Engaging a Community of Online Learners

online learning shluchim school

Photo Credit: Chezky Altein (2008) of Mendel Piekarski, from Bogota Colombia (Chabad Shluchim Online School Session)

By Yonatan Gordon

Probably the most basic step toward engaging a learning community is that they be listening. We mentioned that if a teacher is giving over the lesson, but none of his students are paying attention, then he might as well go home. The same holds true for journalism. If the journalist can engage and inspire readers, then this is naturally a sign of a good journalist.

With the rising interest in online education, the question of engagement has taken a different form. How can educators know if the students are listening, if the class is being broadcast over the internet? This question is compounded when speaking of recorded classes, where teachers and students don’t seem to interact at all. One study, recently mentioned in the article “One way to curtail a wandering mind during class: more testing”, suggests that testing is the answer.

This proposition seems rather curious though. The fact that online learners are willingly watching classes outside the classical classroom setting, itself indicates a greater degree of volunteerism. There is no teacher watching over them. No chair in a classroom to sit down in. For the most part, these students seem self-motivated and interested in the subject matter. Perhaps a better approach would be to foster this self-inspired behavior?

Commandments vs. Volunteerism

In Jewish thought, these present times we are living in are governed by the rule, “greater is one who performs an act that he is commanded to do, than one who volunteers to perform the commandment.” But in the future, it will be the volunteer who will be considered the greater one. According to our present perception, someone who is commanded to perform an act is not acting according to his nature. If there is a need to command him, this proves that the act is unnatural to him. If it were natural, he would perform the required actions of his own accord, without being commanded. The Torah does not command a person to breathe, because a person breathes naturally of his own accord, without the conscious awareness of doing so. How does this relate to education?

Is it better to view learning as an obligation or something voluntary? In the classical classroom model, most teachers would answer that the obligation is what keeps the students listening. By administering tests and quizzes, the teachers are simply making sure that the students are paying attention. This approach then relates to our present times, when being commanded to act is greater than one who volunteers.

But this is rapidly changing. Now, the best teachers in the world are putting their classes online for all to benefit. In short time, the difference between physically attending a prestigious college, and virtually attending, will be best observed as a difference in cost, not content. Ultimately, most great teachers, would like to see as many students benefit from their lessons as possible. If they can both teach students in-person, and online, this seems to be the best outcome for everyone.

The Futuristic World of Online Learning

As we saw within Jewish thought, the main difference though is that online learning is more futuristic. Whereas a physical class emphasizes the obligatory or commanded aspect of learning, the “watch a lecture at home” model is something altogether more voluntaristic. The question of physical vs. online learning then is really a question of time. Is you focus on the present state of obligatory commandments, or are you a futurist, with your sights toward the unfolding reality of volunteerism?

It would seem that it would be better to have both. To have students, that even though they are sitting at home, feel a natural obligation to connect with and listen to the lecture. Whereas being tested seems coercive, the act of attentively listening to the class from home seems something more natural and self-motivated.

In physiology, it is customary to divide the nervous system into two parts: the sympathetic, and the parasympathetic. The former is responsible for the actions of a person which need conscious attention in order to be performed, while the latter is in charge of the systems and actions which do not need conscious attention. A person whose parasympathetic system is healthy does not need to think of digesting the food he has eaten in order for it to be digested, just as he does not have to think about breathing.

Similarly, we can say that the commandments of the Torah require “conscious awareness,” and one who is commanded, performs them consciously 7. A person who volunteers, on the other hand, is expressing that the action he is performing is, in truth, part of his nature. He does not need to be commanded in order to perform it. We may say, that at a certain level, someone who volunteers is acting “automatically.”

We can also define in the same manner the commanded action as “mandatory”, while whatever is not explicitly commanded as “voluntary,” or “an optional offering.” Before the Exodus and the giving of the Torah, all the commandments were considered “natural” commandments. In relation to the commandments given to Israel at Mount Sinai, they were considered “voluntary” and “an optional offering.” After the Revelation at Sinai the commandments became “mandatory.”

The Kabbalah of Online Learning

According to Kabbalah, since the giving of the Torah the world is occupied with constructing “vessels” to receive the “light” of the commandments. This means that commandments as orders are intended to construct vessels, while optional performance of the commandments draws light into the vessels. While the objective of the commandments is the dissemination of its light, it is impossible to receive this light without first constructing an appropriate vessel.

After the period of the fulfillment of the commandments as voluntary (before the Giving of the Torah), there had to be a period of fulfillment of commandments as mandatory orders (after the Giving of the Torah). The objective remained the light of the commandments, and that is why in the future, the voluntary fulfillment—the receiving of the light—becomes once again the key aspect.

Nevertheless, the vessel will not be abolished in the future, for the period of performing the commandments as mandatory was meant to build a powerful vessel that can hold the light, and this vessel is needed in the future as well.

We thus stand before a paradox. On the one hand, the vessel (i.e., fulfilling the commandments as obligations) will remain, while on the other hand the commandment must be carried out voluntarily, in order to allow the light to enter and shine into the vessel.

The solution to this paradox is in the matter of the performance of the commandments in the future; the performance will be in the manner of “spontaneous obligation.” One will remain obligated to perform the commandments (in order to retain the vessel), but he will perform them “spontaneously,” as if they were totally voluntarily. From here we see that in the future, greater is the one who performs the commandments voluntarily, meaning one who performs the commandments spontaneously, with a completely natural feeling.

Spontaneous Learning

From this, we see that our answer then lies in whether we interpret the time we are now living in as one of obligation or volunteerism? If a student spontaneously comes up with ways to integrate or apply the lesson, then it shouldn’t matter whether he is physically sitting there, or watching online.

We mentioned in our “What if Technology, Just…Vanished???” article about a student who was taking notes during his teacher’s live video class. The fact that the video stream got interrupted, prompted the student to leap past the perceived distance, and continue taking notes as before. While we said in that article, that this is an example of “leaping to an answer”, this also sets a precedent for something else. Whether the student is physically sitting in the front row of the classroom, or thousands of miles away, the ability to connect with their teacher shouldn’t necessarily be any different. A devoted student can always be connected to their teacher no matter where they are sitting. This examples shows the futuristic take on online learning. That to include the “light within the vessel” (i.e. the lesson within the attentive student), matters of distance need not be an issue.

What we can say, at least to start with, is that physical distance does seem to encourage these spontaneous voluntaristic aspects. As long as this student is sitting physically among other students, he may mistakenly think that his contributions are not as worthwhile as those of his classmates. But the truth is that the teacher welcomes and values the spontaneous contributions of each of his students. For some, this will mean transcribing the class and posting it on the internet. For others, maybe they will find some other way to promote the lesson to others. The blending of the classical classroom and online learning then is not only through tests, but through the spontaneous contributions of the students. This is how the Torah remedies the wandering or distracted mind. By encouraging students to act on what they learn, the students become more involved in the learning experience. Instead of being passive participants, they are vital and active listeners vested with the task of sharing the lesson to others.

We can summarize all three stages of the development of consciousness regarding the performance of the commandments as follows:

The Future

“Greater is one who performs voluntarily”

Light in vessel

Commandments require “spontaneous” intent

Service of unification

After the giving of the Torah

Commandments are mandatory


Commandments require intent

Service of separation

Before the Giving of the Torah

Commandments are voluntary


Commandments do not require intent

Service of the forefathers, like pleasant scents before God


7 Scriptural commandments require conscious performance (kavanah), but rabbinical commandments do not require conscious performance (kavanah). We can see from here that Rabbinic commandments are more “natural” to us than the Scriptural commandments.

Excerpted and Freely Adapted from Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s seminar on Natural Consciousness (as posted on the TorahScience.org website at: http://www.torahscience.org/psychology/consciousness10.html)


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