New Report Details the Deep Influence, Impact, and Connection to Others in Online Jewish Learning

April 1st, 2019

More People from Various Backgrounds and With Different Interests Turn to Online Sources With Confidence and Ease of Access in Their Jewish Learning Pursuits

San Francisco, CA — When people learn online about Jewish life, culture, ritual, and more, they are engaging in substantive, meaningful Jewish education on their own schedule and often exploring topics they may not feel comfortable discussing in person. These are just a few of the significant findings from a new report, The Future of Jewish Learning Is Here: How Digital Media Are Reshaping Jewish Education, written by Dr. Ari Y. Kelman and a team of researchers at Stanford University, and commissioned by the Jim Joseph Foundation. The report demonstrates the wide range of ways learners utilize websites, apps, videos, podcasts, and other platforms to increase their Jewish knowledge and to build connections—both online and In Real Life (IRL)—to others.

“Learning online may not resemble more familiar forms of education but it can be very influential in people’s lives,” says Dr. Ari Y. Kelman of Stanford University and the lead researcher of The Future of Jewish Learning Is Here. “Jewish learning online is largely self-motivated and self-directed because it takes place outside the typical classroom environment and does not require a teacher. Rather, learners online actively pursue what interests them, searching for what they find meaningful, and choosing what to share with friends or family.

The report highlights that Jewish educational online media enable learners to:

  • Connect with others around Jewish learning: Learners use the social aspects of online media to reinforce their connections with others around engagement with Jewish content. This could be sharing a podcast or even just imagining others who might be having a similar experience with the same media.
  • Access Jewish knowledge beyond Jewish institutions: Learners value access to Jewish knowledge that offers perspectives they don’t hear through Jewish institutions (synagogues, community centers, etc.). The accessibility of online information lowers barriers to entry for learners seeking answers to questions, and learners feel validated and empowered to ask questions they might not pose otherwise.
  • Learn in sync with the rhythms of the Jewish calendar: Whether driven by the platforms themselves or by the interests of learners, the publishing patterns of Jewish media online mean that annual holidays and weekly Sabbath observance take on additional influence. They shape the timing and content of much Jewish online media. Learners, as a result, engage with online media in patterns that follow the rhythms of Jewish life as they time their learning to newly available material.
  • Utilize different platforms for different ends: The specifically Jewish expertise of certain platforms enhances elements of the online learning experience. People develop connections to certain platforms and value the expertise those platforms offer them. While Wikipedia might offer more information than My Jewish Learning, the Jewish imprimatur of the latter invests the content with additional meaning for learners.
  • Integrate online learning and offline practice: Online learning is fundamentally connected to offline experiences and vice versa. Millennials in particular see very little distinction between online and offline interactions. Learners are brought to online media because of needs or questions that they cannot answer or adequately address without it. Similarly, the experiences of learning online find their way into offline conversations with family and friends and enable new formations and formulations of Jewish life.

“There is no doubt now that digital experiences shape our lives and that learning through exploration is very powerful,” says Daniel Septimus, CEO of Sefaria, whose online Jewish texts have been accessed by more than 3 million people since 2013. “Digital media makes Jewish calendar awareness possible in ways that did not exist 25 years ago, for example. Smart and engaging content can essentially find users online and pique their interest about minor holidays they didn’t know existed.”

Perhaps a counterintuitive finding of the report is that online learning is a highly social environment filled with collaborative learning. Moreover, for some users, having access to information helps inspire confidence in their sense of belonging to a Jewish community. This newfound confidence is particularly powerful for people who were questioning their place in the Jewish community and for whom information became a way to establish their feelings of belonging.

“What emerges from our research is a portrait of a robust, flexible, creative, non-traditional, readily accessible learning environment for people who do not necessarily engage in learning in schools, synagogues, or immersive experiences,” adds Kelman. “Learning online appears to have a great deal of traction, as learners are driven by their need to know, rather than the structured demands of a curriculum or a class schedule.”

The report notes that learning online is driven by “real-life” concerns or needs, which means that online learners are already poised to integrate new knowledge or insights into their lives.  Online learning is rarely “academic” study for which tests can be dispatched to measure “literacy.” The learning is meaningful because it is embedded within the daily lives of learners.

“For young children, going online to find answers or greater meaning to anything is second nature,” says Meredith Lewis, Director of Content, Education, and Family Experience for PJ Library. “They then take that information and it becomes a part of who they are and what they do. Thus, if Jewish communal and education leaders care about engaging people today and in the future, we have to both acknowledge and understand how impactful online learning is and can be.”

The report leaves readers with a set of questions at the end of each section to spark further inquiry into how online learning is shaping lives—and how those who care about Jewish education might leverage it.

“We know there are more questions than answers about how Jewish learning online is a part of people’s lives,” says Josh Miller, Chief Program Officer of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which commissioned this research along with a previous study, Smart Money: Recommendations for an Educational Technology and Digital Engagement Investment Strategy. “We are excited to learn more because we know the possibilities for meaningful Jewish learning are expanding, seemingly every day.”

To develop The Future of Jewish Learning Is Here report, researchers reviewed general research on online learning and conducted in depth interviews with 24 adult and young adult learners selected from over 1,000 survey respondents.