Gratz College in Cheltenham Township was going online long before it was common.
The Jewish school offered its first digital course shortly after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001 — back when the internet was less a dynamic dimension and more of a cornucopia of static websites.
That class at Gratz was Essential Rabbinic Beliefs, according to Ruth Sandberg, its professor. It had five students and no video component. Sandberg assigned readings and students posted comments on a discussion board.
Today at Gratz, which dates to 1895, there are video lectures, PowerPoint slides and yes, still readings. And there are all of these elements in most of the classes that the school offers to its 5,000-plus adult education students in “36 states and six countries,” according to the college’s website.
Gratz, which serves “educators and communal professionals,” per its site, is not a fully online college. It still offers plenty of programs at its Melrose Park campus. But it is about as close as a school can be to a digital-first institution.
“That really was a visionary pivot,” said Naomi Housman, the school’s director of institutional advancement, of the decision to offer an online class in 2001.
Gratz offers two flagship programs, according to President Zev Eleff: a master’s degree in education and a master’s and Ph.D. distinction in Holocaust and genocide studies.
Pennsylvania public school teachers make up most of the student base for the education program; while 75% of students in the Holocaust and genocide studies program live outside the state. Both areas of study were offered mostly online before the pandemic broke out. Today, both are entirely online.
Despite the pandemic era shift to hybrid education, most U.S. colleges and universities are still more in-person than on the internet. But for Gratz, the digital approach works because its students are often adults with lives who seek advanced credentials.
“We are right now figuring out how to best support a broad student base,” Eleff said.
At Gratz, the COVID-era transition was less tectonic than gradual. The school did not have to embrace a new dimension and approach to education overnight. It just had to offer a little more of what it was already doing.
Eleff credits Sandberg for that. The professor, now an academic adviser in the Holocaust and genocide studies program, started teaching at the school almost 40 years ago. She believed in online education not because she was some technologist or futurist but for a moral reason.
“I believed in the possibility of online learning reaching many more students who could not otherwise receive a Jewish education,” Sandberg said.
So, she lobbied school officials to adopt the approach and her Essential Rabbinic Beliefs class within it. While the course only attracted five students, it opened Sandberg’s eyes to digital education’s Jewish qualities, she said.
A page of the Talmud often has comments from rabbis who lived in different centuries, Sandberg explained. There could be one from the second century, one from the fifth and another from the 12th.
While a class discussion board does not quite have the same scope, it does feature student comments from different times. One may add something early in the evening, another later and another the next day. It’s an ongoing conversation that becomes a sort of historical record.
“I saw that the internet had the capability of producing its own version of that 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 within a short time window.
Anyone who has ever been in a college class knows that, in many instances, most students do not get to speak during a single session. But in a digital class, everyone expounds on everything.
It’s a very Jewish quality.
Sandberg compared it to a Yeshiva where students have debating partners.
“All the students have access to each other’s thoughts,” she said. “Everybody is walking around and debating and discussing. It’s a very active form of education.”
This quality plus the practicality of attracting more students from outside the state convinced Gratz that Sandberg was right.
Over time, the school added more and more online classes and more and more students who wanted to take them. Eventually, it reached a point where many more students were online than on campus, according to Sandberg.
So around 2015 and ’16, officials recognized that the future of education, at least at Gratz, was online, she said.
“We’re a 19th-century institution from Philadelphia and, at the same time, we are embracing an 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 a variety of ways. As she explained, digital education is ideal for visual, audial and text-based learners.
Plus it’s a great way to attract students.
“We have students from all over the world now,” she said. JE