Preliminary Report on Online Jewish Education
Survey of Current Jewish Online Education programs

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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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Subjects for this page

Funding Summary
Mailing list-based courses
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Jewish University In CyberspacE
Maqom School for Adult Talmud Study
Hebrew College 'Campus in Cyberspace'

Web-based courses
Virtual Yeshiva
The Mishpacha Project
The Jewish Theological Seminary

For most of the current examples of online Jewish education, these tools are probably more important as a tool of outreach and community-building than as a tool for the delivery of classroom-style education. HUC's Kolel, for example, experimented with classes delivered by mailing list a year or so ago. It is much easier to deliver a class in which people meeting academic standards is not required of either the course content, or of the student's responses; when what is important is that the students read at least some of the material and/or talk about their own feelings and opinions. As I will note in the final section of this projects, when I make recommendations as to ways in which HUC might proceed, it is important to consider outreach and community among the goals of HUC's online presence. I also want to make it clear that this form of course is not education, as generally credited towards a degree.

So, let us for the moment, return to evaluating online education from the perspective of education.

Funding Summary

Funding, unfortunately, continues to be an issue overall. In those cases where projects appeared to be exceptionally well-thought-out, I probed for funding sources (and have noted them in this write-up), but found no acknowledgment of either a Jewish foundation that is funding online Jewish education, or a secular foundation interested in funding online education in general. There are, of course, the Covenant grants (Crown Family Foundation and JESNA), The Kaminer Foundation, which provided significant funding to get the JTS project going, (as well as seed money for the unfortunate Jewish Web Week), has indicated that they are not looking for further projects in the Online Jewish Education area. JESNA should be a source, if not of funding, then for forming alliances to pool resources, and the folks at the Jewish Theological Seminary (my primary contact has been Michael Starr) are anxious to share their resources (and help alleviate some of their costs). Nathan Ehrlich, at Hebrew College, is similarly happy to collaborate on the development of online courses and teaching resources.


Mailing List-based

Yeshivat Har Etzion

This Yeshiva has one of the most extensive online Torah academies that I have seen. Numerous courses are offered in Hebrew, as well as English, via mailing list. Subjects range from the weekly parasha (three versions!), to specific books of the TaNaKh, to several Talmud courses. The focus appears to be on using the mailing lists to deliver study materials, and to provide access to study assistance, as needed. This is supplemented by a plethora of web-based study materials. Their TaNaKh Study Center, containing access not only to texts, but to directed questions and other resources, is exemplary. Among the resources maintained by the Yeshiva is a page referencing many online Torah and Talmud resources. The first entries contain links to sources, in Hebrew and in English, for installing the necessary Hebrew fonts on one's computer.

JUICE (Jewish University In CyberspacE)

JUICE offers courses in Judaism, Zionism, and Israel and is sponsored by the WZO. Course preparation does not appear to be extensive, and seems to consist primarily of ASCII texts that are e-mailed to students. Student participation is recorded as low. No academic results are reported, nor is there any indication that courses are "passed" or "failed," rather, people sign up for lectures on various aspects of Jewish life and occasionally comment. Eli Birnbaum, the program director, has done some interesting work collating some statistics about use of the site, which I have put into HTML form and made accessible from my resource page. Where JUICE appears to be popular, and growing more popular, is in providing a link to Jewish culture and Jewish learning that many people lack. In this sense, JUICE is doing the work of Kolel and of similar organizations.

Maqom School for Adult Talmud Study

Maqom is a new-agey center run by Rabbi Judy Abrams. Rabbi Abrams pairs students up into "hevruta," study partners, then e-mails each hevruta study materials. The hevrutot e-mail back their questions and comments, which she edits and collates and e-mails back out. Rabbi Abrams has also published several books on Talmud study based on her approach to the volumes. In its own way such sites to exemplify the fact that the web allows anyone with a presentable idea to make that curriculum accessible, and to teach it, via the web. It also raises the question that publishing houses had to confront with the rise of desktop publishing and then, even moreso, with the advent of the web: If everyone can publish, who needs publishing houses? For publishing houses, the answer is that they have an imprint and a reputation, and so long as they maintain the standards on which that reputation is based, they have a future. By the same token, and back on subject, some of these new teaching approaches (speaking pedagogically, not addressing the low-level technology) will catch on and will change our sense of Judaism and how it is taught.

Hebrew College 'Campus in Cyberspace'

Hebrew College is preparing to launch a web-based online education facility. In the meantime, Nathan Ehrlich, the director of The Center for Information Technology at Hebrew College, reports enthusiastic responses to the college's mailing-list-based course, "Finding Your Jewish Voice: A Creative Writing Workshop," taught by Dr. Seymour Simckes. The course is also unique on the mailing list side, in that the college offers 3-credits for the 13-session experience which uses both the Web (assignments) and e-mail (discussion). Costs are consistent with a professional college course: the non-credit version can be as little as $250. Tuition is $1,000 for graduate credit (less for HC students).

Getting a handle on the Hebrew College online teaching experience has been difficult. There are no available metrics or comparisons. I was unable to even get a list of courses that have been offered, how many students signed up, how many students completed the course. There are no references to the work done at other institutions. This appears to be a program that is entirely homegrown.

The school has done a number of mailing list-based courses, of which the writing course is the most unusual, and possibly, the most interesting*. Several courses have been taught both online and in the Hebrew College classroom, although there has been no analysis to compare the grades between students who take the courses for credit. (This is hampered by the fact that most students do not take the online courses for credit. It is also unclear how many courses are offered in both environments for useful cross-comparison.) Ehrlich has expressed a sense is that at least some online courses may be less academically successful. He also cites one course where as many as 20% of students noted serious technical difficulties in their course survey, but also notes that some classes go quite smoothly.

This is a new environment. It is not yet clear how much it costs to create an online course (and what that involves). This follows from the experimentation with a variety of teaching methods, differing course requirements, and so on. Ehrlich did have an estimate of $5000 from one instructor as the amount it would cost the instructor to develop the online version of his course. I feel somewhat frustrated in this regard, as it isn't clear what that estimate entails or how realistic it is for what type of curriculum development for what course. Good course development obviously involves more than just be converting notes to ASCII and then sending them out via e-mail, or making them available via the Web. As I note in more detail below, in describing the writing course, clearly much more is happening in preparing online classes.

Although Hebrew College has had a less developed infrastructure and fewer resources than many schools (work has started on an entirely new, and exciting campus) the school has been unafraid to experiment, and, has done far more with this lack of resources than many schools with more generous resources. Ehrlich says that "Dynamic learning environments eschew 'one size fits all.'" While this drives me crazy in my attempt to put the college's programs into context, this ability to work with diversity, and openness to experimentation has served the college well, and is exemplary. This is also, in part, how the school came to house Shamash, the Jewish Internet consortium (also home of the UAHC online presence, as it happens).

The level of experimentation may be the tradeoff when one is creating courseware based on minimal funding. In some cases, this has also led to serious, and interesting, thinking about how best to serve the students. Thus, the web-based conferencing tool is COW (actually, the Larry Yudelson installation of COW). When they tried to convert the writing course to use COW, students were unhappy. They had no trouble using the web to read assignments, and no trouble using the web to post assignments, but were uncomfortable that there was no way to find out about comments to assignments except than to log into the system and look. (My own experience suggests that students need to either be highly motivated, or need more than one single reason to go through this sort of process--one course, checked once a day, may not be enough. JTS manages to overcome this, at least in part, and we did keep students checking in, and posting regularly when I taught at the New School. Factors include community diversity--the Jane Jacobs stuff, student levels, and motivation. I required students to post at least once a week to get a passing grade, and actively facilitated that. The software, itself, also seems to matter, although not as much as one might think. COW is a dismal environment, in my jaundiced opinion. Yet, Larry Yudelson has done well with it--see mishpacha, below.)

The most recent writing course started out on the web entirely. Based on student comments it was redesigned by week three such that students continued to get assignments and to complete them on the web (including three part exercises such as "write about this subject for four minutes" followed by "now write about this subject for three minutes" and so on. Announcements, and the discussions, take place via mailing list. Plans for the future include putting the assignments into some sort of database so that students can view assignments either sorted by student, or sorted by assignment. The database tools (FileMaker Pro) to make this possible were developed on Shamash for the Jewish Family and Life online magazine. The affiliation with Shamash provides some interesting, and useful back and forth for Hebrew College. A newly hired Associate Director of the Center for Information Technology will be focusing both on Shamash and on education technology.

The current semester is unusual in that only one course is being offered online. Ehrlich expects that Fall will see four online courses, including the writing course, as usual, and a repeat of a "Judaism and Psychology" course. Other courses taught have included a course on the Jewish internet and "100 years of Jewish Short Stories."

Ehrlich says that HC teachers enjoy teaching the classes. He expects the number of online offerings to grow as the college finds instructors familiar with the online environment from outside the campus, and as tools and teaching media improve and become more accessible to teachers at the college.

It is worth noting that, while Hebrew College currently primarily uses e-mail for course delivery, their commitment is to outreach and offering courses online by whatever medium works, not to e-mail, per se, and they are developing and exploring web-based course tools.



Virtual Yeshiva
This is a hybrid web/web-discussion-based system, that I note to illustrate the continuum. Rabbi Rami Shapiro put up a variety of Talmud and Torah-based teaching resources, and also has a sporadic (average of one comment per day, few return postings by any individuals) on JCN18. Rabbi Shapiro is sufficiently uninvolved with the JCN18 side that he was unable to point me to a specific URL, just that it was there, somewhere. It is worth noting that the discussion software used by JCN18 does much to inhibit conversation, but that JCN18 appears to be the most frequently cited destination of young Jews online. That, however, is its own subject.

The Mishpacha Project

The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture-funded "Mishpacha Project" is a wonderfully innovative application of a simple web-based conferencing system ("COW," a sort of "do-it-yourself, Perl-based conferencing system based on picospan), newspaper, and community center. The goal of the project is outreach to Jews who are trying to find out more about Judaism, and to figure out how to pass that on to their children. Larry Yudelson*, the designer, was also one of the original editor/designers behind jcn18, the most successful of the current crop of free Jewish online news/discussion services.

Mishpacha charges a nominal fee ($36) which more or less covers books, and accepts about 25 people at a time (they are still working on the optimal class size, being determined as enough people to keep things lively, but not to force people to spend more than an hour a day reading and writing during the course). The first course, two semesters ago, refused to disband, and about half of the original members have now spawned their own discussion group based on the "Jewish Literature" book from Joseph Telushkin. The group will continue to use the mishpacha Project software for its discussions, albeit in its own area.

Yudelson estimates that it cost about $25,000 to put the hardware and software together, including his work conceptualizing the web design and putting the site together. Developing the course probably took a similar amount, based on $50/hour for the Rabbi teaching the course taking ~10-15 hours per unit (10 units). There are ongoing expenses as both the Rabbi and Yudelson monitor the courses as they take place. He feels that these expenses can be reduced, now that the course structure is established, by using interns.

Echoing a common theme, Yudelson says that this really isn't a class, per se, it's an online chavura. He also notes: "To learn, there are lots of books. But for people who want to change their lives and make that learning real, they need the community."

Yudelson sees the Foundation spinning off versions of this in other languages (Russian and Spanish, esp., cited), and possibly doing growing numbers of these online chavuroth simultaneously. The hardware/software will scale, easily, although moderators and instructors will be needed for the ongoing chavuroth/courses, regardless.

The Jewish Theological Seminary
You can try accessing the site outside frames, but directly, at: It wasn't designed to be used that way, though, and some features of the demo may not work.

JTS is alone among the Jewish institutions I surveyed in setting up an academically rigorous online teaching system. Funded in large part with a one-time grant from the Kaminsky Foundation, the project grows out of previous work at the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education, which has developed a number of computer-based interactive teaching tools. (Other typical Melton Center projects include interactive web pages such as the Siddur Geography and Maimonides Eight Degrees of Tzedakah presented on Jewish Web Week. Although there are interface quibbles with both, they are also quite good examples of interactive, computer-based training.)

In the case of JTS, they focused first on courses that could also be used to teach groups, as well as individuals. Thus, the two courses currently available can be used (and are being so used) as the basis for satellite courses taught already at one synagogue in Oregon. An active concern is to support ongoing professional development for Jewish educators. The requirements were to design courses that were interactive, and asynchronous. The courses were also seen as representing JTS to world.

Michael Starr, Director, Distance Learning, for the Melton Center, talked some about the focus of the distance education effort. He was clear that JTS has no plans to offer entire curriculum online. There are solid, non-academic reasons to have people present on campus. For now, the goal is to have maybe up to 50 or 60% of the curriculum available online. On the other hand, having online courses can help alleviate the shortage of Jewish teachers in synagogues and Solomon Schechter Day Schools. Online education can help reach those people least-likely or least-able to attend JTS in person, but who need to be reached and trained. As noted in the previous paragraph, such courses can also supplement the education and sense of community of teachers already "out in the field." At the other extreme, for a rabbinic degree, people need to do other things in person, be part of the in-person culture. Finally, the on-line courses provide a way of achieving non-traditional outreach and finding new ways of involving members of the Jewish community.

As I have noted elsewhere, course success seems to depend in large part on the instructors and how prepared they are for this different environment. For the first offering of the Talmud course, they had nine students with fantastic responses and papers, which the rabbi teaching the course felt were the equal to or better than what he received in person-to-person class. They are now on the fifth offering and have taught 250 people. In the Adult Education class (Introduction to Jewish Theology/Theology for Jewish Educators), he felt that the instructors were not adequately prepared first time around. On second run, with the instructors are better trained, informal surveys of the students were now positive.

How does a web-based class work? Like a regular class, there are many elements. There are resources online that can be retrieved via the web, as well as the usual syllabus and ways of contacting the instructor. "Classes" are conducted asynchronously using a picospan-derived conferencing software package called "Web Crossing," which is respectable and quite popular. There are the actual class discussions with the instructor, as well as "hevruta discussions" with groups of 4-8 students. The number of participants in the hevruta was enlarged from the traditional hevruta pairing due to fears that the online experience would otherwise not deliver the intensity that a traditional pairing does. So far, it appears to work well.

JTS has also payed attention to small details. In walking through the demo theology course I was sufficiently awed by this wealth of detail that I noted specific links along the student toolbar for (note that this may also be too much--common interface design stresses that there should be no more than seven items grouped together at a time):

  1. "welcome messages,"
  2. something called "Hevruta," which is where info on class participants/teachers is posted, and students prepare lessons in small groups (web crossing + web)
  3. "class discussion" (web crossing). Includes a topic for news and announcements.
  4. syllabus (fairly detailed and with lots of links)
  5. library (links to online articles, where possible, otherwise listings to book info. There appears to also be a connection to for book purchases.)
  6. resources (apparently interactive software that can be run locally)
  7. glossary (nifty idea!)
  8. "doubt box" (a place for these theological students to express their theological doubts--interesting idea, but perhaps not so important for chemistry or language studies or computers)
  9. staff links
  10. home
  11. Technical support

The Talmud course has some differences (the "doubt box," is replaced by a link to an amazing online Talmud), but appears to be similarly well-thought-out.

In theory, all students have permanent rights to participate in the alumni areas and out-of-class discussion areas, although Starr indicates that these have not been particularly successful, as yet. There have also been requests for real-time chat. Larry Yudelson reports using chat software with the Mishpacha Project for "cocktail-party-like chat" and having students get to know each other outside of the context of the class--also, with the excitement of "real time." Web Crossing, the discussion software used by JTS, supports chat, although it does not yet appear to have been used at JTS. (Yudelson reports that there were also significant technical problems in teaching the students to use yet another piece of software, plus getting his chat software server to run.) Starr notes that one problem with chat is the fact that the people involved can be around the world in different time zones. (In particular, not the time difference between different parts of the US and Israel.)

Setting up courses is an expensive, time-consuming process. Achieving this level of quality costs significantly above $10,000/course and six months to a year. (In theory, less than six months). The Center would like to explore cutting that budget to a third and seeing if they can deliver sufficient quality.

In the meantime, where does the money go? Courses are designed by the Instructor, with senior technologist, a content person, then, helping the content person, there is also a multimedia person responsible for images, audio, and video. Interactive exercises need to be developed for many of the courses. Senior technologists tend to be students, from 1st year to 4th year.

It is worth noting, as well, that online courses, like real courses, are always being refined. Starr is hoping to get a grant for video conferencing, would love to develop website/CD ROM. He would also like to work with other schools, sharing costs and expertise. He is currently working as well, with JESNA on some shared curriculum and educational tools. In the short run, he notes, this project's mandate is to develop a model for online distance learning; the Melton Research Center is development area, not a school. At some point, the tools become normalized and used by general faculty, and the Melton Center moves on to the next challenges.

Disclosure: Nathan Ehrlich, HC's Director of Information Technology, and I have become friends since I moved to Boston, and have even discussed the possibility of my teaching at the college, virtually and otherwise. I am currently preparing a proposal to redesign the college website. [back to notes on Hebrew College mailing list courses]

Disclosure: Larry Yudelson is also a personal friend, and has been so for about a decade. Our sense of online community was shaped by our participation on the WELL (where we met). [back to notes on mishpacha web course]

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 Fri, Feb 26, 1999.