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Friday, August 1, 2014

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Shuls supplement classes with online instruction

Tags: Jewish learning
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ShalomLearning offers online lessons for Hebrew and Torah study.

For many families, between school, extracurricular activities, their social lives – not to mention parents’ busy schedules – it can be hard to fit supplementary Jewish studies into their lives.

Starting this year, two Canadian synagogues are hoping to offer a more flexible option with the introduction of a program that partners with ShalomLearning, an American company that provides a system of online education.

Although the program has existed in the United States for two years, this is the first time the company has targeted a Canadian audience.

“We’re reaching out globally,” said Sarah Steinberg, CEO of ShalomLearning. The former executive vice-provost of Johns Hopkins University said she spent years focusing on online education, examining the differences between online and in-person studies.

The learning outcomes have proven to be identical, if not better in secular studies, she said.

“In some cases [the results are] better when you're learning online, because you have the advantage of being able to slow down a recording or take an extra time to look at something again,” she said.

She said although she isn’t aware of any studies focusing on faith-based education, “I have no reason to doubt that the findings are exactly the same.”

Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto added the program this year for congregational school students learning Hebrew in grades 4 and up.

Daniel Silverman, the shul’s director of education and family programming, said the school is hoping it will make it easier for students to take the class, despite their busy schedules.

For a number of years, the school has offered an option of having teachers come to students’ homes if they couldn’t make it to class, but this meant the teachers were driving to several houses a week.

Now with the online option, the teachers can teach two online classes, cutting down on the number of in-home tutorials.

“It’s really amazing that basically you’re running the same sort of class,” Silverman said. “It may even be a little more interesting to the students, to students who are tech-savvy and like to have that relationship through the computer.”

In Montreal, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom also began using the program this year for its Grade 7 bar and bat mitzvah class. Like Beth Tzedec, the online lessons at the temple are only one component of the class.

Ali Maislin teaches both in class and online at that synagogue, and she said that so far, the two are not so different.

“We’re all online together. We can all see each other. In that sense it’s like sitting together,” she said.

The biggest hurdle for her was learning the system and finding ways to help students who might have technical difficulties while trying not to let it affect the other students. But she noted that multitasking is a big part of teaching in the classroom, too.

Theoretically, if synagogues were to expand their online course offerings, it could offer the opportunity for Torah study to people who don’t have a synagogue in their city, Steinberg said.

But there’s still a while to go before the shuls are ready to tackle that audience.

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, the temple’s spiritual leader, said that although the classes enrich the program, she’s adamant that the online classes could never replace in-class instruction.

“It's all a balancing act. You want to have an open door, and sometimes that means flexibility and accommodating where you can, but you want there to be substance, and part of the substance is community,” she said.

Even ShalomLearning’s first partner, Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Md., which has seen the positive results of online faith-based learning first hand, wouldn’t consider using it as a total replacement.

“It’s harder to really create community online,” said Geryl Baer, the shul’s director of community engagement. “It’s a great platform for some of the education, but they miss out on the social aspect. There’s something positive about being comfortable in the synagogue.”

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