In the mid-1990s, a few dozen intrepid high school students enrolled in what were likely the first fully online high school courses. Fast forward twenty years later. It’s hard to think of students who take online courses as educational pioneers anymore. Taking an online course to fill a Biology, Math, or even Talmud credit seems run of the mill. After all, adults enroll in online courses all the time—to pass the DMV requirements, to learn how to use that new software for work, or to study Renaissance poetry in a MOOC. It’s only commonsensical that schools would harness this mode of teaching as well.
In fact, over 2.2 million K-12 school students enroll in online courses annually. The vast majority of the students come from the public system, but hundreds of thousands of students from private and charter schools also enroll. Jewish day schools sign up their students as well, though on a smaller scale. While 4% of all American public school students take an online course, less than 1%t of Jewish day school students enroll in an online course for either General or Jewish Studies. Jewish day schools began experimenting with online learning less than a decade ago, and at this point, several thousand Jewish day school students participate in online learning courses every year. This number is steadily growing.
Jewish day schools choose to supplement their instruction with online learning for a range of reasons. In North America, the close to 900 schools cater to communities of different sizes and denominations, varying degrees of wealth, and entirely distinct missions and visions. Each school, of course, has its own unique motivations for using online learning, but their reasons generally fall into two overarching categories: 1) resource extension and 2) instructional solutions.
What does that mean exactly? Many day schools, especially in large metro areas, are blessed with a robust set of curricular, instructional, and financial resources. They do not “need” online learning per se. However, administrators have come to realize that online learning presents them with opportunities for students that are rarely found elsewhere. For instance, when students from different backgrounds, perspectives, and geographic locations, come together to study Jewish texts and ideas week after week, they are not only building their analytic skills, but they broaden their worldview and gain a deeper understanding of the global community in general, and the Jewish global community in specific. Another opportunity that large schools are often excited about is immersing their students into 21st century environments with a Jewish twist. In an online classroom, students develop crucial skills that will prepare them for the future, skills that cannot be mastered in a purely face-to-face classroom.
Schools with small student populations or limited resources find that online learning can be truly transformative in their institutions. With online learning, these schools can transcend their natural limitations and provide Jewish studies at multiple levels, in varying learning styles and with a range of course content. For a relatively small financial outlay, they can create individualized learning paths for their students.
All Jewish schools, large and small, face a unique set of circumstances including curricular, scheduling, staffing, and differentiation challenges. These challenges require solutions that will not only resolve the situation at hand, but will address long-term issues of sustainability and affordability. Every school we speak with has students who are in need of something different, be it a different subject, level, schedule, or learning style. By adopting online learning to overcome specific problems, schools expand their resources and can be sure that they are meeting the needs of each and every student.
So how do schools actually make it happen? There are many models for implementing online learning that serve to meet various needs. We suggest that each school carefully evaluate their exact goals in order to determine which model will work best. Piloting with a small group of strong students is a great way to move from the theoretical, and see if and how it can succeed in your school. In our work at Lookstein Virtual, we see the range of schools--those that enroll one student, those that enroll a small group of students, and those that enroll a full class of students. Often, the solutions that they select to incorporate are some combination of asynchronous learning (not-live) and synchronous learning (virtual sessions with a live instructor). Many schools opt to blend online learning with traditional classroom methods.
Online learning in day schools is still in its infancy. About 10% of the school community uses online learning for General and Jewish Studies learning. Many Jewish educators are still skeptical about online learning, but the tides are turning. As educators research the field, separate the pedagogic rationale from the bells and whistles, and begin to experiment, they will recognize that online learning is a tool that can be harnessed to build on their successful programs. If used strategically, online learning can build on school strengths and can reduce their challenges. When schools think strategically about how online learning can best be used to achieve the mission of their schools, that skepticism will diminish. Online learning is but one tool that has the ability to contribute to a revitalization of the Jewish day school space, bringing student-centered opportunities and resource extension to the forefront.
Chana German is the Director of the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy, an online school of Jewish studies for grades 6-12.