Saturday, January 7, 2012

Jewish Virtual Learning Networks

Following my calling for a paradigm shift toward “a widespread understanding in the Jewish community of network-weaving, the problem it is seeking to solve and its effectiveness,” I was excited to hear about the recent report from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education: “Jewish Virtual Learning Networks: A Mapping of Online ‘Communities of Practice’ in the North American Jewish Institutional World” (by Professor Erik H. Cohen and Dr. Einat Bar-On Cohen, October 2011).

This report represents an important first endeavor to understand the role of the Jewish Virtual Learning Network (JVLN), “defined as a group of people who interact regularly via the internet in order to share knowledge and learn about a common area of interest” (p. 13), researched through literature analysis, interviews with involved Jewish professionals, and questionnaires which were sent to participants. In addition to reporting on the JVLNs’ basic parameters – such as their duration, composition of membership, sense of hierarchy, sponsorship, and facilitation – the report applies a smallest space analysis to learn about their advantages and challenges.

To me, the most interesting result was the perceived importance of the facilitator (read: network-weaver) in the JVLN’s functioning and well-being – 86% of those surveyed agreed “to a great extent” that JVLNs “do not work well without skilled moderators” (p. 27). The Jim Joseph Foundation clearly recognizes the importance of facilitators with its Jim Joseph Fellows initiative, which trains and supports leaders to start new communities of practice – and from my own experience as facilitator, of course I agree with this crucial work quite fervently. I would even argue that the need for the moderator in and of itself is not a challenge to a JVLN but rather an inherent feature. The challenge actually is in the fact that skilled moderators need funding and training that the JVLN may or may not have access to, which the report does correctly recognize.

That’s why I disagree with the reported finding of a differentiation between “professionals” and “volunteers,” where “professionals” are “those involved in the group as part of their professional life (whether or not they are paid for the time they spend with the JVLN)” and “volunteers” are “participants who are not involved in the group directly as part of their profession, but as members of the Jewish community with some interest in the group’s function” (p. 20). The reason for this finding could lie in the survey question itself, which in my opinion could be easily misinterpreted. It asked, “Does your JVN include volunteer leadership?” with the options “No,” “Yes, community level leaders (federation, national),” “Yes, organizational level leaders (e.g. synagogue, school),” and “Yes, an interest group (such as environment, hunger). Please specify” with no option to insert an “Other” (Appendix B, p. 55) and returned just under half of JVLNs having “volunteer leaders” (p. 20).

Participants may not fall into any of these “volunteer” categories and may even in their own right be professionals whose work is in the field being discussed. These participants surely also may derive professional value from their participation. Nevertheless, I believe all – except the facilitator – are volunteers. Facilitators merit the title of "professional" not only by skillfully directing JVLNs, but also by virtue of holding the ultimate accountability for the success or failure of the groups. As a result, they deserve to be paid for their professional performance. I do, however, acknowledge that JVLNs blur the line between “professionals” and “volunteers” in other ways – perhaps related to survey’s finding that 72% of respondents reported that “JVLNs promote less hierarchical relations to a great extent” (p. 25) – and this indeed would be a fascinating place where additional research could be enlightening.

In fact, another important implication of the study is that it shows how much further research is possible and needed – to better understand JVLNs and to document how they are changing how participants can interact, learn, and grow together. In particular, I would advocate for further research in 4 crucial areas:

  1. Who is participating in JVLNs? Who do they benefit most? This would help the Jewish community pinpoint future participants and how the idea can be scaled with the greatest efficacy. 
  2. What do you do in a JVLN? What sorts of activities are most successful? Particularly looking at the resources in Digital Habitats (Wenger, White and Smith) would be helpful in this endeavor.
  3. What are some attributes of and best practices in facilitating a JVLN? As stated above, the role of the facilitator is essential. Learning from facilitators would help in understanding this crucial role as well as provide a valuable lens through which to view the JVLN experience. Detailed information about the facilitator's role would enrich an understanding of JVLNs in the bigger picture. 
  4. How do JVLNs concretely impact and benefit their participants? This would entail looking at the key added value of networks – gaining knowledge, skills, other resources, and connections – and the extent to which they apply in a JVLN context.

These extremely exciting avenues for further discovery would help us unlock the potential of JVLNs for the Jewish community and to propagate their practice throughout the Jewish world. The field of JVLNs is just emerging, as noted by this report – which helps set us on our way.

Thank you to Naava Frank from YU School Partnership for calling this report to my attention.

No comments:

Post a Comment