Will ‘Startup Nation’ Fuel Jewish Ed-tech?


When Smadar Goldstein made aliyah 14 years ago, she didn’t anticipate long hours in front of a computer, a headset with earphones and microphone her constant fashion accessory.

“I wanted to teach Tanach,” she said, using the Hebrew word for the Bible. “But here, every Noach and Rachel is a Tanach teacher.”

Undeterred by the geographic laws of supply and demand, this Los Angeles native — a mother of four and former aerobics instructor who exudes seemingly endless energy — found a creative solution. From a spare bedroom in her Jerusalem apartment, she teaches Bible, Jewish history and a new Israel/Hebrew course called “Hip-Hop Hebraics”; her students take her synchronous (everyone participating at the same time) classes and mini-courses via the Internet from Jewish day schools, congregational schools and homes all over the world.

Goldstein’s Jerusalem EdTech Solutions (JETS), which she founded in 2009 with Rabbis Joel Cohn and Stan Peerless, is one of several companies, many of them based in Israel, seeking to serve an emerging market for online Judaic courses and content.

With North American day schools under pressure to reduce staffing costs, serve students with a wide range of abilities and instill “21st-century skills,” online Judaic studies material, particularly for the middle- and high-school grades, is an increasingly sought-after commodity.

But whether the niche market of Judaic studies can support development of sophisticated courses on par with the rapidly growing offerings in secular studies — and how all this will affect the job market for day school teachers — remains to be seen.

Will teaching be outsourced to a handful of charismatic, media-savvy instructors like JETS’ Goldstein?

“That’s the No. 1 question,” said Rachel Mohl Abrahams, a program officer at the Avi Chai Foundation, which has funded a variety of experiments in online Jewish learning and recently brought together leading tech providers and Jewish day school leaders to share information. “The mantra for last 25 years has been, ‘Let’s have a pipeline of people coming into the field, what can we do to get more Jewish studies teachers?’ And now we’re almost flipping that on its head. We believe we will still need a cadre of very strong Judaic studies teachers, but they’ll need somewhat different skills … The notion of having as many full-time faculty in day schools may change. It wouldn’t be fair to say that’s not a possibility.”

So far, what’s out there in the fledgling field of online Judaic instructional material varies in scope, pricing structure and developmental stage; some are for-profit ventures, whereas others are nonprofits. In addition, noted Avi Chai’s Abrahams, “Some providers have created things online that could be part of a course, and some are working on full-fledged courses.”

In addition to JETS, some of the players in this new market include:

Tomorrow’s Genius, a company that creates customized synchronous online courses for Jewish day schools.

Ulpan Or, which teaches modern Hebrew through a unique “rapid language acquisition” curriculum and its trademark “E-tone,” an “interactive multimedia news digest” developed in-house.

WebYeshiva and its parent organization, ATID, which are looking to transfer their expertise in synchronous distance learning for adults to the world of high-school education.

♦ Bar-Ilan University’s “Lookstein Live,” which offers five synchronous video-conferenced courses with Israel-based instructors.

Aleph Beta, launched this spring and headquartered in New York, which offers multimedia lectures. Users can take a full course for college credit or view individual segments.

Among the great unknowns is which of the various businesses and nonprofits vying to serve the Jewish education world will take off in a big way — who might become the Jewish ed world’s Facebook, and who might go the way of MySpace.

“The market is not that big, and a major investment is necessary in order to launch,” said Jeff Kiderman, executive director of Affordable Jewish Education, a new group supporting various day school affordability initiatives. “On the secular side, you can rely on companies being driven by the fact that the educational system spends trillions a year, and if you get a small piece of the pie, you’ll be profitable. In Jewish education, if there are two players they won’t be able to make a living.”

Kiderman’s financier-backed group, based in Manhattan, promotes blended (combining computerized and face-to-face instruction) learning and has provided funding for new schools like Bergenfield, N.J.’s Yeshivat He’Atid (Yeshiva of the Future). The group gets “proposals all the time and have been in talks with people on the path to doing something [in online Jewish education], or who have produced things that could turn into what we’re looking for,” Kiderman said. “It’s a question of, ‘Do we think they can do it, how much money would we be willing to invest, and what kind of risk are we willing to take?’ With a venture like that, you can sink a lot of money before, if ever, it becomes profitable, and we don’t want to be in the business of propping up tech companies that can’t support themselves.”

In a follow-up e-mail, Kiderman noted: “It may be the case that what we should be doing is identifying people in the space who have different strengths and getting people working collaboratively on solutions rather than having different groups compete for the pie.”

While a handful of new tech-focused Jewish day schools, like Yeshivat He’Atid, the Pre-Collegiate Learning Center of New Jersey and Yeshiva High Tech of Los Angeles are aggressively pursuing online resources, most established day schools are still figuring out the extent to which they want technology to replace, versus supplement, in-person instructional time — and what resources would be most useful. (Meanwhile, congregational schools, with less funding and fewer staff at their disposal, are in even earlier stages of exploring technology.)

One increasingly talked-about strategy among proponents of the “blended” approach is the “flipped classroom” in which students watch instructional videos and online lectures from home, then answer questions and solve problems during classroom time, under the guidance of a teacher.

While few established day schools are jumping head first into blended learning, a growing number are experimenting with new offerings and trying out online classes, often with electives rather than the required curriculum.

Twenty-six schools have signed on to pilot an Aleph Beta course this fall; meanwhile, 10 have worked with Ulpan Or and 18 have offered Lookstein Live courses. Twenty-five institutions (including congregational schools) have used JETS in some capacity so far; 30 students participate in its once-a-week “JConnect,” classes from their homes.

Some schools, like Ramaz on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; Yeshivat Noam and Yavneh Academy in Paramus, N.J., and Weinbaum Yeshiva in Boca Raton, have experimented with several providers.

Tomorrow’s Genius, which began by tutoring English-speaking immigrants, then expanded to offer online courses to Israeli schools, started marketing Judaic studies courses to a handful of North American day schools in January. Eight schools piloted a course this spring, said Aryeh Eisenberg, the CEO.

While Tomorrow’s Genius focuses on video-conferenced, rather than in-person, instruction, Ulpan Or started out as (and continues to run) a bricks-and-mortar operation, with classes and programs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In New York, both Ramaz and Brooklyn’s Yeshivah of Flatbush are using Ulpan Or’s online materials, combining them with an on-site teacher who has received training in the Ulpan Or method; SAR Academy in Riverdale will be trying it this fall. Ulpan Or is also in discussions with congregational schools about adapting the program for their use, and is exploring fully online courses that would not require an on-site teacher.

At Yeshivah of Flatbush, which recently launched a one-to-one iPad program, Ulpan Or is used once a week in ninth and 10th grade (the two grades with iPads).

“It’s been really great,” said Assistant Principal Rabbi Joseph Beyda, noting that it has increased students’ motivation to learn conversational Hebrew. “The E-Tone [multi-media news program] is a nice way of bringing Israel into the classroom, both its current events and cultural aspects.”

Lauren Ariev Gellman, director of PCLC-NJ, a high school that opened last year in East Brunswick, N.J., said the biggest need she sees is for online Judaic lectures that schools can “blend into their curriculum.”

“Synchronous online courses have a certain place, but I don’t think they’re where anyone’s going to end up,” Gellman said. “The cost is not particularly less than hiring your own teacher, and there’s an advantage to having a teacher in the room. Whereas if you have online material and a teacher [in the room] then you can have the best of both worlds.”

Many champions of blended learning, the combining of face-to-face with computerized instruction, say technology benefits teachers, freeing them up to spend more one-on-one time helping students, rather than trying to reach everyone at once from the front of the classroom.

“I don’t know how many teachers want to be in the entertainment business, trying to hold all the kids’ attention for a whole class period,” said Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, CEO of Aleph Beta.

“We expect teachers to be master teachers and subject-matter experts; if we can remove some of the obligation for being subject-matter experts,” on-site teachers could focus on students’ needs, he added.

Blended learning proponents frequently describe the shifting role for on-site teachers with the mantra “guide on the side, not sage on the stage.”

The Aleph Beta platform might also create opportunities for enterprising teachers who want to reach a broader audience, Lightstone said.

“The best teacher who no one knows about, because she’s in St. Louis, could put a course up,” he said.

On a similar note, Galli Aizenmann, a program officer at Avi Chai, said that many schools have expressed interest in a “consortium model, where teachers could develop courses and share them with other schools, and where vendors could develop courses and put them in the consortium.”

Said Kiderman, of Affordable Jewish Education, “Eventually what’s going to happen is someone is going to create a platform where people can submit things and it’s ranked by popularity. Teachers will go onto the site to prepare lessons, and students will go there to study for tests.”

One thing is for sure: being an online teacher, whether through a synchronous course or recorded instructional videos and multimedia lessons, is not something all classroom teachers can automatically do.

JETS’ Goldstein, who just began offering a training course for aspiring online teachers, said, “You have to be super dynamic because you’re limited to a screen, and that’s not interesting. At first maybe the novelty of it will capture the kids’ attention, but after that they get bored. You have to explode of the screen with dynamism, talk in an engaging way — and the pacing of the class is supremely important.”

E-mail: Juli@gmail.com, Twitter: @Julie_Wiener