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College-level online Jewish ed expanding

Deborah Kaye
Deborah Kaye

Online Jewish education is thriving, and the University of Arizona’s Center for Judaic Studies is part of the trend. As with other online Jewish studies programs, most of the center’s courses will be “blended learning, part in-person and part online,” says Deborah Kaye, Ph.D., a full-time adjunct lecturer at the U.A.

“Teaching online has made me a better teacher. I have to understand the software. There’s so much organization, and I need to know the proper way to reach out to students to make sure they don’t get lost,” she says. For example, Kaye prepares Power Point presentations as part of a video for teaching online. “This is the millennial generation that learns so differently, which is so different from the ‘aging professoriate’ that don’t have skills. Many say, ‘If I can’t look them in the eye, how can I teach them?’”

There are now hundreds of courses taught online by universities, separately and in conjunction with other institutions around the world. “Interest in Judaic studies has been growing steadily in China for many years,” says J. Edward Wright, director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies. “We’ve had official connections with Nanjing International University for several years.”

The University of California, Santa Cruz, last year offered the first online course on the Holocaust and 18,000 people around the world signed up to take the course, says Kaye. “Israel is a pioneer of online education. You can study Hebrew, Yiddish or the Bible online.” Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, started its first online course in 1999. Many current online courses count toward certificates but not toward degrees. Universities also offer MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses), although the UA doesn’t. The global emphasis is on MOOCS, says Kaye.

In 2013, she received a $10,000 grant from the UA Office of Instruction and Educational Assessment to develop more high-quality online courses. This summer Kaye has been working with the UA Disabilities Resource Center to create an online course in Judaic studies for the hearing impaired. Kaye, who holds a Ph.D. in modern European and Jewish history from the University of Arizona and a master’s in Jewish history from the University of Michigan, teaches modern and medieval Jewish History; Jewish thought and culture; history of anti-Semitism; and women, Judaism and the Holocaust online.

“I’m designing a course for the Department of French and Italian” she says, “which will be available this winter, the Holocaust experience in France and Italy. I’m very excited about this class! My hope is that we’ll have an online semester [at the UA]. We’ve had a semester abroad. Why not an online semester?”

Kaye notes that “30 percent of all U.S. students were enrolled in an online class in 2013. I would like to see more access to education, which is what online learning does,” she says. “It also brings tuition down” for students struggling with the rising costs of a college degree.

Online learning “allows us freedoms we never had before,” affirms Kaye. “Students can get a degree in a timely manner, take more classes year-round, and it  doesn’t matter what age you are. The hub of Jewish learning online is Hebrew College” in the Boston area, which partners with Brandeis University to offer complete semesters of courses online.

In fact, two Tucson Jewish professionals are currently enrolled at Hebrew College. Lori Riegel, advertising manager at the Arizona Jewish Post, received a master’s degree in Jewish education in May. She has already started a Ph.D. program in educational leadership/Jewish educational leadership run jointly by Lesley University and Hebrew College.

Taking classes online, along with a two-week residency in July, Riegel says that “using Hebrew College’s learning platform [called] Schoology is like using Facebook. I’m more apt to comment because I can think about what I say in discussion and self-edit as I write. Hebrew college professors are really adept at new learning technologies, which we as students can turn around and use with our students.”

Julie Zorn, Jewish culture specialist at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, has a background in Jewish music education and recently began a master’s program in Jewish education at Hebrew College. “I’ll specialize in experiential [hands-on] Jewish education,” says Zorn, “using Jewish values to bring Judaism to life,” perhaps using music one week or cooking another week.

“It must be said that online learning was the only option for someone like me with a full-time job and a family. I can do my assignments at home in my jammies.”

“Education is going to be a lifelong process, not just for bachelor’s or master’s degrees,” notes Kaye. “I would love to see a Holocaust education certificate offered online.

“The world is becoming such a global place in the 21st century,” she says. “With the online revolution in education, if used properly, there are no limits to the good we can do.”