Computerized university brings Jewish study home

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As part of the Holocaust course they will teach this fall, Cal State Chico professors Sam and Carol Edelman will lead field trips to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Their students, however, will never have to board a plane.

They will be taking the course, titled The Holocaust: Foundation, Tragedy, & Aftermath, via computer. The course is one of five offered on the Internet this fall by Jewish University in Cyberspace (JUICE), a virtual institution of higher learning run by the World Zionist Organization's student and academic department. No need to worry about having a high grade point average to attend here; all students need to enroll is a computer, a modem, and a comfortable chair.

JUICE opened its virtual doors in the spring with two courses — Jewish History, and Art and Judaism. More than 1,100 students enrolled worldwide, and the online university decided to expand.

In addition to the Edelmans' Holocaust course, JUICE's second semester offerings include Family Relations in the Bible, Jewish History — The Medieval Period, Introduction to Classical Jewish Philosophy and Biblical Geography.

The Holocaust course starts Thursday, Oct. 5 and offers three units of credit from Cal State Chico for $315. The others have already started, but people can still log on, according to Robert Braun, national resource coordinator for the WZO's university department.

Sam Edelman, professor of communications studies, and his wife, Carol, who teaches sociology and social work, have jointly researched and taught the Holocaust for 12 years. They decided to take their course onto the information superhighway to make discussions on the Holocaust available to students and scholars around the world.

"There are students from a wide variety of universities that don't have Holocaust or Jewish studies courses," Sam Edelman said. "They want to have access to courses and be able to get credit."

The course will explore such topics as the political events, philosophies and beliefs that led to the Holocaust; the long-term effects of such post-war events as war crime trials and the creation of the state of Israel; and the cultural interpretation of the Holocaust through poetry, drama, journalism and religious expression.

Lectures, including guest lectures, will be distributed weekly via electronic mail, but 60- to 90-minute live class discussions will take place at least once every other week in what's called a virtual education environment (VEE).

A "classroom" in which students can interact with each other and with faculty using their keyboards, the VEE will have a number of "tables." Students will be divided into discussion groups and "sit" at those tables with five to 10 others. "The environment is moveable and changeable," Sam Edelman said. "We can have multiple discussions going on at one time."

Edelman acknowledges that by their very nature, online courses will never have the same flavor as there-in-the-flesh classes. But he views the VEE as a major improvement over those courses conducted entirely by e-mail.

"Generally e-mail courses are glorified correspondence courses," he said. "This goes beyond that to having real interaction, an intimate connection with a faculty person. In a way, it's a kind of tutorial."

Since the VEE is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, students will be able to meet in the VEE as often as they wish outside organized class meetings.

Conceivably, students from around the world can take an Internet course. Since the geographical makeup of students in the Holocaust course is unknown as of yet, the Edelmans will wait until registration has been completed before deciding on the most convenient times for class meetings.

Those taking the course for credit will receive grades based on their performance on two exams, which will consist of essay questions students must e-mail to the instructors within a week after they're sent out. Anyone who does not receive credit can audit the course free, though students must purchase course texts.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.