some benefits of blended learning:

  1. Learn how to learn. Students don’t just memorize, regurgitate, and forget. Today’s students need to know where to look up information and apply it more than how to memorize.
  2. Blended learning brings in information they might not have access to otherwise.
  3. Multiple learning styles are addressed.
  4. Differentiate instruction for each student’s needs.
  5. Access from school or home.
  6. Teachers have more 1:1 time with students and can use the data to help meet each student’s needs.

Communication between school and home about educational technology is crucial. Parents can (politely) ask:

  • Is the technology for use or integration? If the computer cart is being brought to class, it’s more likely to be integrated than if the students are brought to the computer lab.
  • How does this technology support the school’s academic goals?
  • What are the measures of success?
  • How will the students interact with and be assessed by the new work process?
  • Is there any home support liaison to help? Can parents access the child’s work progress through this technology?
  • What is the school’s online safety policy? Are the networks filtered and are children taught about safe sites?
  • Are students being taught digital literacy? Information literacy isn’t just for libraries anymore. Children must be good online citizens and understand trusted resources. What do parents need to know about what their children are learning?
  • How can parents and schools work together so the students are getting the best?

Through Mr. Hartstein’s session, I learned that parents and teachers can work together to navigate the wonders and pitfalls of technology in education. When they do, the benefits of online and blended learning become clear. It’s time we stop clinging to an educational model built for a different time and start embracing educational models built for our present time. 

Tova Ovits is a freelance editor and a mother of three children . Tova has worked at Modern Bride, Healthy Kids, and Jewish Action magazines. She is the Social Media Manager at Shulamith School for Girls of Brooklyn and is very involved in her childrens' schools. She is also a Certified Lactation Counselor and a leader at the La Leche League.

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