Digital Promise: Learning Jewish, Online

[This article is part 3 of the series Continuing Conversations on Leveraging Educational Technology to Advance Jewish Learning. The series is a project of Jewish Funders Network, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the William Davidson Foundation. For an in-depth look at opportunities in Jewish Ed Tech and digital engagement, read Smart Money: Recommendations for an Educational Technology and Digital Engagement Investment Strategy. Later this year, Jewish Funders Network will launch a new website to help advance the field of Jewish educational technology.]

By Chana German

A century ago, when my bubbe sat in her fifth grade classroom in a Chicago public school, with 30+ classmates sitting row after row, listening to her teacher lecture, it would have been hard, probably impossible, for her to envision learning today. Learning now, as we all know, is everywhere. On a Wikipedia page, a YouTube TED talk, and your Twitter feed. The combination of your digital device and your experience powers up your learning, wherever you are. Curious about something? Look it up. Want to measure something? Go for it. Need to verify something? Check it out. Document something for the world? We’re waiting.

Within this context, it is easy to understand how more than 2.5 million students from public and private schools enroll in online classes annually. Among them are several thousand Jewish students who take Jewish studies courses online. Online learning, both formal courses and more informal learning “experiences,” has the potential to disrupt the Jewish educational framework as we know it.

There are several reasons why online learning turns traditional Jewish education on its head: its accessibility means that Jewish learning is not limited to classrooms, camps, or big cities; its pedagogy means that learning is personalized with multiple pathways and there is no “settling”; its digital nature means that it is familiar and always current; its price tag means it is affordable for families and communities; and its place in the Web makes Jewish connections – across city, state, and country lines – not only possible but probable.

Online learning can take on many forms: formal (courses) or informal (experiences), fully online (with an online facilitator), or blended (with a face-to-face element). It can have asynchronous (non-live) elements and synchronous (live) elements, be self-paced or calendar-paced, designed for individuals or groups, and integrate social media, multimedia, and games, or not. The creation of meaningful and effective online learning environments begins with understanding the centrality of the learner. To be engaging, online learning needs to activate learners from the outset, so that they are creating, thinking, sharing, and working with their peers, driving the experience. If they are passive consumers, there is no in-depth learning happening. Ideally, they are online and offline, completing authentic tasks, reflecting on their learning, producing prototypes and artifacts in constant dialogue with peers and their facilitator.

When we create courses at Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy, our first critical ingredient is intentional design. Form should always follow function. Is content learning the number one priority, or are social connections and community? The two need not to be mutually exclusive, but answering this question helps determine the structure. For instance, for a formal course, there will be assessments of some kind, whereas a course designed to be a social experience, will focus on collaborative activities. It will also point to the right balance between asynchronous and synchronous elements. Asynchronous learning is excellent for relaying information, encouraging learner reflection, and supporting a range of voices. But is academic achievement our only objective? There are always those “aha” moments in education, but just as important is the magic of children together, talking, doing, learning, and having fun. The opportunity for Jewish students to meet and work with other Jewish students from other cities and states cannot be understated.

Then specific learning objectives are delineated. Do we want participants to know how to light Shabbat candles? Study a chapter in a Biblical text? Break some kind of Jewish record (the largest virtual challah bake-off, perhaps?) Whatever the objective, we curate or create the supports and materials that they need to achieve their goals. If they need to meet Hillel, the Talmudic sage, we make sure that will happen (via avator) or, if they are in need of a trip to Tel Aviv to understand how modern Israel came into being, we produce the video. Perhaps they need to dig into their family history and interview their great-aunt about her experiences in the 1940s but need a hand crafting the questions, or want to speak to a peer about her family’s traditions on Rosh Hashana, but are in need of a module on active listening.

Avatar of Hillel from Online Jewish Studies Course

The other critical ingredient is facilitation, no mean feat. While excellent classroom teachers or informal educators may become excellent online facilitators, online learning depends on an additional (and sometimes) different skill set. Many classroom teachers are used to being the source of knowledge for their students. Facilitation, especially in an online medium, implies something different. Because the content is already constructed, the facilitator has time for what really matters: working with individuals and groups to collaborate, bringing out the wisdom of the group, asking (and modeling) thoughtful questions, guiding them towards discovery. Doing this in a face-to-face environment is challenging enough. All online facilitators should go through rigorous training, and if possible, work with a mentor until they incorporate best practices.

Once trained, a warm and energetic facilitator is vital, but so is a significant time commitment. In an online learning environment, participants are online when it works for them – early mornings, late afternoons, or perhaps the middle of the night, but early enthusiasm will wane if the participant feels unnoticed and ignored. The facilitator needs to foster a welcoming and inclusive culture, inviting participants first to participate, and then to lead the experience. This translates into dozens of IMs, emails, videos, and meetings via web conference. As participants begin to lead their own conversations and activities, the facilitator pulls back, always ready to encourage, correct, or probe students, if needed.

Because of the vast amount of data we can cull in online learning platforms, and the quantity of feedback from participants who are eager to share, it is relatively easy to determine what works and what does not. We know, for instance, that studies in K-12 education indicate that there is “no significant difference” between online and face-to-face education in terms of student outcomes (for further research look here, here, and here). That is, students learn effectively in both environments. In Jewish schools too, principals and students echo that the environment does not matter, as long as students are given the instructional and technological support needed to thrive. We also know that participants are enthusiastic about directing their Jewish learning, wherever it leads. They love meeting and collaborating virtually with other Jewish teenagers outside their locale, and reflecting about Jewish ideas, texts, and practice. But even with what we know, we can barely imagine what can be. The possibilities are endless. All we need to do is experiment. My bubbe – yours too – would expect no less.

Chana German ( is founder and director of Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy, a project of The Lookstein Center, Bar-Ilan University. Lookstein Virtual is an award-winning online school of Jewish Studies, which enrolls more than 500 teenagers from Jewish and public schools every year.