In a few weeks, G-d willing, I hope to be teaching my first online course through MOFET International. The topic of the course is Using Web 2.0 Tools to Transform Teaching and Learning and you can register by using the following LINK. It is hard to believe that in my 15 years of teaching and 10+ years integrating technology into my classes that I have never before given an online course before. I have taught many blended learning courses using The Frisch School Wiki together with face-to-face instruction. I also currently help facilitate a number of Frisch students who are taking their own online foreign language courses using the K12 platform thanks to a generous grant by the Jewish Education Project and the Avi Chai Foundation to support Digital Learning. However, this is my first foray into the world of asynchronous online learning courses.
The big question that I am struggling with is how do I achieve the sense of belonging and connectedness, the sense of "being" in the course, in an online learning environment. This is easy when everyone meets together in a classroom and I have the chance to also share long conversations with my students outside of class but how does one do this without the common physical learning space and ability to talk directly with each other?
I know that such a connection is possible for I have experienced it myself as a student. I remember the first online course that I ever took. It was a technology certificate course on the topic "New Technologies for Jewish Learning" given some ten years ago through a now defunct Jewish professional development organization called JSkyway. I remember the course well not necessarily for the information that I learned but for the close connection that I developed with my instructor, Dr. Shmuli Spero OBM, a pioneer in the area of technology integration in Jewish education. Dr. Spero sent us ecards to welcome us to the course and constant reminders to keep us focused and on task. His personality was infectious and clearly came across even in this virtual world.
This course opened up a connection to Shmuli that I was able to continue in the years that followed. Dr. Spero became a personal mentor as I took a more active leadership role in educational technology. When I went to Cleveland to conduct my first professional development seminar in the Fuchs Mizrachi School on the topic of Gemara Berura, I finally got to meet Shmuli in person. He sat in on all my sessions and stayed up with me until late at night to give me valuable feedback and constructive critiques between my first and second days of training sessions.
A few years later, I took a hybrid or blended learning course with Shmuli in the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education. The online course was actually on the topic of creating online courses using YU's Angel Course Management System. Shmuli still lived in Cleveland so most of the course was conducted online as he led us through the steps of creating our own online courses. However, Shmuli did come into New York a few times during the semester to teach us in person.
The most notable line from Shmuli in this course that I still use today is how he described the value of the online course management system. "What do you give to the person who has everything?" Shmuli bellowed. "You give him a box to put it in. The Angel Course Management System is that box." I still use a variation of this line to describe the value of the shared online collaborative learning environment that we have helped to build on The Frisch School Wiki. It is the "box" to put all of our learning topics from various subjects in, thus breaking down the walls of the classroom by creating this common learning space.
Years passed and gradually I lost touch with my mentor Dr. Shmuli Spero. Then two years ago, sadly and ironically, I learned of his untimely death to cancer through a video on the front page of the online edition of the New York Times. The video entitled A Patient, a Pioneer was about new experimental cancer treatments. From the first moment that I heard Shmuli's voice in the video, I knew it was him. The video ended on sad note, saying that Shmuli's cancer had recurred. After watching, I Googled Shmuli and I learned online that my mentor, who taught me my first online course, had passed away.
I know that I have digressed in this blog posting. But contemplating teaching my first online course in technology integration, I cannot help but think fondly of my teacher and mentor who opened me up to the world of online learning. Dr. Spero was the rare person who was able to show his great affect and personal connection even through the impersonal medium of online distance learning. I only hope that through his shining example I can be successful as well. May Shmuli Spero's name be remembered for a blessing.