Professional Learning at Your Fingertips

Originally published in URJ: Technology at the Center. Spring 2009

The Internet and digital media are changing the landscape of professional learning. New technologies are making available different opportunities for learning, reflection and collaboration. The Darim Online Learning Network for Educators is a professional development and knowledge sharing program funded by the Covenant Foundation to help educators learn about, experiment with and share their knowledge about using various social media as tools in their curriculum. The Learning Network is built on a community of practice (CoP) model, a process of social learning where participants interact to help achieve their common goals. The multifaceted nature of the program is a useful model for illustrating some key variables that make online professional development attractive for Jewish teachers.

The Darim Online Learning Network has been experimenting with both synchronous learning (participants interact together in real time; for example, at conference calls, webinars) and asynchronous learning (participants engage at different times, according to their availability; for example, through online discussion lists, archived webinars). As an example, we use webinars (think “audio-visual conference call”) to gather a group in real time and present material, such as a PowerPoint presentation, or walk through a case study by sharing one’s desktop. These live events also serve to create a sense of community and shared experience as participants ask questions, exchange stories about their work and support each other. We also archive the webinars so that those unable to join (or those who want to review the material) can replay the event. In addition, we use email and social networks to keep the conversation going between webinar events. New topics often emerge from these discussions, which we integrate back into future webinars.

Our teachers, especially those in complementary settings (who often have full-time jobs in addition to this position), are generally over-extended, with very limited schedules and little discretionary time to invest in ongoing professional learning. We have found that it is essential to provide asynchronous learning opportunities for congregational teachers, as these activities tend to be a better fit for their busy lives. By removing the logistical barriers of having to be in a particular location at a particular time, online learning can increase the total available opportunities for and, thus, the total consumption of professional development.

Social media facilitate the building and strengthening of relationships, which can lead to immediate and long-term transmission of knowledge, experience and support. In many cases, Jewish teachers are relatively isolated in their particular domain (only one third grade teacher in a particular congregation, for example). Teachers develop personal learning networks and share ideas through online discussion groups, blogs, virtual communities, virtual worlds, social networks and special interest networks. Members of the Darim Online Learning Network for Educators have access to a private social network developed on the Ning platform. In this password-protected network, each teacher creates a profile, with space for blogging and sharing photographs, videos and documents. Members can create and join groups defined by particular shared interests (for example, digital storytelling or b’nei mitzvah preparation). The platform helps those with similar interests to efficiently find each other and share knowledge, ask questions and support each other.

Another way of professional learning and sharing is through the creation, dissemination of and access to content. Podcasts, wikis, social bookmarks, presentation sharing platforms such as Slideshare or Google Presentations, online video platforms such as YouTube and TeacherTube, and videoconferencing tools such as ustream.tv are all mechanisms for creating and sharing resources.

Beyond the technologies themselves, the online models for learning are increasingly social and attuned to the real human needs of the learners. Furthermore, many of these tools are free or very low cost, making professional learning opportunities more accessible than ever. If you have not had the opportunity to engage in online learning, come try it out. No technical proficiency is required, simply a computer, an Internet connection and a thirsty mind.Want to get started? Find out what your professional development organizations offer. Learn about social media tools through short videos by Common Craft (www.commoncraft.com/show), read Liz B. Davis’ blog about developing personal learning networks online (edtechpower.blogspot.com/search/label/ PLN), browse through jlearn2.0’s bookmarks on delicious (delicious.com/jlearn2.0), and check out our blog, JewPoint0 (jewpoint0.org).

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