Online Learning For Jewish Teens: You Bet It Works

online learningBy Dan Brosgol
and Debbie Kardon-Schwartz

Jewish teens love to be online. And they also love to be at camp.

Take our word for it – we see well over a thousand of them every year in the various programs that our two organizations, Prozdor of Hebrew College and the Eli and Bessie Cohen Camps, operate. When the two of us got together in the fall of 2013 to brainstorm a new collaboration to help teach the Cohen Camps’ Dor L’Dor Leadership program participants about leadership and Israel, we immediately arrived at a proposal to try something that had never been done before – a blended learning course on those very topics. Combining online learning with the experiential components of Israel and the Counselor-In-Training program at camp, our idea would also feature in-person sessions at the camps in late summer. We believed that by offering this course, and a Hebrew College credential to the students who completed it, we would motivate the participants to enroll in the class to get an extra leg up in their applications to college. This partnership enhances the already transformative experiences of camp and Israel by extending the learning and impact beyond the two months of camp and validating the experience through Hebrew College’s certification.

We entered into this partnership understanding the big questions out there in this area. Would Jewish teens opt into this optional course to complement their Israel trip? Would their parents be willing to pay for it? Would the teens take seriously and engage with the learning and the philosophies and ideas of Buber, Hertzl, Rav Kook, Hillel and Heschel, among others? Would the pilot prove to be a worthy model and could it be expanded in year two?

The answer to all of those questions, we’re happy to report, is an emphatic YES.

This month we are concluding the second year of our first-of-its-kind partnership to engage Jewish summer campers with year-round online learning outside of their summer experience. Our partnership provides the Cohen Camps’ participants with online instruction about both Israel education and leadership development through a Jewish lens, on the online Schoology platform via a course developed and taught under Prozdor’s supervision. The participants spend three months prior to their Israel trip exploring leadership principles and education around Israel, and then head off to Israel on their life-changing summer program. Upon their return to the Cohen Camps, (either Camp Pembroke, Tevya or Tel Noar) in late summer, the participants spend the balance of the summer as CITs, receiving 10 sessions of leadership training at camp in addition to in-person sessions led by Prozdor to continue the arc of the leadership course. In the fall, the course concludes with three additional month-long modules that deepen participants’ reflective practice and growth as leaders, and continues to engage them in questions about their relationship to Israel as American Jews.

In its pilot year of 2014, the course enrolled 37 students. Throughout their six months of learning, they posted over 580 unique posts, discussions, and assignments to the online course, and clicked over 7,600 times through the various files, links, and course materials. Prozdor conferred Hebrew College Certificates in Teen Jewish Leadership to the participants in late November and quickly began updating the course for a Spring 2015 launch for the second cohort.

In 2015, the course enrolled 60 students and created over 1,200 separate discussion posts, 120 submitted assignments, and in sum total garnered nearly 13,000 separate clicks and interactions with the online content. That’s 13,000 educational moments happening in an exclusively online setting, 13,000 bursts of learning and growth that would not have happened without our unique partnership, and 13,000 moments where maybe, just maybe, the virtual schechina was hovering over our discussion boards.

But we’re far from content to rest on the laurels of our over 20,000 online educational moments from the first two years of this course. We are hard at work thinking about year three of our partnership, and also discussing how to bring a counselor and leadership training course to the 2016 Dor L’Dor counselors in a unique hybrid format that would feature online learning and an intensive week of training here at Hebrew College, while also considering how to engage the parents of the participants in some learning that would complement what their children are engaging in.

We look forward to updating you on our new initiatives in the near future. Feel free to be in touch with us to learn more about our partnership and or talk about how online learning might serve the needs of your campers, students, participants, volunteers, or teen leaders.

The Dor L’Dor Israel and leadership program is the capstone program of the Cohen Camp’s camper’s experience. This 7 week experience is open to all teens who spent at least one session at camp the previous summer. With a 90% participation, on average 120 teens spend 5 weeks touring and learning about Israel through a lens of leadership, returning to their home camp for a 2 week Counselor/Leader in training program.

Teens in the Jewish community of Boston and southern New England have been studying Judaic and Hebrew studies together at Prozdor since the 1920s. Today, Prozdor remains a central hub for teen learning and engagement. Prozdor offer two creative and flexible ways teens incorporate Jewish learning into their busy lives: Prozdor at Hebrew College: Teens in grades 8-12 who live in the Boston metropolitan area meet at Hebrew College on Sunday mornings to learn Judaic and Hebrew studies together. Prozdor Online: Teens from all over the country learn together on their own schedules through Prozdor online.

Dan Brosgol is Director of Prozdor of Hebrew College. Debbie Kardon-Schwartz, Director of Dor L’Dor Israel and Leadership Programs for the Cohen Camps.