Online classroom technology provides a robust computer-based educational experience and instructor interaction that for some learners can make the difference between access to knowledge and not having access at all.
At the start of its fourth year of academic course offerings, Bonim B’Yachad, an online Israeli-based education company that delivers religious and academic content to Jewish day schools around the U.S. and was founded by Baltimorean Dr. Howard Eisenberg, expects to engage more than 500 students online with the assistance of about 22 teachers in the coming school year.
“Instead of being a third-party platform we try to be an extension of the school,” said Howard’s son, Aryeh Eisenberg, Bonim B’Yachad CEO and general manager.
They conform to a school’s schedule and adhere to its existing academic program, said Eisenberg, a Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School graduate who made aliyah more than seven years ago. For instance, if Jewish history is offered Monday, Wednesday and Friday at a certain time, Bonim B’Yachad will work within that window. Instead of students going to a physical classroom, they connect to their online classroom and teacher via computer. To participate, a student may log onto his or her own laptop, or depending upon resources, students may use a monitor and learn in a small group.
Eisenberg adds, “We use [the school’s] grading system and participate in parent-teacher conferences [via computer or phone] — and yes, if it’s 3 a.m. in Israel, we will still
“Their service is a varied one. It can be used for enrichment or remediation,” said Zipora Schorr, BT director of education for more than 30 years. “If there is a student or small group that would benefit from a course, but I may not have a teacher for it or a subsection of a class,” then we can contract with Bonim B’Yachad to provide it, she said.
Schorr said BT has contracted with them for math, Bible and Hebrew language courses and adds that so far a class has consisted of anywhere from one to six students
“[The class is] in real time, it’s not just an online course. It’s an interactive course, with a human being,” said Schorr. “Several times I walked in [the room where students are logged into the course] and I was able to talk to the instructor myself. I could engage in dialogue exactly as we do in classroom.”
Schorr said it’s not always possible to add to a teacher’s already full schedule so that’s when BT would contract with Bonim B’Yachad, and other times the decision might be based on obtaining an instructor with the right expertise. Hiring another in-person teacher for a single course isn’t feasible with a typical teacher’s contract, she said.
At the other end of the online learning spectrum is the University of Maryland University College, established after World War II, first providing distributed education to military bases and now offering educational opportunities online and face-to-face for adult students and military personnel in Maryland, the nation and throughout the world.
Especially in the early years, lacking a centralized campus, UMUC went out to where the students were located. They rented space, often on military bases, and also offered night and weekend classes at the College Park campus and still do today.
“[Transitioning to] online was so perfect for us, we already knew how to reach out to students and how to get materials to them,” said Cynthia Davis, senior director of special academic projects. “Once we started online the demand went up,” especially from people living in areas where traffic is prohibitive (if you need to drive from work to a campus at rush hour for instance), and it’s great for military students who may move around a lot or get deployed, she said.
UMUC courses are designed by the faculty that teaches them and include consultation with working experts in the given field. First, course outcomes are determined, which include employability, and content is built enlisting a team of programmers, instructional designers and graphic designers who work to make it an engaging online educational experience.
The courses are structured “so you can use them for a hybrid course and a fully online or a fully face-to-face course,” said Davis, who before her current position served as dean and associate dean of the undergraduate school and has been with the institution for about 17 years.
UMUC is a member of the University of Maryland College Network, and the online classroom platform is asynchronous because it’s used by students from all over world in different time zones. There is a “chat” function for students to contact each other as well as instructors and the online classroom contains an assignment and resources area, a grading area and work submission area.
In 2014, UMUC had upward of 243,000 online students enrolled worldwide, including about 32,000 Marylanders who can also access 18 face-to-face instruction sites throughout the state. UMUC also runs 140 locations across four continents to service their students.
Average learners “are working adults, about 30 years old,” and 74 percent of those are employed fulltime, said Davis. “Most are married and often have children, and more than 50 percent are in the military, partly because we have the contracts overseas with bases,” and if they move or are deployed, the course can move with them. “It’s not uncommon to have students doing active duty in dangerous places,” she added.
“You can have high-quality education, but sometimes higher quality,” said Davis, in reference to the often-criticized reputation and rigor of online education. “You can provide more resources, and you can watch [and track] what goes on in the online classroom.” It provides a platform to ensure every student participates and is not hindered by “one talkative person who can drown out everyone else,” in a face-to-face classroom.
UMUC offers 93 degrees, specializations and certificates that span undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies. Courses are $299 per credit for in-state tuition and twice that amount for out-of-state, said Davis.
Costs for the real-time K-12 courses from Bonim B’Yachad are about $450 per month to $650 per month depending upon how many sessions per week a class meets.
All Bonim B’Yachad teachers have U.S. classroom experience and are certified for all secular subjects. Most made aliyah but some are Israeli-born. Instructors complete a vigorous training before they begin teaching online said Eisenberg, who spent the better part of his career as a specialist integrating technology into the classroom, and the training is something “we take very seriously,” he added.
Bonim B’Yachad will venture into online adult education with Melton Online Europe this fall, offering Jewish studies classes targeted toward people in areas with difficulty accessing Jewish learning.
Said Eisenberg, “One of the great things about online learning is there are no limits to the possibilities.”