Friday, January 31, 2014

eTeaching and eLearning

Ten months ago I started a course of homeopathy to see how it might treat my meninginoma -- a non-cancerous growth that impairs my vision. It's not dangerous but it has become annoying and since conventional medicine doesn't have anything to offer, I decided to try something alternative. So far homeopathy hasn't helped so I halted the treatments and yesterday, I enjoyed my first cup of coffee that I'd had since last March. So yes, the coffee buzz has been amazing. But my body isn't used to the caffeine and I was up for a good part of last night -- now I know how people who use speed must feel. Anyway, after finishing my Shabbat cooking I found myself looking for more information about online education which I've been involved with as a teacher for the Jerusalem EdTech Solutions program. I'm slowly learning how to navigate the online tools that you use for elearning but I was curious about the history of distance learning. Online learning began to gain popularity in the late '90s when Distance Learning Colleges started to offer opportunities for students to learn via the Internet. Traditional universities and colleges scoffed but within several years a number of degree programs were recognized by the United States Department of Education. By 2006 high schools started to include elearning in their curriculum. Today, not only does elearning span grades 1-12 but many schools invite sick kids to join their peers via video-conferencing tools while they're home and some classes are "flipping" -- students learn the material at home, online, and then come to school to complete the "homework" assignments in the classroom where the teacher is available to help. In addition, you can see entire school districts investing in ipads and other tablets so that the students can learn asynchronously at their own pace and in their own learning style. One interesting study was commissioned by the United States Department of Education. The Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices of Online Learning presents irrefutable data which shows that online learning is more effective than traditional face-to-face instruction. The study, published in 2007, didn't take into account today's multi-media and Web-based applications which have significantly improved the learning environment and scholastic results of students who learn either partially or fully online. School systems have been slow to embrace new online technology but nationwide, educaitional institutions are setting out to meet the new challenges of distance learning. College and even high-school students often complete some of their coursework online with increasing numbers of high schools "flipping" their classes altogether. As an online educator I've been following the progress of online education closely. Observing the middle school children that I teach shows me the possibilities that elearning engenders to allow students to work independently, explore the material via a variety of online tools and apps, complete assignments at a comfortable pace and collaborate with peers on assignments. All this creates a supportive, dynamic environment in which a student can get much more out of his or her coursework. The change in society's view of online education can be viewed in a number of ways. Ten years ago, the majority of the public discussion about elearning focused on the benefits versus the drawbacks of distance learning. Today, although there are still some commentators who focus on the problems that online learning may cause (reduced ability to interact face-to-face in a classroom setting, undue reliance on technology, lack of familiarity with traditional book learning, etc) the discussions in the education community have now shifted from whether to include online learning in the classroom to how to best facilitate elearning. Many schools offer online courses but have done little to change their basic model of education. It's clear thought that the times are changing...and quickly. School districts that wish to raise scores, lower costs and prepare their students to compete in the modern economy are adding more distance learning opportunities to their schedules. Teacher-training programs now include mandatory elearning components in their training programs. Teacher awards, including the Lowell Milken Educators Awards, the Elgin Heinz Outstanding Teacher Award, the Pearson Teaching Awards and the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards now examine a teacher's elearning strategies when they determine their prize recipients. Online learning is a natural fit for homeschooling families. Recent studies estimate that the homeschooling population is increasing at the rate of approximately 7-15% every year. Lesson plans and online materials help homeschooling parents and support groups identify and implement both core curriculum studies and extra-curricular activities. I believe that my own online classes are dynamic and highly interactive. The students report that they enjoy the classes and are learning a great deal. At the same time however, my own daughter, who attends a "traditional" school, is in an environment which doesn't see the value of online learning. Sometimes I feel like screaming in frustration as she reports that her school day was "boring, boring, boring." Distance learning may not be introduced in her school in time to provide her with a more engaging school experience but I believe that it will, hopefully, be there for the next generation.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

If You Need Someone to Do Something, Ask Someone Who's Already Busy

My boss used to say, if you need someone to do something, ask someone who's busy. I never doubted the wisdom of that statement, but lately I've begun to realize how truly accurate those words really are.

Last week my neighbor passed away. Tikva was a doer. She was brash and loud and could be a complete nudnik, but when someone needed help she did everything that she could to get herself moving or, at the very least, to shake up the neighborhood so that they'd get moving. There were hundreds of people at Tikva's funeral....people from every strata of Tzfat society from the ultra-Haredim to non-religious people. She got along with everyone equally well. Obviously she couldn't help everyone -- everyone has to zero in on the things that they can do and the things that they can't. But Tikva did more than most for more people than most.

When Tikva got sick the whole community suddenly realized how much she was valued. People said tehillim, went to the kvrarim of tzdikkim, took on extra mitzvot.....the whole shebang. And when she passed away, from the speeches at her funeral and the subsequent posts on social media it was clear that everyone realized that a special person had passed away - and that she was special because of the chessed that she did.

In Tikva's memory, I assumed that some of the pontificating about her soul ascending to the heights of Heavenly reward etc. etc. etc. and how we could perpetuate her memory with good deeds etc. etc.etc. would translate into a bit of action. 

So I reminded everyone about a gentleman who's just come back to Tzfat, paralyzed from the waist down after a horrible accident. He just needs visitors. Half an hour here and there. That's all.

Then, after I went to visit this guy today, I reposted to remind the community of the situation. The guy just needs visitors. And to no one's great surprise, the only person to respond was someone who's super-busy himself, yet he could make the time to go and see this guy. A family that lives nearby (who are also crazy-busy) told me that they'd be in touch as well. I got a few "likes" on my post but no one else committed to a visit. 

Do I sound a bit cynical about all of the lofty speeches and posts that were made about Tikva's passing? What BS. All I ask is, if I ever need help, please keep the "spiritual" souls away and bring me a few non-spiritual types who will actually DO something.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Voice Hits Tzfat

Last night the local Khan of the White Donkey (a story in itself) hosted tryouts for the Israeli Voice. Since I live down the block from the site and since I knew a couple of people who were trying out I went to sit in the audience.

The tryouts themselves were have to respect anyone, talented or not, who's prepared to stand up on a stage in front of 60+ people and sing. But some of our locals turned out to be really good.

I couldn't help but wonder, however, what the auditioner thought of our Tzfat group. There were a number of English-speakers among the people trying out including thick American accents and a few who could barely speak Hebrew at all. (I have one of the thickest accents imaginable so I'm not criticizing, just noting the fact).

And, alongside the locals -- teens and older people -- were some unique Tzfat characters.....the father-and-son duo who sang Chabad-messiah songs, the religious guys who sang religious songs and a few with Breslev white kippas -- no matter what they sang, you found yourself focused on the beanie-with-the-tassle.

Again, there was some incredible talent there, among all of the different types, but I did wonder how the Tel Aviv-auditioner took it all in.

I guess she just figured that she was having a Tzfat experience.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Don't Take Away Whatever Protection the Children of Single Mothers Have!

It takes a lot to get me to respond to something that I see online -- mostly because, although I have a lot to say, I figure that no one is going to be terribly interested anyway.

But this morning I happened on a Times in Israel piece about the terrible way that divorced fathers are persecuted by The System in Israel and my antennae started to vibrate.

The writer was complaining that fathers are hounded to pay mezonot (child allowance) with no regard to what their income is or their ability to pay. The article went on to say that fathers have less access to their children and that access can be cut off by a vengeful mother who reports that the father was abusive, necessitating  supervised visiting hours.

I addressed some of the specific inaccuracies of the article in my comment. But what frustrates me is the overall situation of single mothers. There are, of course, always some fathers who want to be as involved in their children's lives as possible but to be honest, out of a dozen, I can think of one such dad. Even loving fathers feel that, after the divorce, it's time for them to "move on" and "be happy" and "fulfill themselves."

Which is great. But how many mothers do you see who run out to fulfill themselves after a divorce, leaving the kids to fend for themselves? I don't think that I live in a bubble but of all the single mothers that I know, every single one of them has sacrificed big chunks of her life and her identity to ensure that her kids have the best possible lives.

I can't think of a single case of a divorced father who said "you know, the cost of living has gone up quite a bit since the child payments were set -- I'll start paying more." Or one who has offered to help pay for the child's needs beyond the minimum -- medical/dental costs, clothes (ever tried to raise a teenaged daughter? Boy, do they need a lot of clothes!), special classes and/or tutoring, maintenance during and after their army/national service when they need some time to start their lives, etc.

As I'm writing this I'm thinking about trips and projects that these fathers allow themselves (I'm talking about people that I know personally) which the mothers, who have the kids at home and are spending their money covering the financial costs that the fathers object "isn't in the agreement" can only dream about.

Again, there are always exceptions to the rule, but the rule that I'm talking about covers 95% of the divorced parents that I know. Perhaps it's in a woman's nature to be a caretaker -- if so, so be it...that's who we are. But don't take away any kind of protection that our kids have just to be politically correct.