By: Yossi Hoffman  | 

Our Future: A Virtual YU

Concern has been growing at YU about the lingering financial crisis and the administration’s lack of transparency. It’s no secret that by year’s end curricula will be cut, professors released, and departments downsized.

Amid these controversies lies YU’s obligation to provide the best education to its students. In order to keep up with a constantly evolving higher-education model, YU Global - a grant-funded start-up operating under YU’s umbrella - has been tasked with the unique opportunity of transforming the undergraduate experience. Like all start-ups, though, opportunities for success do not come without major problems and risks. While it’s still too early to judge, many obstacles must be overcome before it can truly enable and ennoble.

YU Global’s mission can be divided into two distinct parts: (1) an internal online learning experience for existing YU students and (2) the development of a new, external online program featuring highly specific degrees and non-credit programs for students around the world. For existing on-campus students, this change means the introduction and further continuation of blended and fully online courses.  For students in the global YU market, this means the availability of online courses, certificates, and degrees. In its more global mission, YU Global will prioritize revenue generation and target high-growth markets in China, Poland, India and Brazil.

Amidst a university-wide financial crisis, the administration’s seeming reliance on YU Global to generate substantial cash has been met with criticism. However, it should be noted that YU Global was conceived well before the current crisis and is not directly funded by the university. In 2008, the Jim Joseph Foundation challenged YU’s Azrieli School of Jewish Education, along with JTS and the Hebrew Union College, to enhance Jewish education to meet 21st century learning needs. Each school was awarded $15 million, and YU decided to focus the grant on Azrieli professional development and the creation of online courses - similar to the projects of other universities. Shortly thereafter YU Global was born, using Azrieli as a model. YU Global’s budget is financed separately by individual donors.

Originally envisioned by Vice Provost Scott Goldberg, it is now run by two senior executives who report directly to the Provost - Akiva Covitz and Lydia Lazar. In total, twelve staff members work on Belfer 13 and consist of four teams: Operations, Student Support, Product Development, and Marketing. Within a few years, they expect that thousands of global students will have received a YU education.

The fledgling program is certainly not without challenges, though. Specifically, why choose a more expensive YU course over considerably cheaper courses taught by Harvard or MIT professors? What does YU really have to offer globally, especially to students wholly uninterested in the yeshiva of Yeshiva University?

In response, YU Global hopes to leverage institutional relationships and connections to garner students, and utilize the YU brand: a “top tier” university with great professors and name recognition. Additionally, non-credit courses hold appeal, such as a unique course taught by Alan Dershowitz.

Still, serious questions remain unanswered. YU Global faces competition from better-known institutions with more resources and cheaper courses. The YU Global team differentiates itself by pointing to a “meaningful learning experience” in which students are “engaged and learning skills, not just getting knowledge.” Additionally, interactions with mentors, students, and instructors will take precedence over simply watching videos and writing papers. However, competition with deep pockets, dedicated marketing teams, and larger course offerings will remain a considerable hurdle moving forward.

YU is also late to the game. The team admits to entering a crowded market - one in which other universities have been involved for years. When Azrieli started its online program in 2008, YU’s undergraduate offerings lacked “the technology necessary to offer blended courses with truly interactive content.” In order to catch up, the team is working diligently to differentiate its offerings amidst a changing market, in which - according to the team - new entrants can exist comfortably alongside older more established academic brands. If executed poorly, though, YU Global may tarnish the larger YU brand, especially since YU Global is so outward-facing.

The last challenge comes from YU’s students: some students argue that YU Global will shift the administration’s attention away from the undergraduate experience, which will itself change on account of YU Global. Many students rely on classes to nourish friendships and spend time with peers. Online classes could vanquish that experience entirely. Granted, YU Global may prove correct in its assumption that students will prefer online classes “due to convenience, and that “working with students online [will] increase the amount of interaction they have, not decrease it”, but an undergraduate program operating on YU Global’s platform will likely hurt the availability of intimate, discussion-based courses traditionally prized at YU.

Overall, though, students have been supportive of the changes. Blended and fully online courses can increase class options. Bridging the undergraduate experience (YC and SCW) while remaining on separate campuses allows smaller, niche courses to be offered. Students can also move at their own pace, allowing for more or less time as needed. Yonatan Broome is one of several students already taking part in the blended courses this semester. His class, “How Writing Works: Key Concepts”, occasionally “meets” online, with Professor Lauren Fitzgerald preparing readings and videos for the course. Broome appreciates this model, noting that an online class is much shorter than its traditional counterpart, and the flexibility allows for a more relaxed schedule without hours of lectures. However, Broome also acknowledges that the classes are somewhat less stimulating. For example, while posting comments on a delayed group discussion board technically qualifies as a debate, it lacks the authenticity of often-impromptu classroom discussions.

Faculty will also be affected by YU Global, but most of the changes, they say, are for the better. For Professor Fitzgerald, flexibility and efficiency is a top priority, and she has embraced the growing role of technology in the classroom. On a recent snow day, while in-person classes were postponed, Professor Fitzgerald’s classes remained unaffected. Students were required to prepare their normal work online, which also “allows quieter students to get more involved”, Professor Fitzgerald said.

Much remains to be seen about YU Global. The YU undergraduate experience is evolving, yet information is dearth. There has only been one press release to date and it has an air of secrecy. When asked about YU Global, students responded that they had never heard of it, while faculty and deans pointed to The Commentator as their source of information. Planned information sessions will likely alleviate much concern.