How Hybrid Learning Can Transform Jewish Education

Hybrids: Not Just a Car
How hybrid learning can transform Jewish education

 By Lesley Litman and Michael Zeldin

[In the second of two articles on the learning from our experience with the four-year old Executive MA program in Jewish Education at HUC-JIR, we focus on how “hybrid” (online and in person) learning at the graduate level can build relationships and result in impressive and profound professional growth.]

When serious Jewish educators know that passion and instinct are not enough for them to make the kind of impact they desire, they may seek to deepen and enhance the understanding, knowledge and skills related to the work they do. For many that means seeking out learning opportunities enabling them to stay in their jobs and hometowns. So they often turn to online higher education.

Four-and-a-half years ago, in response to this emerging need and an opportunity presented by the generosity of the Jim Joseph Foundation, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) launched the Executive MA program in Jewish education, a “hybrid” program that combines high touch in-person learning with high tech online learning. The response to the program has been extraordinary. To date 56 students have enrolled in the program; the first two cohorts of 28 students have graduated. Most Executive MA students range in age from their early 30’s to early 60’s and were catapulted into leadership roles in their schools, camps, synagogues and nonprofits without the benefit of professional preparation.

Since the program’s launch in 2011, we have learned a great deal about hybrid programs and what makes them particularly successful and powerful in shaping, in our case, Jewish educational leaders. Much has been written about the drawbacks of online learning including but not limited to the lack of meaningful relationships among students and between students and faculty, the sense of isolation students feel, and the difficulty in responding to specific student needs. To the contrary, the Executive MA has proven that online learning can be extraordinarily effective when coupled with just the right amount of in-person encounters. (It is also worth noting that online learning as we have designed it includes multiple interactive, experiential learning opportunities along with other innovative pedagogies that include virtual face-to-face interactions.

While “hybrid” is typically defined as a combination of online and in-person learning, we would add a third category to the hybrid mix: the one-on-one and small group interaction that can take place via Skype or phone. This small group, highly personalized contact is somewhere between online and in-person learning. The Executive MA program achieves this third element through frequent meetings with clinical faculty mentors, senior professionals in Jewish education, who meet with each student to check in, deepen the learning taking place in the online courses and reflect on ways to bring the learning back to students’ work settings.

Using this hybrid model we have been able to build a powerful cohort of lifelong colleagues who continue to be engaged with the HUC-JIR Schools of Education even after they graduate. Indeed, more than 80% of the first graduating class of the Executive MA took part in an online course offered by HUC-JIR for all alumni. Stacy Rosenthal, a graduate of Cohort 1 from Scottsdale, AZ recently wrote this unsolicited email affirming our findings:

It seems hard to believe that an entire year has passed since we graduated… Thank you for the gift of authentic study and deep learning. For giving me some of my very best friends, respected colleagues and for taking a chance on each of us! I owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude.

As more and more Jewish educators look for convenient and accessible ways to improve themselves and their professional practice, hybrid programs such as the Executive MA Program will become more and more important. By combining high tech with high touch experiences over the two years of study we are able to reach previously unreachable educators and help them become leaders who will make a profound difference for Jewish education.

Lesley Litman is Coordinator of the Executive MA Program in Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Michael Zeldin, PhD, is Senior National Director of HUC-JIR’s Schools of Education.