If you were to ask which of our teachers would say they are in the forefront of technological innovation, it wouldn’t likely be Rabbi/Dr. Aronson. I don’t think he’d describe himself as a “techie.” Yet, Rabbi Aronson, a beloved Jewish history teacher and head of the Jewish history department at TCW, is proactively pioneering an important experiment that will help address a potential enrollment challenge.
If course enrollment is too low to justify the expense of hiring a teacher, what options enable us to continue to offer the breadth of courses that TanenbaumCHAT is known for? This was the challenge that we faced this winter. Four grade 12 students at TCK wanted to take JEH 4HJ, a Jewish history research course. Enrollment wasn’t sufficient to run the course at TCK. However, at TCW, 14 students expressed interest in the same course.
The solution: connect the two campuses electronically to create a robust class of 18. Doing so not only enables us to offer a broad array of courses, but, in the future, e-learning also may attract students who are motivated to learn in a new and revolutionary way. As one parent said, “this is the future of education.” In fact, research is now showing that personalized, collaborative and connected learning experiences enhance student engagement, which in turn drives student success.
Rabbi Aronson agreed to be the one to pilot a new method of teaching. For the first few weeks of the course in February when students select and refine their research topics, most of the work is individualized; the teacher offers direction and advice. However, from March onward, students on both campuses meet three times a week, as any “regular” class would, but instead they do so using the Webex interface. Webex is a video conferencing platform that offers screen sharing, archiving, and the ability to meet from the device of your choice. During the course of the semester, students present a one-hour cross-campus seminar to the class, write an essay on the subject, keep a journal, and submit a final summative assignment.
In one of the first sessions of this semester-long course, Rabbi Aronson led a discussion about the Syrian refugees. The entire class (those sitting at TCK and those sitting at TCW) watched and discussed a video about the work of ISRAID–Israelis assisting refugees coming off the boats in Greece.
Two factors are necessary: 1) the teacher must be willing to re-design his/her lessons to teach simultaneously remotely and locally; and 2) we need excellent tech support and reliable connectivity. This course has been a success because we have both. The beauty of having Rabbi Aronson as the volunteer pioneer is that he also understands that relationship-building is vital. Rabbi Aronson met with the Kimel students on TCW Winter Activity day and has encouraged students to meet with him one-on-one to infuse the course with a more personal touch.
Rabbi Aronson offers a word of caution. JEH 4HJ is a unique course that attracts a certain type of student because it is so student-driven. Our next step, scheduled also for this year, is to pilot the same technology in more typical lecture- or discussion-based classes with a less selective group of students.
Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin once said, “Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late.” At TanenbaumCHAT, we choose to be early.