Virtual Schooling

An Argentinian student of the Jewish Online School taking a Torah class. Courtesy of the Jewish Online School

With the ongoing tuition crisis, many are thinking outside the box when it comes to providing a quality Jewish education.

Enter a slowly growing, though by no means widespread, trend: virtual learning.

In 2009, Yeshivas Ohev Shalom in Los Angeles became the first Jewish school to incorporate a completely online secular studies program. This boys’ high school boasts a regular yeshivah morning program, but runs its afternoon general studies onsite and online through Kaplan Academy of California. The school’s online innovation has helped to keep its annual tuition at just $7,500.

Last April, the Orthodox Union (OU) ran a conference for forty-five Jewish day school representatives from across the country about the possible uses of online education. “In education it’s not one-size-fits-all,” says Rabbi Saul Zucker, the director of the OU’s Department of Day School & Educational Services.

“Our job at the OU is to assist schools for whom this would be a good choice,” says Rabbi Zucker. The conference featured K12, a Virginia-based company that provides online general studies programs. The company has been helpful in creating curriculums suited to the needs of Jewish day schools. “They’re happy to accommodate and modify their program based upon our religious sensibilities,” asserts Rabbi Zucker. Internet controls or intranet systems make it easy for schools to ensure that the only web site accessible on students’ computers are the education web sites.

Rabbi Zucker explained that twenty-six of the fifty states—not, as of yet, New York or New Jersey—currently support online charter schools. These charter schools function as public schools just without a physical location, and benefit from state funding for the costs of the program, including Internet hookup and lab materials. The student must be a resident of the state where he or she registers, but there are no legal restrictions as to where the computer is located—it can be in a private home, a library, or, in some cases, a yeshivah day school. A school located in a state that does not provide free online programming can still purchase online education for a price lower than that of maintaining the current education model.

Online courses may complement existing programs—for example, they could be an economical way of offering Advanced Placement classes to a small number of interested students, according to Rabbi Zucker. Additionally, online learning provides a high degree of individual differentiation—students can progress at their own paces.

The Jewish Online School, founded in 2006, has a different mission: to provide virtual Jewish education to Jewish children—including the more than 600 children of Chabad shluchim—around the world who do not live within distance of an Orthodox Jewish school. Around eighty first-rate teachers—from all over the world—educate classes of up to fourteen students behind their computer screens. Teachers and students are able to see and hear each other via webcams and microphones.

Not only does the school provide Jewish subjects and tutorial programming, it also offers monthly assemblies, virtual Chumash parties, rallies, after-school clubs and other extracurricular activities—all for $400 a month per child. “Usually the most surprising thing for people is when they hear and see what kind of social camaraderie develops amongst the students,” says Principal Gitty Rosenfeld. “We wanted not only to give them an education, but also a sense of belonging, and make them realize that there are other children going through the same thing.”

In Aventura, Florida, Yeshivas Doresh—a dorm-only yeshivah for high school-aged boys with learning differences—uses an interactive general studies software program under the supervision of in-class teachers. “It’s remarkable because the boys can really learn at their own pace,” says rosh yeshivah Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Salfer of his current class of thirteen students. “They can review and review, and if they need it, the teacher is there to help them out.”

In addition to providing several non-virtual electives, Yeshivas Doresh also offers online courses granting students real estate licenses, as well as an online pre-accounting course from QuickBooks.

As educators, parents and communities continue to seek out new options for Jewish education, it is likely that virtual learning may play a major role in our day schools and yeshivot.

Yaelle Frohlich is a freelance journalist and artist. Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, she is currently pursuing an MA in modern Jewish history at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.


This article was featured in the Spring 2011 issue of Jewish Action.
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