Virtual Judaics classes may not be replacing traditional day schools any time soon, but they can enhance educational options for Jewish schools at a reasonable cost.
Allowing those schools to expand course offerings while keeping to a budget is the aim of the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy, a project of Bar-Ilan University’s Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. It rolled out its online platform to Jewish day schools in September 2014 and is currently being used by Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh as a way to offer additional courses to individual students, according to Rabbi Sam Weinberg, principal and education director of the school.
Last year, Hillel had an entire class take the same LVJA course together — an elective in Jewish history — but this year Hillel is using the online tool to enrich learning for only three students who are working independently. Those students are working with online instructors in Israel along with virtual classmates from throughout North America, England and Australia.
“This gives us a chance to offer some different electives,” Weinberg said. “The kids go online at their convenience, and they meet with the teachers regularly, mostly through Skype.”
The classes, which are divided into three categories — Tanach, Jewish History and Rabbinics — are taught by experienced day school teachers with advanced degrees, Weinberg said. The students are taught critical-thinking skills through the use of many primary sources.
“It’s actually closer to a university course than a high school course,” Weinberg said.
While online learning does not work well for every student, he said, it does work for those who are especially disciplined and self-motivated.
“You have to have the right kid for it to work,” Weinberg said.
“But it’s a good way to offer classes I wouldn’t otherwise be able to offer and at a self-guided pace.”
Specific courses currently offered include “Themes in Megillat Esther,” “The Emergence of Modern Israel” and “Commandment to Care.”
The classes are relatively inexpensive for Hillel to offer, and some of the tuition is subsidized by LVJA.
In addition to serving as an enrichment tool, the courses are sometimes useful to transfer students who need to catch up with the curriculum of Hillel after transitioning from a different school.
LVJA has been recognized as one of North America’s top 50 innovative Jewish organizations in the 11th annual Slingshot Guide, an annual compilation of inspiring and innovative organizations, projects and programs in the Jewish community.
LVJA has worked with students from about 50 schools, in grades six through 12 in Toronto and California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Ohio, among other states.
By being able to offer a wide variety of classes at a low cost, schools using LVJA “can met the needs of different students and make the student body and the parents happier,” according to Chana German, director of LVJA, speaking from Israel.
Students in Pittsburgh participating in a virtual class along with students from other cities are able to learn collaboration and form new friendships, German added. Because they communicate with each other through discussion boards, they “get excited when they see each other [through Skype] a few times during the semester.”
“Our main message is that if we strengthen our schools, we are strengthening the Jewish community,” German said.
LVJA is supported by the Avi Chai Foundation, the Kohelet Foundation, and the William Davidson Foundation, with additional support from The Joshua Venture Group.
LVJA is not the only online educational platform used by Hillel.
The school also offers classes to some of its students through Waterfront Learning, associated with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.
“We had two students who wanted to advance to AP calculus, so they took pre-calc through Waterfront Learning over the summer,” Weinberg said.
Another student at Hillel takes an online physics course through the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.
There are pros and cons to online courses, Weinberg said.
“For the right kids, it’s self-paced, and they can go in depth on a specific topic,” he said. “But the cons are they are missing the personal touch of a teacher. And although the technology works most of the time, for the 1 percent of the time it doesn’t work, it can be frustrating, like when the server is down.”
It can also be challenging for a student needing an immediate answer to a question about an assignment but having to wait for a teacher in Israel — seven hours ahead — to respond.
“But there is no downside to trying it,” Weinberg said. “You’re getting good curricula by really good teachers.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.