Online education is not merely a temporary adaptation to the contingencies of a pandemic-wracked world. After navigating an involuntary crash course in online learning, educational institutions are now recognizing that they will eventually deploy these strategies alongside off-line experiences in the post-COVID future.

They are finding that these two modalities are complementary: each one fills gaps for the other. Thus, the coronavirus holds the promise of elevating the impact of educational institutions in the future.

When Israel first entered lockdown, Masa Israel Journey, founded by the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel, faced the challenge of shifting our offerings online. This was particularly complicated for us since we design dynamic and experimental educational experiences that rely heavily on firsthand encounters with Israel’s people, places and institutions.

While at the start of the crisis, many of us rushed to provide alternative programming, we quickly recognized the importance of strategic pauses to evaluate and readapt our offerings according to what we learned. That helped us to cleverly and sophisticatedly use the online setting as new means of engagement and to augment the reach of in-person events.

Through quarantine, we have been continuously conceiving and producing new, relevant content. The educational offerings we have rolled out include Masa: Online – a virtual platform offering lectures, workshops and live events, some led by Masa’s community members themselves; and Project Y, a fellowship program that brings together a diverse cohort of Masa fellows and Jewish-Israeli students to examine the contemporary Jewish reality and design educational experiences for one another. After remaking our annual Holocaust Remembrance Day program, which brings participants to Yad Vashem, into an online format, we were able to reach 1,300 participants and alumni around the world. Even after social distancing restrictions ease, these methods will continue to enhance participants’ experiences and reach more people than we can solely on the ground, thus strengthening connections worldwide.

In cooperation with our directors and coordinators – drawing on the insight of a range of stakeholders, including young program participants and alumni – we have developed programming that utilizes quarantine to equip participants with tools for the rest of their journeys in Israel and afterward. This includes opportunities for personal growth, like ulpan classes and career guidance courses, as well as chances to discuss deep and relevant questions about Jewish identity with fellows from all over the world.

In-person activities, however, must still form the mainstay of education, to the extent they are safe and permitted. After all, only human connection builds relationships and fosters mutual understanding.

Once the Health Ministry allowed gatherings of 50 people in open spaces, we decided to hold our Shavuot Festival. It was our first in-person event in several months. 250 fellows came together at six different educational meetups for thoughtful discussions about farewells and new beginnings inspired by the themes of the Book of Ruth. In these personal and intimate settings, participants were able to not only hear but truly listen to diverse speakers, representing Israel’s rich cultural landscape. Computers do not replace the value of physically experiencing the people and places around us.

The key for success in our shifting world is to create systems in which online and off-line experiences are integrated and it is easy to pivot in between them. Emerging from the initial pandemic wave, we’ve now focused on proactively designing versatile programming for a sliding scale of online-off-line engagement.

Thousands of participants are now entering Israel, and this year’s cohort of Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, for example, will have access to online content that delves into subjects related to the core concepts of their program: Israel’s culture, education system and diverse communities. At the end of their mandatory quarantine, they will convene for an in-person conference (designed in accordance with the Health Ministry’s safety restrictions and guidelines) to reflect on the lessons and growth from their time in physical isolation. Rather than feeling a need to compensate for lost time, they will be more informed and prepared for their off-line experiences in ways not available within the walls of a classroom. 

This pandemic will leave us all with valuable insight about the relationship between online and off-line learning. Forward-thinking education models can take advantage of the benefits of each, as well as the unique synergy of their combination.

The immediate future is uncertain, but harnessing both online and off-line capabilities gives us the flexibility to offer seamless, rich educational experiences in any situation; deepen the impact of our live programs with complementary materials; and create a more engaged community around the world.

The writer is the education R&D manager of the Masa Leadership & Impact Center.