Preliminary Report on Online Jewish Education
Conclusions and Recommendations

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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.

Other relevant pages on Ivritype:

Links to Online Resources

Subjects for this page

Other modes of Distance Learning
Online Learning via E-mail
Web-based Online Education
Reconsidering the Brief
The HUC Website
A Specific Approach
In Conclusion

It is easy to look at the survey results and to wonder if online education is worth pursuing. In many cases, the results are questionable: Eli Birnbaum's study of JUICE applauds lots of people signing up, and lots of satisfaction expressed in courses in which people don't seem to participate, for instance, or the plethora of courses that seem to exist without any evidence that people are learning. On the other hand, I think that the Mishpacha Project and the JTS projects point to the fact that a well-designed course can yield positive benefits, both on the community side, and scholastically. The key, therefore, lies in providing good, relevant courses, and in presenting them well.

It is also worth considering the fact that there are at least two reasons for offering online classes. First, it is impossible to miss the chorus of people who participate in order to feel more connected to Jewish culture and/or community, regardless of scholastics. This is totally unlike the audience for online or distance education in the traditional sense: you won't see people signing up for "Online Calculus" because they want to feel connected to the mathematical community.

The second issue is scholastic. By providing courses online, the college can reach students it cannot otherwise reach. In the case of Hebrew Union College, this not only points to those who have transportation problems, disabilities, scheduling problems, alumni, or to teachers at Day Schools or Hebrew Schools, or to adult learning, but students at various campuses who would like to share a specific class taught by a specific teacher. The results that are reported by JTS, and by non-religious schools, such as Golden Gate, in San Francisco, suggest that there is no reason why an online course, for most subjects, cannot be offered that is every bit of rigorous as one offered in person. I can also add that my personal experience in teaching a visual discipline, desktop publishing and typography, with far cruder online tools, showed that it is possible to get results and a level of motivation that was hard to achieve with students who attended in person. (And also showed that some students could be as unresponsive as those who sit in the back of the class, in person.)


Other Modes of Distance Learning

In evaluating the various modes of distance education, I have become biased over the years towards the asynchronous, now web-based instruction, such as that offered by JTS or the Mishpacha Project. To counter this bias I first spent some time at the beginning of my research period attending a workshop offered by Dr. Lisa Neal, of EDS, on "Distance Learning1." I have participated in Dr. Neal's classes as a guest lecturer in the past, so was familiar with the tools that she has developed, and with her general research focus.

Dr. Neal has been exploring ways of offering primarily synchronous distance learning at EDS. Her main tool has been use of a multi-channel video-conferencing system that allows people to participate from several locations around the world. Although use of the camera includes some limits (in the setup that EDS uses, one can view only one of multiple sites at a time, and that viewing is triggered by who last spoke--or cleared a throat), it is also very easy to use: people attend class with the synchronous learning behavior that is already familiar. Viewing video cameras requires no special additional learning (although there are issues with regard to siting of the cameras, and so on, that need to be addressed by the course technologist). And, although the hookups and equipment are tremendously expensive, they are far less expensive than flying people to a central location and removing them from their traditional environment for a week or so. There are also supplemental tools that offer the secondary channels of communication that seem to matter--the equivalent of being able to talk in the hall or to pass notes, and new software packages that add to the flexibility and comfort of synchronous teaching.

Dr. Neal has also looked at asynchronous learning, but has found it as alien to her audience (primarily corporate staff in a homogenous environment, able to tap into corporate resources) as I have found synchronous teaching alien to the groups with which I have primarily worked (heterogenous, scattered, uncertain resources). What has been fascinating, however, is the degree to which the success of courses in any of these media depends on the actual teacher. Dr. Neal also notes that most asynchronous environments are unfamiliar to students: the first week or two of class is largely taken up by familiarizing the students with the physical environment: how to find materials, how to post assignments or questions, and so on. This is very much reinforced by my own experience, and is not an issue faced to a notable degree in synchronous, multicast video-supported classes.

Dr. Neal's research also corresponds with my own reading and experience in finding that "simulcast" classes, and even the "plug this into your VCR and read the book" classes are more often ineffective than not, dependent very much on the student's strong motivation. This is an area pioneered in the UK's "Open University," which is now making the transition from home videos and periodic meetings to online courseware focusing on lowest common denominator technologies. In her most recent workshop, Dr. Neal notes a conclusion very much worth restating:

The key in adopting Internet presentation at the Open University lies in finding mechanisms which improve on existing practice "cost-effectively." The signal lesson of the trials is that simply translating material from familiar media into electronic form is rarely productive--and is certainly inadequate for supported distance education, which aims to engage the students in a "community of learning." The value Internet technology brings to distance education lies not in direct "translation" from other media but in "transformation" of support mechanisms to exploit its potential range.


Online Learning via E-mail

I have discussed some of the issues with "synchronous" classes, and among those things that work well with such classes is the fact that the technology and the ways in which students learn are familiar to the students. When we talk about "asynchronous" classes--classes in which instructors and students read and post at times convenient to themselves, not necessarily at the same time, the obvious candidate for "familiar technology" is e-mail, and, in fact, the majority of online classes described in the survey use e-mail as the delivery mechanism. (Actually, sending the e-mail to a select group of people is handled by software called a "mailing list" or "listserv"--but that's the technical end.)

E-mail is the application most familiar to Internet users. Almost by definition, everyone on the internet has access to e-mail; for many, if not most users, e-mail is why they are on the internet, with even access to the World Wide Web coming in a distant second, although the class assignments and/or discussion materials might well be offered via the Web. In the case of Hebrew College's hybrid course of Jewish writing, assignments are posted and read via the web, but the discussions take place via e-mail.

There are a number of problems with e-mail courses. The first one is quantitative. I have no evidence of any e-mail classes that have been successful academically, by which I mean some evidence that a reasonable number of students complete the course and provide evidence (tests, papers) of having learned the course material. This is in some conflict with the goal of many of these courses--Hebrew College's Jewish Writing course still being an excellent example where the goal is in the interaction. This is also a rare case among all the colleges offering e-mail courses where participation is observed to be high.

I also feel, from my own experience of using mailing lists over the last decade or so, that getting thoughtful participation is most difficult. You have a medium in which your mailing list's messages get mixed up with all of the recipient's other personal and/or professional e-mail. (Most e-mail users either lack access to, or do not know how to use e-mail filtering tools which would at least keep messages separate. Similarly, most apparently do not save e-mail--neither in print nor in electronic form.) Because most people encounter their lessons in the same "respond instantly or toss" environment, participation, when it occurs, tends not to be thoughtful; sentences tend to be incomplete, thoughts partial, and discussion especially facile (obviously, there are exceptions). This tendency is reinforced by the fact that few people save prior messages (or consult same). The coup de grace is delivered by the "wave" effect. Because e-mail systems can take hours to deliver e-mail, and people check e-mail sporadically, you can get waves of responses to a first posting mixing in with waves of responses to the first response to the first posting, and so on. In the sort of excited discussion one is trying to generate in most classes, this is a shortcut to incoherence.

Having said all of that, mailing lists are still great ways to share information that requires little response (and, by extension, a great way to let someone know that there has been a response to a posting on a web-based system), and can also be invaluable and successful some of the time, regardless (and quite invaluable and successful to focused, small groups much of the time). The rest of the time, it's like learning while watching television.

There is one other large issue that arises with classes taught by e-mail. There is no generalization. By this I mean that there is no place and no way for students attending different classes at the same school to meet each other. There is no tool for generalized, non-class-specific socialization. This was brought home to me when I started researching this particular report. One of my first acts was to post to JEM (Jewish Electronic Meetings), one of the main (albeit, usually quiescent) forums for discussing Jewish activity online. Despite the fact that the subscriber to the list about jewish education is a subscriber to JEM, as were several other list participants, and despite the fact that JEM and Inter-JED (the Jewish Educational list) are both hosted by Shamash, I had to find out about the existence of Inter-JED from another source, entirely. This, unfortunately, is far from unique. Mailing lists to not encourage generalized community--they encourage, and work best, only with fragmented, highly-specific community.

And, having said all of that, it does seem that e-mail could be a very good medium for the sort of generalized outreach classes that JUICE offers, or, for that matter, for the type of curriculum offered by Mishpacha. Other examples might include a mailing list in which sermons or drashim are posted each week on the parasha, or other relevant text, with the potential for response, or questions, or other drashim from subscribers, or a mailing list exploring the Jewish year. These, however, are not exactly courses--they are hybrid ways to dispense information; discussion may or may not occur, depending on the degree of specific pump priming that the list moderator or course instructor is willing to do.


Web-based Online Education

When I started teaching online in 1987, the assumption was that the only way to do this was using a computer conferencing system. Such a system is, in some ways, a souped up computer bulletin board, such as is run by America Online or CompuServe. Differences include the ability to keep messages around as long as they are relevant, and the ability to segregate messages by topic, something now known as "linear" messaging, as distinct from a technique that originated in Usenet called "threading2." Each class had its own private place to post everything--lessons, comments, questions, assignments. (We actually had the term papers posted to a different area.) This was kind of nice, as it meant everything was in one place, and, contrary to my expectation, worked reasonably well. The main problem was the inability to provide anything other than ASCII (simplest possible text) information to my classes. We relied a lot on outside reading and on course texts and field trips. There were also separate areas for a "cafe" in which students from all classes, and faculty mixed and discussed general issues of the day, a tech support area, and a "faculty lounge." There were also specific discussion areas for what were called "special interest groups" (SIGs), including a Jewish discussion area where, prior to my arrival on the system, a woman named Lea Singer held the first "online seder."

Considering the technology at the time, this was not a bad instructional environment, but I couldn't wait for the day when I could do more, starting with making my own instructional materials available in a non-ASCII environment. And the basic ideas behind online class structure really haven't changed much: classes are private discussion streams; resources, syllabi, and other relevant materials can now be accessed "sideways" (literally sideways, in the case of the common list of links to the side of the text area that occur in, say JTS class demos, or on this page) without searching the course stream. It's easier to link a specific idea to its source, or to introduce footnotes. Assignments can be posted to the common class area, or to another area that can be made public or not, depending on what fits the curriculum and class expectations. There are separate discussion areas for tech support (now just an e-mail click away, usually) and general community areas. The JTS model even includes a variation on the traditional hevruta model. It is as thought the web has allowed the online school environment to flesh itself out more fully, to more closely approximate institutions and areas of the more usual "real world" campus.

Something that I didn't see addressed in the JTS model, but which will become increasingly important to students is finding ways to make more literature available in an online library. Having the card catalogs of the various HUC campuses online seems obvious, but launching a program to allow students, online or offline, access to HUC publications, in their entirety, indexed online, would be a powerful and useful supplement to HUC's educational efforts in general.

This leads us to a more general issues. Some consideration of whether or not to pursue web-based teaching has to do with a question of community. If delivering the actual instruction, or if participating in a singular, specific course is the important goal--the Mishpacha Project's ongoing courses in learning to be Jewish parents, for instance, then, as already noted, e-mail courses might very well work effectively. Where such tools, and where the synchronous video-conferencing or online chat tools break down, however, is in creating a sense of neighborhood or community. For the purpose of most courses, the goal is not just to teach specific material; it is to involve someone in a lifelong association. This is certainly true when we speak of rabbinic students, but it is also true when we think of outreach to alumni, to classes that might be taught at local synagogues or day schools, or to Kollel-type classes where the college is reaching out to adults. By generating a sense of place, the college not only opens the door towards eventually offering more and broader educational choices, but it creates an ongoing reason to visit the HUC online campus. That campus, like a real campus, will succeed best if it is a neighborhood in the best Jane Jacobs sense--if it consists not only of information (syllabi, course descriptions, contacts) and classes, but of general discussion areas, but also contains research tools, online books and articles, an online store to order books and other teaching materials (okay, and also HUC mugs, t-shirts, calendars, and the like--just like a regular college bookstore). The various ways in which such a diverse neighborhood might be developed depend on the goals set by HUC as a school exploring this medium. Classes are obviously a critical part of this, as are alumni services, weekly/monthly readings (and the library of back readings), "push" technologies such as e-mail notices when new information in requested areas becomes available, and so on.


Reconsidering the Brief

In the original brief, one of the first questions was to think about the audience for online education. I have addressed this a few times, but I want to stress that, while there is no long-term limit on who could be part of the online student body (and, in the sense that alumni are drawn in by continuing education efforts, the goal could be (should be, in my estimation) to make everyone part of this environment some of the time. But there are very strong reasons why we want students attending rabbinic school in person. Even when the students seek degrees in Jewish Studies, it is still to the college's best advantage to have them be on campus, to be participating socially in the college environment, not just to be taking classes.

This equation can change when a specific course, as taught by one instructor on one campus, is sufficiently exemplary that it should be available on all campuses, or when the same course that is taught on one or more campuses has strong relevance for continuing education for alumni, teachers at Reform Congregations or Day Schools, and general adult education. Courses on Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Year, Jewish Literature, Current Events, and History all fall into this category. For alumni, ongoing contact with rabbis at HUC and in the field, beyond the annual (?) conferences, can also be powerful and effective. It is also worth offering a course(s) on using the computer for research and education, online, as well. Don't teach theory--get the students to use the system even while they are attending classes in person.

In the initial planning phases, online education is best used to take a familiar course that will appeal to constituencies that would not otherwise be reached. Such courses should also be the most generalizable: Survey of Jewish History, rather than "Readings on Medieval Judaism", or the most specific to the Reform Movement, and hence, unavailable elsewhere: "A History of the Reform Movement" or "Philosophy of the Reform Movement".

In planning such courses, special thought should be given to the small items that will make the course memorable, and which can have use in other settings. The JTS page on charity has students rank 8 forms of charity, and then compare their choices to Maimonides¹ writing, and the choices other people taking the quiz have made. This opens up some excellent pedagogic opportunities. Similarly, online resources for language training should not be neglected, especially since they can be packaged on CD ROM and distributed independent of the Internet. Internet Video, while still slow and impossible for many home computers, is becoming useful. Within the year it is reasonable to assume that a fair sprinkling of the teaching facility's users will be able to make use of such tools; audio is already a popular part of the web: imagine classes in chanting the Torah, or leading services, or learning popular new liturgical songs, that is computer-based, delivered over the web or via CD ROM.

Several questions dealt with assessing the depth of content, students' levels, and creativity. These should more properly be turned into discussion items: what are HUC's priorities? There is nothing inherent in the online environment that makes depth of content or creativity more difficult, although some content will surely be different from the ways in which it is presented in class. Parallel to creating courses there needs to be a major effort to get texts online in general--this is the extension of the library to the web, not something limited to classes. Similarly, it should be standard operating practice to have course syllabi and bibliographies online, as well as ways to reach instructors, tutors, and college staff. These will serve both regular and online students. In terms of current efforts in the Jewish sphere, however, I am impressed only by JTS, and to a lesser degree, by the limited scope, excellently executed, of the Mishpacha Project, or the larger scope, awfully executed, of the admirable-in-concept CLAL site. (I'll discuss the CLAL site a bit more when I talk about implementation specifics, below.)

It is also clear that the usual suspects, JESNA looming large among them, are anxious to help co-sponsor or help find funding for new initiatives in the online environment. Given the general unfunding and underfunding of Jewish education, the current paucity of impressive results has more to do with resources than a lack of good ideas. I wish I had a magic solution to that! I think that a focus which demonstrates how online education can help support and expand educational efforts "offline" would be exceptionally important to pursue. Indeed, JTS noted that use of one of its online courses by someone teaching the same course locally was viewed as an important achievement and model.


The HUC Website

A question that wasn't asked in the specific brief, but which has loomed large in my discussions with John Bruggemen, and with Dr. Kerry Olitzky, is the question of how online courses fit into the HUC website as it exists, or put more directly, what changes might want to be made on the HUC website in general. That is its own report, but the general answer is that the current website does not particularly serve anyone well. I also seem to recall that it was different, and much, much worse a couple of months ago, so change is happening (or I am looking at it with growing familiarity and/or rosier-colored glasses).

The main difficulty in creating a good website lies in serving a broad number of constituencies in a very limited environment. The same website has to serve students looking for syllabi, alumni, people looking for information on Reform Judaism, considering attending the college, teachers, researchers, members and staff of each of the separate campuses, and more. All need to find starting points from within an environment consisting of about 600x800 dots on a computer screen, limited by common interface issues: you can't group more than about seven things together or people stop being able to find them; you can't flash at people--most users will go a long way to avoid the "computer entertainment" feel on a website; people need to find what they are looking for within three clicks, and you still need to make it clear what your organization is and how to find things. Jakob Nielsen, of Sun, has done some marvellous work on interface and writes a bi-weekly column on the subject. He is one of the few writers who comes from a human-computer interface science background, as opposed to being a designer interested in passing design aesthetic off as interface design (David Siegel, et al). It's a new field. Finding good information is still hard. And the web levels the playing field sufficiently so that differentiating the good information from the flash is not yet easy.

Yet, in addition to serving tourists, college staff, students, parents, alumni, and instructors, the site has to meet specific needs: access to the library, course information, a campus bookstore, and places for people to gather. This latter is most important. Just as I have referred on occasion to Jane Jacobs' wonderful "Death and Life of Great American Cities" for a description of how communities work, I must note the work of William Hollingsworth Whyte, who in "The social life of small urban spaces" (among other publications) notes that people gather and talk where there are people. In other words, for those aspects of a successful website or online course that require people you need people and you need conversation and traffic already happening. (It was Whyte who spent ages noting conversations around the clock and around the calendar year at particular intersections. Regardless of whether or not there were nearby places out of people's way to talk, the most popular places for conversations were invariably wherever the most people passed by, and in the thick of traffic.) If a website does not provide affordances3 for conversation, mingling, and discussion, that will not happen.

To make the website the sort of place where people run into each other and talk, however, it must also be the sort of place where useful (as defined by your visitors) stuff is always happening--it needs to become a busy intersection. How important is this? Netscape is currently rethinking its business model to include giving its browser away for free (as of a few months ago) and now developing content and discussion centers based on the fact that the company has one of the world's most highly-trafficked websites. Directories such as Yahoo and Lycos are moving in the same direction.

Possibly as part of thinking out how to implement the online education tools, the various constituencies responsible for the HUC website need to repeat an exercise I recently held with folks at the Hebrew College (Brookline) website, where I am currently working on a relatively minor reworking (one that is also far more necessary, say, as compared to the HUC website). People need to spend a few hours doing exercises and working out the various ways that the website should work to serve their constituencies. Facilitated by an web interface person, the redesign needs to focus not on how the information is stored or put into brochures, or even divided up internally, but how to best meet those needs. (The redesign will also include the most possible hooks for people to respond to the website with questions and suggestions, to better maintain a sense of what works and what doesn't.)

One common mistake that illustrates a usual fallacy is to provide visitors with a list of college departments. On the current HUC site redesign, for instance, one looks at information about "academics", "resources", "adult jewish learning", and the like. These will presumably overlap, when the pages are finished, such that someone could find out about "adult jewish learning" via "academics" or "resources" just as "adult jewish learning" might also point someone to "academics" information about returning students. On the CLAL site, by way of contrast, one can choose information about:

  • Community & Leadership Development

  • Institute for Professional Education

  • Institute for Policy Development

Although those look like clear names, where do I look for CLAL resources on developing community policy as a professional educator? lay person? Is there a CLAL Hebrew class? Where would it be listed? To whom do these institute/program names have meaning other than people who are involved in those specific programs already? (Yeah, we know, that's how the material is understood by the people designing the programs, and yes, there is overlap.)

I also have to say that in visiting the CLAL site I was struck by how heimish it felt, and yet how dysfunctional. There are no good tools for figuring out what information you need (although there is a "search" bar right where there should be, for which the site designer earns some credit). The specific layout technology (something called "frames", awkward use of frames is also the reason I can't link directly to JTS' online education pages) means that once you have found the information you want, you have no way of bookmarking it--you need to remember how you got there. And there is no way of registering online or working out a schedule online. No way to compare classes to times in which they are offered, and so on. These are tricky issues: using paper, a person can flip back and forth between flaps, annotate, and consult several brochures at once. Online, there is only the one window, and no way to mark your place. It is absolutely critical to remember that the web environment faces very different limitations, and offers very different advantages, compared to print.

This is a far cry from online education, per se. I hope it is enough information to think about website design overall. I will therefore stress one final point, which is that website maintenance is a daily issue:

  • People tend to use "webmaster" as a general e-mail contact to the college (in part because that is the only e-mail address on each page); those e-mails need to be parsed and directed for action near-immediately. When that is done, near-free goodwill is achieved; when it is ignored or done poorly, it is the same as having a bad voicemail hell experience.

  • Where online discussion areas are available, including classes, all postings must garner acknowledgment within 24 hours (sooner is better, as people will return quickly to see if someone responded). There are dead discussion areas all over cyberspace. Bad software is one factor. But even worse than bad software is the message people get when they post something, come back a day or a week later and discover that it didn't matter to anyone. They won't usually try again. To most people, "internet=instantaneous." Never mind reality, here; the opportunity is in supporting the illusion :-)

  • There is no such thing as a college campus without calendars, news, and bulletins--in the case of a rabbinic campus, there are also holiday readings and weekly parashas. Spread the word!

  • An awful lot of information wants to be served out of a database, instead of from "static" html pages. This runs from course descriptions to, most certainly, the calendar, which should always start with the day's events and display events over the next month. It is relatively easy to do this, and relatively easy to provide tools to make it easy for office secretaries to maintain such information. And it's a lot easier to maintain stuff that way, than to teach someone with little time how to code HTML or to use a web-page creation program, however visual. And IS departments, which are ultimately responsible for delivering the information online, don't have ownership of it. If the people owning the information aren't allowed to directly maintain it, the information won't be maintained.

  • Don't put it up if you aren't able to maintain it. A well-designed website, in some ways, will make the lives of the people in charge of the information (usually those aforementioned secretaries) easier--you can offer saner, customized tools for changing course offerings, changing/adding calendar events, maintaining the list of phone contacts, and so on. But once part of the website isn't current, the whole website becomes tainted. Who's to know that the Academic calendar is out of date because one particular staff person is on vacation, or the job wasn't passed on to a new hire? Unlike the case with paper, people assume (usually wrongly, but that doesn't stop anyone) that anything on the web is current and up-to-date as of the moment the information was retrieved by the site visitor.


A Specific Approach

How does HUC pull this together? Slowly.

First, look over conferencing software. Choose a linear package that will offer either e-mail notification of people when there are responses to their postings, or that can be presented in a way that makes it easy for people to see what is new in the discussion areas (or classroom areas) without too many keystrokes or rigmarole. (In most cases, however, note that you do not want people participating in a linear discussion forum via e-mail; you want to focus on e-mail as a means of notification.) The software has to run on your hardware. Most software for linear conferencing, available today, runs on NT, and on most common Unix platforms. This is not the type of software that generally requires its own server. Good, inexpensive packages include Motet, Caucus, and Web Crossing. I have not evaluated any of these recently, although I use Motet, with pleasure, for my "Virtual Ashkenaz" community. It's a good idea to browse David Wooley's site for information on the wide variety of asynchronous conferencing software available. Most surveys on this subject in the popular press have been gruesome, so be careful about sources. Important features include:

  • E-mail notification of new messages;

  • Ability to keep discussions "comb-shaped"--i.e., new topics within a given discussion area, but no topics branching off topics;

  • Ability to deal with file attachments, html, or some other way of allowing student and teaching uploads;

  • Easy ways to make private, semi-private, and public discussion areas;

  • Ability to search the discussion areas;

  • Facilitated alternative communication tools (online chat, personal e-mail or space, or some combination of tools other than the main conferencing system itself;

  • Sane discussion setup and management tools.

And some ways to pull in more general participation, when needed, or to show off a sample course:

  • A way to set up "demo" discussion areas in which unregistered users can participate, and/or

  • A way to allow "guest" access in read-only mode to specific discussion areas.

For an expensive, but ultimate in great discussion software, it is worth looking at WELL.Engaged. This may also be "rented" or used on the WELL.Engaged site, rather than purchased, and may be worth looking at as something with which to model class structures, if you do not have someone on staff, or as a consultant, who knows the field well.

You can also talk with JTS, Hebrew College, or the Mishpacha Project about sharing software and/or resources as a way of tapping into that expertise.

Having tentatively selected software and/or partners, it's time to do two things. First, select a couple of courses with which to start. Choose an instructor (preferably a volunteer from among current staff!) and start planning the curriculum and how to present it. Then, think out how to integrate other, non-class discussion areas onto the HUC website (imagine a college campus with no places for students to interact except in the classroom). It is important, at a minimum, the ensure that there are areas for alumni, for general discussion (and do encourage HUC faculty to seed that area and to keep the pump primed) and a "techie" help area. Students and faculty will let you know of other areas as you need 'em. If courses are offered both to current students and to people currently outside HUC, think out whether you want them in the same course (maybe, but not necessarily).

Think out areas that don't necessarily think, "interactivity," but where these tools offer something that couldn't/wouldn't be worth doing otherwise. For instance, Rabbi Olitzky's book of stories about Jewish holidays might be placed online with tools for adding stories, searching stories, or talking about them.

Although it is a good idea to think two-three years down the road and think out what an online program would look like at that time, and to shape what is phased in when according to that plan, at some point, planning is over, and it's time to "just do it." In that sense, developing an online course is a lot like working with an instructor who is creating a new, traditionally-taught course.


In Conclusion

This is not an exhaustive report on online education. I've tried to do a reasonable survey, based on my own knowledge of the field, and on suggestions by HUC staff (primarily Rabbi Olitzky). What should be clear from this report is that online education is not an option, rather, using online educational tools--interactive lesson pages and asynchronous web conferencing--are an essential part of the college's online presence in general, and a valuable tool for reaching out and supporting alumni, educators in general, and adult education in general.

In focusing on asynchronous web conferencing I also need to repeat the note that may have been buried earlier in this report about e-mail being universally comfortable to people on the internet, and that it can take a week or two of using web conferencing tools before students feel at home. In preparing this report, no one used the web conferencing discussion area I first set up. No one used the comment areas attached to the provisional pages. The only comments and/or feedback I received (and it typified my description of e-mail, even when the messages were simple notes of encouragement or suggestions to look at other sites) were via e-mail. All serious discussion took place via voice.

Part of what HUC is proposing to do, is to create tools sufficiently compelling and useful, that students will go comfortably where staff have yet to tread. Obviously, other schools, and in particular, schools in the general education community, are doing this with growing sophistication and numbers. Some of us have been teaching online for over a decade using current tools and their significantly more primitive ancestors. But in evaluating and weighing where HUC wants to go, it is critical not to lose sight of the limitations imposed by where staff are going to be willing (as determined in largest part by time and patience for learning a new discussion tool) to go. Realizing the barrier imposed by introducing web conferencing is one reason why I have suggested using the tools in so many ways on HUC's website. It needs to be worth putting in that time and effort.


1Cites in this report are from Dr. Neal's most recent work, a Tutorial on "Distance Learning" given at the ACM's CHI '98 conference. Dr. Neal and I have discussed the possibility of making her research on distance learning accessible outside the EDS firewall, from my site; if all goes well, these materials should be available in the next month or so. [back to the text]

2In unstructured environments such as Usenet or CompuServe (CIS), threading provides a means to track subjects, as opposed to the "dump it all in one place" approach used by America Online (AOL); threading is also considered very good for tech support or other environments where one or two exchanges are the usual maximum. Threads become incoherent quickly when participation grows or when the discussion goes on for a serious amount of time. "Linear" messaging can be really awkward in exactly those situations where threads succeed: tech support or other situations where the interaction is "ask a question/get an answer/move on." For teaching, a "linear" system is generally acknowledged as the sine qua non. [back to the text]

3In Don Norman's parlance, an "affordance" is a use we make of something that is determined by its shape or location: the well-placed $2000 computer monitor becomes a coffee holder; the large refrigerators common in the US become natural places to tack up household notices. Other common, more expected affordances are the use of things in "cup" shape to hold liquids, or putting a floppy disk in the "floppy disk-shaped" slot of a computer. [back to the text]

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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