Preliminary Report on Online Jewish Education
Introduction to Online Education

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The Brief

Intro to Online Jewish Education

Survey of Current Jewish Online Education programs

Conclusions and Recommendations

This report is now public. We'd love it if you would add/view comments/questions, so as to use this as the beginning of a dialogue on online Jewish education.

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Links to Online Resources

"Online Education" is a term usually used to refer to education mediated by use of a modem, or by the Internet. Early forms of online education, for instance, included a BBS called "GesherNet" in which Jewish students from around the world would periodically log on to a computer bulletin board (BBS) and exchange messages.

Today, online education can include interactive multimedia-type lessons (such as the new "Maimonides Ethics of Giving" page, from JTS) or complete online training courses, modeled upon the computer-based training that started on floppy disks, migrated to CD-ROM, and is now often offered over the Internet (DigitalThink and Peregrine's "Biology Place", among many, many others).

Online education is also considered one aspect of "Distance Learning," that massive box of teaching tools ranging from simulcast of classroom lectures (seen to be the next big thing in the '60s), classroom-in-a-vcr, "matchbook" universities, and the many ways of delivering education online that are the scope of this report.

In trying to understand online education, it is sometimes useful to consider the terms "synchronous"--something that happens to everyone simultaneously--a phone conversation, or an online conversation, a traditional classroom, or participation in a Virtual Educational Environment (VEE--a sort of "dungeons and dragons" derived online environment), and the term "asynchronous," classes designed to be encountered by the teacher and students, each at the time convenient to him or herself. Most, but not all, aspects of online education as currently practiced use "asynchronous" tools.

In thinking about online education, we also have to acknowledge that, even in traditional classes, online aspects are increasingly common. It is now normative for college professors to ensure that their syllabi and some resources are available online, along with class schedules and (minimally) an e-mail drop to contact that professor. In extreme cases, such as a series of courses by Ed Kardas, the students complete web pages in order to submit their coursework. His take on teaching using the web is also available.


Distance Education and Online Education

Although Distance Education and Online education have been around for several decades, there is an intriguing dearth of good studies and good material describing the medium. England's JANET has used Distance Education to reach hundreds of thousands of students. Most recently, an online education initiative by the Western Governors devolved to a program to track hundreds of differing initiatives. To some degree, this reflects the fact that this is still very far from cookbook work, that the success of any given medium seem to be primarily due not to the medium, but to individual instructors (lack of reproduce-ability of many results), and that this is very much related to the fact that the tools are incomplete, access is incomplete, and goals for online education conflict. Lisa Neal, in her tutorial (ACM-CHI, 1998) on Distance Learning, notes that teaching via video simulcast has no proven efficacy, yet it has remained popular as a place to sink money since the 1960s. She acknowledges that decisions as to the equipment and design of such programs are often made on bases other than realistic course design.

In considering methods of teaching online, one is looking first, and foremost, for tools which the students already understand. This is one reason why corporate training courses have often made good use of technology using small classes and two-way video, especially when the main equipment (cameras broadcasting students and teaching to each other) is supplemented by other means of communication, such as Internet Relay Chat via personal computer, that support multiple communication paths--the formal class setting, plus the means to electronically exchange notes, skip out to the hall for a private conversation, pass a note to the teacher, etc.

Unfortunately, such an infrastructure is expensive. (Two way videocasting, plus very high charges for the actual connections between two or more sites during the class.) And while it can be very effective as an extension of the traditional class, such distance learning is better viewed against the cost-effectiveness of massive amounts of travel, and removing the students from their work environment for a week or so.

In a teaching environment that encompasses Distance Education, one is usually looking for a way to pull in students who could not otherwise attend class (physical disability, lack of physical proximity to the school, lack of transportation to the school). Here, the costs have to be measured, not in terms of saving transportation and housing costs, but in terms of making classes accessible and affordable relative to the usual cost of taking a college or high school class in person.

One also quickly discovers that there are "community" aspects to online teaching, and that these community aspects are often analogous to the dissection of what makes a good community, most notably done by Jane Jacobs in her pioneering book on urban ecology, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." Among the issues that Ms. Jacobs raises are the need for diversity and multiple uses of the common space, the need for short blocks (easy ways to traverse the neighborhood using different methods and different routes; easy to explore the neighborhood without getting trapped). I'll be raising some of these criteria as I discuss those aspects of online learning that parallel community.


What is Online Education?

In preparing for this report, I first wrote a quick survey of the field and ran it by peers on the WELL:

  1. How does online education relate to distance education? I would maintain that the relation is "distant," as most distance education is focused on providing some facsimile of a realtime event, just elsewhere, via tape or simulcast. There are some interesting variants on "real time distant education" in which you bring several rooms together using videoconferencing tools, and, in the best setups, supplement those public discussion points with perhaps a whiteboard (still public, but an important way to convey drawn or written material) and with "private" online chat or e-mail. In this latter example, you are trying to provide ways to support not just the straight-forward lecture, but also the "in the halls" experience that is very important to mediating that information.

  2. E-mail-based distance learning. I'm sorry, but to me, such classes combine the worst of (1) and (3). Teaching via e-mail is a lot like lecturing while the TV is on. Having said that, there are cases where this can work wonderfully. In most cases, however, it turns out that the classes that worked wonderfully tend to be the more discussion-oriented, touchy-feely classes (some of which, like a writing criticism class, are certainly valuable) with highly motivated audiences. E-mail is a valuable adjunct tool for online education (or to supplement regular education, obviously), but I don't think I'm going to spend much time worrying about doing it better, or worrying about the parametrics. It's a narrow niche.

    E-mail does have the major advantage that, almost by definition, e-mail is the application most people online know best; often the only one they know at all.

  3. Conferencing system-based online education. This is what I usually think of when I think of this field. In the older variety, one uses a conferencing system such as EIES (which I first used for the New School about a decade ago on NJIT) or Caucus, Parti, whatever, and there are private branches for each class, with supplemental private branches, perhaps, for assignments, teacher areas; with public commons to help the community part of education. These are being supplanted, I hope, by web-based systems that make it easier to support access to resources, make it easier to provide visuals, and otherwise, still use conferencing systems such as Motet, WELL Engaged, Web Crossing, Acme News, or COW.

    To make a conference system-based class work, there is a lot of "hosting" and "support" required, especially with new groups of students. (This is probably true of all of these methods, but this is what I know best, and have no intention of papering over.)

  4. Computer-based training. This is the nifty stuff where you follow a web page or CD ROM with video and sound and good graphics and learn to accomplish specific tasks. There are a host of places where this type of training can be delivered well over the web, as well as on CD ROM. There are some things that can be shown with these tools that are more fun and more useful than anything in print or classroom (imho). I like using the example of being able to click on a foreign language phrase and hearing it immediately, rather than having to rewind the tape to just the right point, but that is a trivial example of what can be done. Still, this is training, and most colleges do more (which doesn't at all deny that some of what they do is certainly addressed by this type of product).

  5. Oops, I almost forgot. "BBS-based classes." One of the most popular programs of the BBS era was the way you could use simple messaging tools (FIDO, for instance) to set up message boards in which students from classes around the city, country, or world would exchange messages. Such classes were, and are, invaluable in teaching language skills (writing letters to peers is a powerful motivator) and in having kids learn about each other's cultures, geography, customs, politics, and so on. Social studies and Language all in one! (GesherNet continues to run, now as a mailing-list-based educational exchange.)

    This isn't trivial, as one of the things that online education systems do, in common with other online communities, is provide outreach and a means for people from different places to discover each other. It's a lot like what happens when people from all over show up at a non-virtual college campus ;-).

  6. Virtual-reality--MOOs and MUDs. There are several educational programs which use a form of virtual reality to create the virtual classroom. Students actually interact in real time by typing commands to see who is there, to hear or to respond to comments, to explore resources, and so on. This can be quite interesting in some forms of classrooms, but, for the most part, I have found it to be entirely confusing for most people most of the time. To a large degree, you have to really enjoy playing Myst, or Dungeons and Dragons, before this begins to make useful, intuitive sense. That is not a sufficiently large portion of the student body to be (imho) generalizable. I think of this more as a specialized instance of Distance Learning, due to its "real time" nature. For the purposes of this report, the fact that interaction takes place in real time (synchronously) is another drawback.


E-mail as a medium for online teaching

One of the most popular ways to do online learning is to use e-mail. This method not only meets the criterion I mentioned earlier about ease of use: If someone is online, e-mail is the application they are likeliest to know best. But e-mail also seems to offer a flexible and diverse platform for course delivery. When supplemented by mailings of class materials and a website, this would seem to be an ideal method.

As papers by Birnbaum and others prove, this is a popular method. Nathan Ehrlich of Hebrew College reports "excellent" results with "Finding Your Jewish Voice" is a creative writing workshop through which participants explore issues of Jewish identity. The number of offerings via e-mail increase every year. There is no denying that taking classes via e-mail meets the social needs of students, and the desire of some students to make some Jewish education a part of their lives. At the same time, there appears to be no evidence that such classes meet academic needs. Birnbaum's study, for instance, although noting that, in his classes students participate less than expected, provides no information on whether or not students actually learned and whether or not there were any objective criteria (test results, papers graded) to measure this.

One of the problems with e-mail is that it appears to be true that people cannot keep track of more than one mailing list per community. Typically, this means that a person might subscribe to a single class at a time, but will be entirely unaware of other classmates who are taking different classes. This is very different from the usual college experience in which interacting with faculty and colleagues is a vital part of why people go to a specific school, and a vital part of why schools want people attending in person.

I should add that the e-mail for the class mixes in with a person's other e-mail, creating a situation analogous to doing one's homework in front of the television set. Although most modern e-mail systems provide sophisticated means of sorting, saving, and searching e-mail, few people actually take advantage of these features (see the above statement about "very little complexity").

What Birnbaum's study does confirm, and what I believe has been shown in just about every instance of Jewish education online, is that there exists a large body of potential students who are not being reached by conventional colleges or adult education, for whom knowing more about Judaism, or for whom being connected to "something Jewish" is important, and for some of whom, online education can provide that connection and or path. The question that we will want to address further is what else the medium is good for? Can it be used for classes on the level of those offered for credit? Can it be used to support satellite teaching? In the case of programs offered by the JTS, the answer is "yes."

It is notable, and somewhat depressing, that none of the papers I found dealing with Jewish online education represented any first-hand experience with online community, online conference, or online teaching except for those tools that are available free on the Internet. As might be expected, there is more to the story.


Computer conferencing: Online teaching as a model of an actual campus

One of the critical issues with online classes, as with a regular community, is that neighborhoods need to have diverse populations and diverse uses. The best online classes (academically speaking), recognize this diversity by using some form of online conferencing system. Such systems are more sophisticated, and substantially different, from the more common, "computer bulletin board systems" (BBSs) that were in vogue prior to the Internet becoming ubiquitous, and upon which large-scale online destinations such as America Online and CompuServe were based. For a better understanding of this medium, one does well to consult David R. Wooley's introduction to the subject.

Like most online tools, conferencing systems provide means of "asynchronous" (people share a common space, but are not connected at the same time) communication. People leave messages, and then check back later to see what new messages have been posted. What an online conferencing system does is to provide a framework in which multiple discussions can be carried out coherently on a single platform. The better systems provide tools for searching, for viewing activity by subject or over time. They also track discussions over time, so that one can get a sense of the history of a discussion. (This can be less important in a class setting, but very important for, say, alumni check-in and discussion areas, or for cyclical discussions, such as celebrating the year or human life cycle events.) Even on the relatively simple computer conferencing system that I used when I began teaching online in 1987, a typical student was expected to be familiar with the discussion area where classes "took place" (I posted lessons and class information, students posted assignments and questions, I posted answers and facilitated discussion of the assignments.), an area where technical questions were answered ("why won't my modem work?" "how do I edit my assignments online?"), and a "cafe" where students and faculty could mix and discuss subjects of common interest. I would contend that this remains the base minimum for a good classroom, but that our need for community on the one hand (leading to a diversity of non-directed, cafe-like areas), and the ability to make more resources available online (tech support, online training tools, and libraries, for starters) suggest that much more can be done.

At the simplest level, we have systems such as ""the Virtual Yeshiva," which has a website in one location with access to resources, and which plunks classes down on the popular newspaper/discussion forum system, JCN18. Moving up the scale of complexity, we have the more integrated environment created by Larry Yudelson for the "Mishpacha project", on up to the very successful, very impressive system presented by the Jewish Theological Seminary, which I consider to be the best current model for how online community and education can be approached well.

This report is now public. We'd love it if you would add/view comments/questions, so as to use this as the beginning of a dialogue on online Jewish education.


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Last modified Wed, May 27, 1998.