Israel's Bar-Ilan University claims to be the only world-class university offering online credit courses in Jewish studies.
The Virtual Jewish University was launched internationally last autumn, after being tested on Bar-Ilan students, and is funded by Bar-Ilan's International Centre for Jewish Identity.
The centre was established to bring technology and tradition together, to bring "internet, fibre-optic communication and other state-of-the-art means together with the creative skills and broad knowledge of Bar-Ilan University Jewish studies educators," said David Weinberg, the university's spokesman.
There are currently 450 students enrolled on Bar-Ilan's Jewish studies courses, which are on-line English versions of existing first and second-year undergraduate courses. Everything, from registration to writing essays and discussions, is done online.
The virtual university offers six courses with full university credit for internet study: the Judean Desert Scrolls; Jerusalem throughout the ages; war and peace in the Bible; music in traditional Jewish culture and society; the yearly cycle - Jewish holidays; and the laws of family relations. Each course is worth four transfer credits and costs $360 (Pounds 226) per semester.
For the course on Jerusalem throughout the ages, one click of the mouse brings up an ancient map of Jerusalem. In a series of 12 lectures, students can trace the development of Jerusalem from the Chalcolithic period, Jerusalem's establishment as a religious capital, the last 100 years of the second Temple period, the city's destruction by the Greek Revolt, the reconstruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, its transformation into a Christian city, the emergence of Islam, the Crusader period, the growth of the new city in the 19th century, the effect of the British Mandate and the rise of two rival national movements, which became the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Joshua Schwartz, who teaches the course and is director of the Rennert Centre for Jerusalem studies, said: "With the virtual university, your audience is the world. You're not limited to the classroom. You can bring your message to anyone, anytime Although I don't think the virtual university should replace a real university, people who are unable to reach the university physically now have other options.
"The courses have to be written in a different way. In a classroom, I teach with the Socratic method (questions and answers). A virtual course has to be built step by step and (must) be crystal clear. There is no room for confusion.The virtual course uses such tools as videos to make up for the fact that the students are not facing the instructors."
Lecturers have to be available to answer questions from students at least two hours a week.
Interactive chat sessions with professors are held online on a regular basis.
The Virtual University is at www.bar-ilan.edu