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Learning 'Aleph-Bet' Adjusts to the Age

January 6, 2011 By:
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Instructor Ricky Markovitz at her home office in Lansdale

Maia Silver read along as her teacher, miles away in a Lansdale home office, remotely highlighted each Hebrew word on her computer screen.

"Ani lomedet bih beit sefer bih Cherry Hill," the 14-year-old high school freshman said, filling in the end of the sentence with her hometown.

"Yofi," Ricky Markovitz's voice congratulated her through the computer speakers. "V'mah at lomedet?"

"Matimatica, anglit ... " Silver stopped. "I don't know how to say any other ones."

By the end of the hourlong lesson, she and four classmates had learned the Hebrew words for more academic subjects, grilled each other on their learning habits and practiced a series of dialogs -- all without ever seeing each other face to face.

For the tech generation, learning through computers is nothing new. But Hebrew?

An Online Alternative

A handful of international education companies have been offering online Hebrew classes geared to adults and college students for several years. But it wasn't until this fall that Gratz College began experimenting with its own online language program for college and high school students. As far as administrators know, Gratz is the only American institution offering an online alternative for high-schoolers looking to learn Hebrew from home.

For Gratz, the new courses are a natural extension of its zealous expansion into the online world, a conscientious reinvention that administrators began with a lone rabbinic-studies course in 2001. Today, the college offers up to 20 web-based courses each semester -- enough to complete most bachelor's and master's degrees entirely online. However, students who needed Hebrew, which was required for Jewish-studies programs, still had to make it to campus. If that wasn't possible, the college referred them to an outside online company now known as eteacherhebrew.com.

"We realized we were sending more and more students there, we should try and do it ourselves -- we're the Hebrew college, and we have expert teachers," said Michael Schatz, who coordinates the online program at Gratz's Jewish Community High School.

JCHS joined the college in offering web-based courses five years ago. Currently, 52 students from around the country are enrolled in the online program, some in more than one class. Adding Hebrew to the mix seemed like a great opportunity to continue growing enrollment, said Schatz.

"We have a level of classes that isn't available elsewhere, or maybe there's nothing available where they are," he said. "We can't start flying everybody to Philadelphia, so we go to them."

With the help of Markovitz, who has been teaching Hebrew in Jewish day schools for 25 years and comes from a computer-science background, the school translated a Brandeis curriculum into a web-based program. Through an interactive wiki platform, students can access assignments, submit completed homework and even record their pronunciation.

Like the existing classroom program, the online version is accredited through the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and the National Middle East Language Research Center. But unlike the college's other online classes, where students progress at their own pace each week, the Hebrew course includes an hourlong live session every Sunday. Markovitz said she felt that was necessary because of the difficulty of learning a language without any spoken interaction.

In addition to the $225 standard tuition per course each semester, Hebrew students must buy a textbook and a Hebrew word-processing program that can cost up to $150.

Gratz launched the program this fall, starting with two beginner sessions -- one for college and one for high school -- which assumed that participants had at least a basic ability to decode and write Hebrew characters.

The college course immediately filled up with 12 students, and more on a waiting list. Five students signed up for the high school section.

For many of them, there was no other local option. Jordan Friedland, 15, of Damariscotta, Maine, said his temple doesn't offer continuing education programs for post-Bar Mitzvahs, not to mention the fact that getting there takes 40 minutes.

"I don't know where else in Maine there would be a program like that," he said. "We just kind of looked online and found it somehow."

Friedland doesn't have to take Hebrew, he said he just thought it would be fun to keep up what he'd started. "Maybe if I can go to Israel someday, I might be able to converse," he said.

He added that he likes being able to learn independently during the week and then practice with other students over the web.

"The Internet sessions are kind of like a test to see how well you studied," said the student.

For Silver, the course fulfills an education requirement for her Jewish summer camp. At first, she said, she tried the program at her temple, but she didn't like the Hebrew course offered there.

"It was just completely unorganized," she said. "They were learning things I was learning years ago."

Her father, Michael Silver, said their rabbi suggested Gratz. Driving there from Cherry Hill would have been onerous, he said, but the online program turned out to be a great fit. The technology was already familiar, and more importantly, he said his daughter found it challenging.

"Since it's online, it has to be more oral, which is good," said the teen.

Still, Some Challenges

On a recent Sunday, Markovitz displayed the lyrics of a song that she'd just played for the students and had them repeat each line. "Let's sing it," she said, charging into the melody.

One or two voices joined in.

"Don't be shy, come on," she urged. "If you walk in the street, I won't recognize that you sing so beautifully."

Not being able to see their faces, though, is one of the most difficult parts of teaching online, said Markovitz. The college students, she said, almost all use web cameras but, for whatever reason, the high-schoolers don't like to put them on.

"When you see faces, you can read the face, and you can see if they are frustrated or not," she said.

But, she noted, all of her online students are making the same progress as those she sees in person in the same level class.

To her, there's no doubt that the online program will take off.

"It's convenient, you don't have to leave the house, and you study Hebrew," she said. And for kids who live in small Jewish communities, like Friedland, she said, "that's his only way to get really good at Hebrew."

So far, Schatz said, he hasn't been promoting the class locally for fear of taking away from JCHS' existing classroom program. About 85 percent of the students who attend a campus that offers Hebrew programs are enrolled in one of 10 levels of the language, said program coordinator Galit Carmely.

On the other hand, Schatz said, he might expand the marketing strategy if the online option ends up drawing in new local students.

"There are only so many teenagers in Philadelphia that are going to come into our classes on the hours that we have them," he said. "They don't have so much extra time to get to the kinds of classes they want to take, and not everybody lives within 15 minutes of our existing campuses anymore."

That's exactly why Ben Savitch, a freshman at Radnor High School, chose to take the online Hebrew course instead of traveling a half-hour each way -- and potentially missing basketball practices -- to attend a Monday-night program at his synagogue.

"When I do it online, it's Sunday nights, and I don't have to drive anywhere, and I don't have as much homework because I can get it done earlier in the day," said Savitch, 14. "It's really well set up. The only loss about it is there's not really a social aspect."

The true litmus test will come this month, when Gratz does enrollment for the spring semester. The current online students will bump up to level two, Schatz said, and a new beginner section will be added if there's enough interest.

For more information, call 215-635-7300 or go to: www. gratzcollege.edu/jchsonline.

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