Gratz College in Cheltenham Township was online long before it became mainstream.
The Jewish School offered its first digital course shortly after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001 – when the internet was less of a dynamic dimension and more of a cornucopia of static websites.
This class at Gratz was Essential Rabbinic Beliefs, according to Ruth Sandberg, his teacher. There were five students and no video component. Sandberg assigned readings and students posted comments on a discussion board.
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Today in Gratz, which dates back to 1895, there are video lectures, PowerPoint slides and yes, still readings. And there are all of those elements in most of the courses the school offers to its more than 5,000 adult education students in “36 states and six countries,” according to the college’s website.
Gratz, which serves “educators and communal professionals,” according to its site, is not a fully online college. It still offers many programs at its Melrose Park campus. But that’s about as close as a school can get to a digitally-focused institution.
“It was truly a visionary pivot,” Naomi Housman, the school’s director of institutional advancement, said of the decision to offer an online course in 2001.
Gratz offers two flagship programs, according to President Zev Eleff: a master’s of education and a master’s and doctoral degree. distinction in Holocaust and genocide studies.
Pennsylvania public school teachers make up most of the education program’s student base; while 75% of students in the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program live out of state. Both fields of study were primarily offered online before the pandemic hit. Today, both are fully online.
Despite the shift from the pandemic era to hybrid education, most American colleges and universities are still more in-person than on the internet. But for Gratz, the digital approach works because his students are often adults with lives seeking advanced degrees.
“We are in the process of determining how best to support a broad base of students,” Eleff said.
In Gratz, the COVID-era transition has been less tectonic than gradual. The school did not have to adopt a new dimension and a new approach to education overnight. He just had to offer a little more of what he was already doing.
Eleff credits Sandberg for that. The professor, now an academic advisor for the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program, began teaching at the school nearly 40 years ago. She believed in online education not because she was a technologist or a futurist, but for a moral reason.
“I believed in the possibility of online learning reaching many more students who might not otherwise receive a Jewish education,” Sandberg said.
So she lobbied school officials to embrace the approach and her class of core rabbinical beliefs within it. Although the course only attracted five students, it opened Sandberg’s eyes to the Jewish qualities of digital education, she said.
A page of the Talmud often contains comments from rabbis who lived in different centuries, Sandberg explained. There could be one from the 2nd century, one from the 5th and another from the 12th century.
Although a class discussion forum does not have quite the same scope, it does feature comments from students from different eras. We can add something at the beginning of the evening, another later and another the next day. It’s an ongoing conversation that becomes a kind of historical record.
“I’ve seen the internet have the ability to produce its own version of this type of Jewish discussion over time,” Sandberg said.
This is also a fundamental difference between online and in-person education. In person, students must offer insights and analysis in a short period of time.
Anyone who’s ever been in a college class knows that in many cases most students can’t speak in a single session. But in a digital classroom, everyone talks about everything.
It is a very Jewish quality.
Sandberg compared it to a Yeshiva where students have debating partners.
“All students have access to other people’s thoughts,” she said. “Everyone walks around, debates and discusses. It is a very active form of education.
This quality along with the practicality of attracting more out-of-state students convinced Gratz that Sandberg was right.
Over time, the school added more and more online courses and more and more students who wanted to take them. Eventually, it reached a point where far more students were online than on campus, according to Sandberg.
So around 2015 and 2016, officials recognized that the future of education, at least in Gratz, was online, she said.
“We are a 19th century institution in Philadelphia and, at the same time, we embrace the opportunity to be a national leader in Holocaust education, in educational studies,” Eleff said.
Sandberg expects the new approach to only grow. Modern tools allow students to learn in different ways. As she explained, digital education is ideal for visual, auditory and textual learners.
Plus, it’s a great way to attract students.
“We now have students from all over the world,” she said. I