U.C. students learn Hebrew via 2-way teleconference

Despite budget cuts and shrinking numbers of students, Hebrew studies are thriving at two University of California campuses.

In an innovative program that stretches the boundaries of educational techniques, students at U.C. Santa Cruz and U.C. Davis are learning Hebrew via two-way interactive video-conferencing.

The team-teaching approach has enabled Hebrew classes to survive and grow at the two campuses.

The class is the only intercampus program of this nature in the U.C. system, according to Bruce Rosenstock, a lecturer at U.C. Davis who helped organize the program last year. "It has proven to be an excellent way for us to share the resources across our campuses," he says.

Rosenstock had heard that U.C. Santa Cruz would not offer a second-year Hebrew course due to a lack of funds and small enrollment. Since U.C. Davis was dealing with the same problems, Rosenstock and other faculty members sought assistance from Phyllis Cook, head of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

As a result, JCEF agreed to partially fund the development and operation of the program.

Nonetheless, creating a new program triggered some anxieties. When Tammi Rossman-Benjamin was hired last year to teach Hebrew from the Santa Cruz campus, "I was filled with a great deal of trepidation," she says, "thinking that it would be difficult for me to teach — and for students to learn — a foreign language under such circumstances."

She soon realized she wrong. As classes got under way, the instructors used a trial-and-error approach, collecting data to determine which aspects of the technology benefited students and which they might eliminate.

"At the end of the quarter, by reviewing student evaluations and discussing what worked or didn't work and why, we were able to develop a plan to exploit those uses of the technology that enhanced the language-learning experience," Rossman-Benjamin says.

In the course of the school year, students proceeded through Hebrew 1, 2 and 3.

This fall, about 50 students enrolled in Hebrew 1 and another 18 in Hebrew 4.

In Rossman-Benjamin's Hebrew 4 class, she and other lecturers, including Iris Apelbaum at U.C. Davis, who is Israeli, focused on grammar, classical texts and Judaism.

The dual-campus teaching arrangement enhances the course, says Jonathan Estes, a U.C. Santa Cruz student. "The teleconferencing provides us with more resources. Iris can share with us her expertise as well as her experiences growing up in Israel."

The classes share materials such as videotapes and pictures. Guest speakers are invited to share their areas of expertise interactively with both classes. Subjects have included biblical archaeology and the Jews of Morocco.

Rebecca Eliaser, a U.C. Santa Cruz student, enjoys talking about experiences and sharing information across campus lines. "For instance, we're both doing a unit on Israeli commercials and we're able to watch the commercials and discuss them with each other."

Before the quarter started, teachers at both campuses collaborated to create one basic curriculum. All materials are shared, including lesson plans, syllabuses and quizzes. The teachers have created Web pages that offer computer tutorials.

For some students, a joint field trip to the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley highlighted the fall quarter. After the museum visit, the students went to Holy Land restaurant for Israeli food.

Rossman-Benjamin is looking into the possibility of linking the combined classes to other video-conferencing sites of cultural interest, such as the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and locations in Israel.

"This class is creating a model for small language-classes less commonly taught, and with limited resources, to be offered jointly," she says.

Next quarter Hebrew 5 will be taught from the Davis campus and sent to Santa Cruz via telecom.