Four years ago, we were offered the opportunity and the challenge to create a program that would provide online Judaic studies courses to Jewish day schools across North America. The opportunity was exciting. We knew our expertise and experience was us up to the task; the Virtual High School (VHS, Inc.) has provided online General studies offerings to public and independent school for almost 25 years. The challenge with this specific project, however, was daunting because of the numerous questions we faced: How could we create a community of learners among Jewish day schools with differing goals and missions? How should we decide which courses to develop and offer to these schools? How could we best meet the needs and requests of the schools while ensuring that we follow our own best practices, and articulate those practices to the schools?
As in all educational initiatives, we had to clarify our goals first so that we could begin working towards them. Our mission defines us as a community of Jewish day schools working collaboratively with The Virtual High School to develop and deliver high quality online Judaic studies courses to day school students throughout North America. Our Advisory Board helped us clarify our goals and understand the varying needs of schools, and the potential and possibilities for online courses in those schools. Our courses would enhance the curriculum, fill in gaps, enable students to learn with educators from other schools, provide students with the opportunity to study with students in other Jewish day schools, differentiate learning, and solve scheduling challenges. We were excited and ready to create this unique and powerful learning community for students and teachers in North American Jewish day schools.
The Online Judaic Studies Consortium (OJSC) aspires to be the bridge between educators, scholars, students and communities. As program director, I have visited more than 35 schools in the past four years and met with several hundred Jewish educators to learn about schools’ needs and to share our model and program with them. I have learned a great deal from these schools and their educators who share their vision with me. Through OJSC, educators connect with their peers with similar interests and approaches, while schools come together around a particular initiative or course. It is a real privilege to visit so many schools and see firsthand the incredible learning communities that have been created.
The OJSC’s biggest success was the development of the course Preparing for Life on Campus: The Complexities of Jewish Identity and Israel, developed in collaboration with the Jewish Day School Collaborative, Milken Community High School, and Rabbi Alexander S Gross Hebrew Day School. Our goal was to create a course that would be a meaningful and honest educational experience that would prepare the student for what they might find on a college campus in this realm. Civil discourse is a mainstay of all interactions in the course and students are empowered to speak their minds and to listen respectfully to others. Students have reported that they enjoyed the opportunity to connect with other students on this topic. We also hope to hear from them that this course helped them maintain a strong Jewish identity as they thrive in college.
Courses dealing with Israel are the most requested to date and, consequently, we have four courses in our catalog on the subject. Courses that deal with Jewish history and Jewish values also are highly requested, and we have developed several courses that are interdisciplinary and integrate Jewish values into other subjects. Schools use these courses as electives for their students who enjoy the variety in the subject matter and the change of style in the learning.
In answer to the questions I posed at the beginning of this blog, I can say with confidence that the best way to develop a community of learners among schools with differing goals and missions is to provide a supervised, nurturing atmosphere for the students, with a focus on the needs of each individual. Once that is in place, we communicate often with the schools and work with our teachers to understand the varying needs of their students, just as we do in the face-to-face classroom. We offer information to the schools about the course and course developer so each school can assess which courses are appropriate for its community. Our decisions about which courses to develop are based on significant input from schools. We always seek input and I encourage anyone reading this to weigh in with thoughts and requests for courses you would like to see available online for your students. Our commitment to honor our own thoughts about best practice in the online space continues to impact our work with schools and inspire us to share what we have learned as we listen to what the schools need and want. The conversation is ongoing and the community is growing. We hope you will want to join in and help us to create something incredible.
Lisa Micley is the Program Director of the Online Judaic Studies Consortium.