Jewish Distance Learning -- the next challenge
Eli Birnbaum
Special thanks to Joel Duman , Administrative Director of JUICE, for his assistance in preparing this paper.



Why Computers and the Internet?

Structure of the Jewish University in Cyberspace

Constructing the Teaching Module -- Challenges

Course Methodology


Survey of Fall '97 semester

Analysis of Survey

In Conclusion -- The Challenges


Other links to online Jewish education resources

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Contrary to popular belief distance learning has been around for quite some time. Do you remember the advertisements on the back of the Superman comic books back in the early 60s "Finish high school at home". For years, there have been universities, which function almost exclusively as correspondence schools, based on distance learning. The Open University of Great Britain was established in 1969 and now has over 100,000 students, making it the largest University in Great Britain. UNISA (South Africa) the Open University of Israel and 30 others around the world base their efforts on creating a university without walls. Yet for the most part they are "self directed", based on learning packages sent to students which may or may not include a video recording. Some schools meet over the weekend for labs or have a tutor meet with the students once a month. The use of the Internet adds a number of components which we will examine.

An additional antecedent of distance learning may be found in the world of Jewish Responsa, as in the famous Shechter/Taylor Geniza Collection. Albeit you may contend that Responsa is not the same as distance learning. Close examination however reveals some striking parallels: Responsa are usually formulated by the local Rabbi, sometimes in conjunction with others, trying to find an answer to a Halachic quandary. Using local resources he is unable to come up with a satisfactory conclusion. The reply from the distant authority explains how to interpret the problematic text. The local Rabbi not only applies this reply to his own situation but adopts the Halachic conclusion for further interpretations by additional distant communities.

How do we define distance learning? Is distance learning limited to study in a real-time classroom" setting in which the teacher and students are separated geographically? Or is the correspondence school a legitimate model for distance learning as well? Recently there have been many studies trying to define the term and its applications (Moore and Tompson 1990). It is my contention that the definition of distance leaning is simply: a learning process which is not limited by time or space.

The present study is an outgrowth of classic Jewish usage of distance learning, which can now be refined and expanded by adding dynamic components, and may be supported by almost immediate feedback. The use of the Internet is democratizing the process of Jewish learning. No longer are there age, sex or religious barriers to the world of Jewish study. With the Internet the story of Hillel sitting on a snow covered roof, would never have happened.

So why isn't there a stampede in the designing of Adult education courses?

Unfortunately education is one of the most conservative disciplines. The old crack that Maimonides would feel totally comfortable in the average classroom of today is more then just a truism. Little if anything has changed in most classrooms for the last hundred years and probably a lot longer. The teacher is still standing in front of you with a blackboard or its equivalent and the class reads from the same texts. This is in spite of the dozens of computers, which are confined to the computer lab in many schools.

New curriculums which incorporate distance learning are the exception rather then the rule. There are two other difficulties in introducing distance learning in the average classroom. The first if that most teachers have been teaching the same syllabus for years. It will take a special effort and incentive to encourage teachers to redesign their lessons plans. Let's not forget one other point, many teachers are still computer phobic.

When it comes to the Adult population there is simply very little out there. The vast majority of Universities only offer on-line courses for those who are attending their schools those that do offer external continual education courses, do so for fees which many people cannot afford.

We believe that the revival of traditional Jewish distance learning specifically designed for Adult populations can provide a dynamic tool to maintain Jewish continuity by offering a simple, congenial and painless method to study our heritage. It is our hope that as more educational developers join this effort we can serve as a springboard for a renaissance of Jewish thought.


Why computers and internet?

In an era in which 47% of today's jobs require computer experience (McKinsey,1995, p.7) a growing portion of today's population sees the computer as an extension of their living experience. Yet though the Internet was first nurtured within the academic world, only recently has its potential as an educational tool begun to be realized. According to the 8th GVU WWW Users Survey over 40 million households around the world have computers (up from 30 last year), and 25 million of them have modems. It is estimated that in the United States alone 50-70 million households will possess computers by the year 2000.

When it comes to the Internet, only last year John Pike (Cyberstats 1996, Federation of American Scientists), estimated that it would take until the year 2000 for 40 million households in the U.S. to have Internet access. Today the number of Americans using the NET has just about doubled from 20 to 40 million users. (Neilson Media Research Spring 97). If that is not mind numbing, according to the NUA Internet Survey (November 97), 86 million people are online in one form or another with 500,000 in Israel alone.

Even the use of the Internet as a tool in distance learning can be divided into two categories. The first as developed by the Jewish Theological Seminary is based on small "classrooms" which allow the participant to use net based source material as well as chavruta-style study all on line. While there is no doubt that the learning mode is both intensive and highly successful it does have the drawback that the chavruta study must be synchronous which precludes those in other time zones from taking part. In addition due to its high development and running costs, it has a limited although important role in Jewish Adult education for the "masses".

Many Universities have adopted this method utilizing "MOO" or VEE (Virtual Educational Environment) sites. The acronym MOO stands for MUD, Object Oriented, with MUD being itself and acronym for Multi User Dungeon ", These are basically software products which replicate the structure of the classroom setting, e.g. Athena University. For an in depth explanation see Almost all Universities that currently use the Internet in their teaching, do so as campus enhancing tools rather than for true distance learning (Moore 87). Many universities are using video links with audio return links. For the most part such tools as computer based: teleconferencing, joint authoring software and complex white boards are still in the development states. Still others are embellishing the correspondence school method of individual studies with use of the web and teacher support using the term Mediated Learning. (Gifford, B. R. 1995).

A further impediment to the full application of telecommunications techniques at the university level is the uneven hardware and software used by the participants. In a random sample we polled 150 of our participants with the following results

Computer type:
486: 45%
Pentium: 38%
Other: 7%

High resolution: 56%
Low resolution: 32%
Don't know: 12%

Netscape: 63%
Explorer: 37% (up 15 % from last semester)

Netscape or Explorer (Java enabled) 3.0 or above:
Yes: 55%

Connection speed:
14.4K: 18%
28K: 39%
33K+: 21%
Don't know: 22%

Sound card:
Yes: 74%

Yes: 15%

It should be noted that were major differences were found between those participants from the U.S. (who had far higher rating in equipment) versus those from Latin America and Europe.

In 1995 The Students and Academics Department of the Jewish Agency in Israel embarked on creating the Jewish University in CyberspacE (JUICE). The project was financed and directed by the Department, which has pioneered Internet applications in both formal and informal education. ( Its goal was simply to bring quality adult education to those who previously did not have access to it.

We chose to follow a middle of the road design using basic email based discussion groups (listserv) to disseminate the lecture facilitating as an on-line classroom albeit not in real time. In addition we place additional sources and information on a specially designed web sites with links both the course web site and to other sites, all embedded in the lecture.

The Internet as an educational tool offers the following benefits:

  • It is cost effective. Past lectures can be recycled with the only cost being the hiring of the lecturer for the on line questions or even the use of a T.A.

  • We can reach those who have not, for whatever reason, had the opportunity to take courses with Jewish content on an adult level, thus strengthening their Jewish identity. There is also an added advantage in that the Internet is essentially an anonymous vehicle. One comment from this semesters course on Prayer "This was my first University course in more then 30 years being called upon to be vocal in class was always traumatic" or "I appreciate the ability of asking questions without being embarrassed by my lack of knowledge"

  • Accessing those persons who do not live within a defined Jewish geographical area and therefore have little contact with a Jewish environment. Note: "this course gave me something I was lacking -- the Internet and this course fulfill a necessity and bring us information and Jewishness in an easy way."

  • It provides a forum for exchange of ideas for people from different back, thus fostering an atmosphere of intellectual tolerance. Last year on our basic Judaism course a debate ensued between two participants. It was only later, as they opened up about their backgrounds, that we discovered one to be a Nun and the other an Orthodox Jew.

  • We can foster electronic study communities at Jewish community Centers or in synagogues combining both the benefits of chavruta style learning with the lecture and resources for on- line study.


Structure of the Jewish University in Cyberspace

Our courses have endeavored to present a diverse and comprehensive catalogue of Jewish subjects, including:

  • Biblical Studies

  • Midrash and Talmud

  • Art and Judaism

  • Israel Studies

  • Holocaust Studies

  • Biblical Geography

  • Jewish History

  • Philosophy

  • Political Science

Lecturers included Prof. Geoffrey Wigoder, editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica; Rabbi Doctor Jeffrey Wolf, a leading member of the Talmud Faculty in Bar Ilan University. Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein of the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University. Doctor Jonathan Kaplan of the Hebrew University, Dr. Daniel Abrams, presently guest lecturing at Yale and many others from faculties here and abroad.

The courses had to maintain a high academic level and yet be comprehensible to those who do not have a rich Jewish academic background.


Constructing the Teaching Module -- Challenges

Each semester was of twelve weeks duration. Registration was possible either through our Web site or by direct email. The lectures were sent out on a weekly basis directly to the participants using an email list-server that automatically disseminates the lessons to all subscribers. Each lecture was approximately six single spaced pages in length and included a bibliography and questions for further thought. Questions and comments could be sent to the lecturer via email during the ensuing week. The lecturers could then either reply directly to the student or send the response to the entire (class) list. This is similar to a teacher acknowledging a raised hand in a classroom.

During our past semester we have initiated two changes in order to stimulate participation. At the end of each lecture we have included a synopsis of the next weeks lecture and suggested reading.

We have noticed a rather low rate of participant debate when compared with a visual classroom or with other methods of Distance Learning. Yet this seems to be the wish of the many of our participants. According to the Survey in Business Week (May 95) 77% prefer sites where you do not have to interact with other people. In addition many people were not aware (despite it being in the welcome file) of the ability of writing either directly to the lecture or commenting on a fellow classmates observations. Notwithstanding this tendency we discovered a rise of 13% of participation over last year . In one lecture a "cafe " was opened on the web to allow an unmoderated discussion. Approximately 20% of the students joined the group that was only opened to students of the course.

Many students rated themselves as uncomfortable experimenting with their computers or unfamiliar commands. Evidently there is still a way to go before we will overcome the anxiety many people have with regard to computers.

Each lecturer had intensive preparation in what to expect and how to use this medium to create a classroom. They were shown examples of previous lectures in order to give them a better idea of the style and format which has proved most successful.

Various devices were designed as discussed above to stimulate "classroom" participation. The fact that it did not take place in real-time did not overly effect the intensity or level of the debate.


Course Methodology

Over the past 6 semesters we have been able to determine which methods of teaching can be considered the most effective. In a virtual classroom the lecturer cannot rely on oral or visual techniques, but must translate such didactic devices into literary techniques in order to "press their buttons".

We have developed two main methods for encouraging "classroom" participation. The first is to ask questions for further thought at the end of each lecture. The second is to imbed within the lecture provocative statements, which would lead to reactions.

The use of the Web for resource material is encouraged. This includes both specific designed sites and utilizing sites already on the Web. There has been a slight improvement in "web study habits" over the past year. In answer to the question: Did you make use of the Web source material in the fall of 96, only 32% used the web site. In the fall of this year the percentage rose to 47%. In their response most people who did not use the site found it too difficult. This ties in with the fact that nearly 40% of all students print out their lectures for off-line reading.


Participants (Demographic Analysis)

Growth in numbers of JUICE Participants
Semester Number of courses Number of

Spring '95

2 courses 763
Fall '95 5 courses 1200
Spring '96 6 courses 2040
Summer '96 3 mini courses 1120
Fall '96 5 courses 2480
Spring '97 5 courses 3050
Fall '97 7 courses
inc. 1 Spanish

These figures only represent primary users. The lectures are often printed and distributed at local synagogues and community centers. In addition approximately 15% responded that they shared their lectures with a friend or family member. Upon registration, participants filled in a profile questionnaires regarding age, educational background, profession, and country of residence. These statistics may be compared with the general statistics for Web use.

JUICE vs. general Web demographic statistics
  Fall '96 Fall '97 General Web*
Average age 42.5 40 32.7
Over 50 20 27 19
Male/Female 71/29 68/62 59/41**
University Degree 34 32 23
Graduate Degree 43 44 18

*Surveys consulted:

Results of the GVU 8th WWW Users Survey,(

InteliQuest Feb '97

Business week May '97.


[back to table]

**The data varied radically depending on the course. In general there were higher percentages of women taking courses on biblical studies and history then current affairs or philosophy. [back to table]


JUICE evaluations for the Semester of Fall '97

In all we offered 7 courses with a total participation of 3810 people. The courses offered were:

  • History of the Second Temple Period
  • History of the Diaspora
  • Jewish Mysticism
  • The Jewish Prayerbook (Siddur)
  • The Biblical Narrative
  • Jewish Art
  • The History of Judeophobia (in Spanish)

The information below was taken from the evaluations sent at the end of the course. It is important to note that since the course is totally voluntary and people do not pay any fee there is no reason not to unsubscribe if the participant finds the course unsatisfactory. The number of people who requested to unsubscribe during course was statistically insignificant (.4%)

The evaluation included the following questions. The participants were asked to rate the courses on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being "agree totally" and 5 "being disagree totally":

Did you find the course personally significant?

  1 2 3 4 5
Was the course interesting? 62 22.5 11 5 1.5
Did it meet your expectations? 50 28 13 9 --
Was the material presented clearly? 41 40 15 4 --
Was the level of the course appropriate? 39 36 22 4 --
Did the course encourage participation? 12 35 21 17 5
Did you find the course personally significant? 34 28 24 11 3
Did this course change your view of the subject? 32 18 15 5 30
Did this course contribute to your Jewish/Zionist perspective? 66 5 4 8 17


Analysis of Feedback

Interesting: The course with the lowest rate of interest was Mysticism, which also scored low in meeting expectations (see comment below). Based on the general trend in Internet use, it appears that this evaluation derives from the fact that many of the subscribers to this course were looking for a spiritual experience whereas the course itself was of an academic nature.

Meets expectations: Again Mysticism scored lower than average.

Clearly Presented: Although all the lectures scored high in this category, the Siddur course scored highest ( 1- 55% 2- 43% 3-2%). This is possibly due to the lecturers, who had the most experience in distance learning. This is reflected as well in their success in stimulating the class in participation (1 - 16%, 2- 52%)

Appropriate: Two courses (the Biblical Narrative and Mysticism both scored lower than the others. Mysticism was divided almost equally (1 - 26%, 2 - 33% yes, 3 - 31%). Some people wrote that the lecture was of a higher level than expected. The Bible course also had participants who felt it was above their background and a few who felt it was too basic.

Participation: Clearly there is a downward tendency in this category. Based on additional comments, we have concluded that among our subscribers, some are highly interested in a dialog while others are not. Among those interested in active participation, there is a general feeling that more should be done to encourage such. Amongst the other group, since they are not particular about the subject, they tend to give average evaluations in the category.

Personally significant: There seems to be a link between the issue of participation and the issue of personal significance. While some participants view any interesting course as personally significant, others are looking for a course, which engages them emotionally, and identify such intense involvement with personal significance.

Change in view of subject: As opposed to most of the other categories, sentiment here was rather diametrical. Once again, our feeling is that there is a link between the emotional expectations of the participants and their evaluations here. Those who were looking purely for information tend to reject the possibility of significant change in their intellectual view; those who sought an emotional experience are inclined toward such a change.

Jewish/Zionist perspective: This category once again exhibits a very high level of satisfaction. While some respondents rejected the possibility of significant change here, most expressed the feeling of a real gain in their sense of religious or ethnic identity.


In Conclusion -- The Challenges

The past year has been witness to a phenomenal growth rate and interest in our project and others. It is crucial that local educational service providers take part in either promoting the existing sources or implementing local distance learning programs. Funds should be made available for the creation of local on line study groups utilizing modules already available

Will the Internet replace the traditional classroom? I doubt it. Today home is where the time is. It is imperative that we learn to help utilize the opportunity, which has presented itself. For in essence what is teaching but communication and corrective feedback. If we have the vision to make the jump them we will surely be followed.



Pike, J. (Cyberstats 1996), Federation of American Scientists.

Neilson Media Research spring 97

NUA Internet survey (

Birnbaum, E. (1996) Jewish Distance Learning: A study (Association of Jewish Studies Winter 97)

GVU 8th WWW Users Survey,(

InteliQuest Feb 97

Business week May 97


Gifford, B. R. 1995. Mediated Learning: A new model of technology-mediated instruction and learning. Mountain View, CA: Academic Systems.

Painter, William

Steffen, D., "A Cynic Looks at MOOs"

Ayersman, D. J. 1996. Reviewing the hypermedia-based learning research. Journal on Research on Computing in Education, 28, pp. 500-525.

Distance Education at a Glance.

Moore,M.G. (1987) Distance learning in the United States: the near future. Distance Education - An International Journal Volume 8, Number 1, 1987

Willis, B. (1993). Distance education: A practical guide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Moore, M.G.,& Thompson, M.M., with Quigley, A.B., Clark, G.C., & Goff, G.G.(1990). The effects of distance learning: A summary of the literature. Research Monograph No. 2. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, American Center for the Study of Distance Education. (ED 330 321)


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