New possibilities

Learning from Jewish education’s emergency move online

In Short

We can imagine a future where online teaching becomes part of an educators’ toolbox, but we shouldn’t expect that transition to be easy. Educators will need to reflect, iterate and practice in order to learn how to make online education work.

During March 2020, as the gravity of the pandemic became clear, everything began to shut down. The last 18 months have been a roller coaster of emotions. Fear, grief, glimmers of optimism and fatigue. One thing seems sure: The world will never be the same again.  

Even as we faced the horror of a global pandemic, educators in every sector understood the necessity of continuing their work. Public school districts, universities and community centers sought out ways to remake their approaches and reach their constituents. In the Jewish community, seemingly overnight, our educational institutions, schools, synagogues and others moved their programming online and developed new ways to reach their audiences. 

COVID-19 may have merely accelerated an ongoing trend. Last spring, a group of researchers (Kelman, et. al.) published a report describing the rapid growth of online Jewish education. They argued that Jewish education online makes Jewish education available to a wider population than ever before, allows individuals to customize their Jewish educational journey and connects them to a broad and diverse community of learners and teachers. 

In the summer of 2020, the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, with generous support from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, launched the Online Jewish Education Project, a set of investigations of online teaching and learning in five diverse Jewish educational settings. These projects hoped to study the challenges and opportunities of online Jewish education as they unfolded in real time. We approached Jewish learning as a distinct phenomenon in online education, requiring its own analytical framework. Unlike MOOCs, Jewish learning has the relational at its center. We wanted to understand how this would translate online. 

The projects set out to document and study, through rigorous empirical qualitative research, the pedagogies of online Jewish education. The individual studies focused on students at different stages of life, ranging from pre-K students in an online remote track of a Jewish day school to adult learners at Hartman Institute. The through line was a shared focus on Jewish texts and online  instruction.  We worked together as a cohort to uncover rich  insights into the pedagogy of online Jewish education. 

Ultimately, this project generated three important insights for any Jewish educator to consider when using an online platform:

  1. Some aspects of pedagogy just don’t translate online.
    1. One teacher-researcher who prioritizes creating an equal playing field among students found building this sort of community of learners in an online classroom much more challenging. Her early elementary school students would just get up from their iPads and ask their parents for the answer when they got frustrated. The tools she had previously used to create dialogic, student-centered classrooms simply didn’t work outside of the physical setting of the classroom.
  2. Some aspects of pedagogy can be effectively adapted to online platforms.
    1. One researcher found that the winding down of class, often a time for interested students to gather around the teacher for an informal wrap-up, suddenly disappeared. Instead, class ended when the teacher pressed “End Meeting.” What used to be a friendly, casual closure to class turned into an abrupt disconnect. To address this problem, the teachers developed highly structured, intentional ways to end class, what this researcher called their “mic drop.”  This rethinking of an “in-person” pedagogy suggests ways teachers might adapt to new platforms.
  3. Some aspects of pedagogy work better online.
    1. One paper describes the way online platforms offer new ways to connect with and engage adult learners.  Suddenly, students have control over their view. The student who learns better surrounded by a sea of faces can select “gallery view.” A student who wants to be an intimate Hevruta with the teacher can use the spotlight feature. Students who don’t want to speak up can use the chat, and others can use the reaction function.  Online platforms hold promise for allowing an ever greater diversity of ways to engage in learning.

These findings don’t offer simple answers. This collection of research offers a clear case study of the ways that educational innovation opens new possibilities and closes off others. We can imagine a future where online teaching becomes part of an educators’ toolbox, but we shouldn’t expect that transition to be easy. Educators will need to reflect, iterate and practice in order to learn how to make online education work. Especially in Jewish education, where relationships and identity are central, tools and strategies will never be one-size fits all. 

Ziva R. Hassenfeld, PH.D. is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel assistant professor of Jewish education at Brandeis University.