When Sara Losch decided to add a computer-learning program to her Hebrew school’s curriculum, she thought it would give her students a dose of positive reinforcement. Little did she realize that the program would also provide an emotional boost to the staff.
“When we were giving homework on paper there was no way to truly measure what the kids were doing. Now, we know how long they’ve been on, and how often they’ve been on,” said Losch, the director of lifelong learning at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J.
The program, Mitkadem Digital, is an online version of the Union of Reform Judaism’s Mitkadem textbooks, which are used in a little more than a third of the movement’s 870 member congregations, said Michael Goldberg, editor in chief at URJ Books and Music.
According to Goldberg it’s the first program of its kind.
“There are certainly a few small things out there, but this was certainly the first major Hebrew curriculum to go digital completely. In other words, we’ve taken the entire curriculum and put it online.
Since the digital version was released in the fall of 2012, about 60 schools have adopted it, including four in Canada and one in New Zealand, which uses it instead of the textbooks to save on the now prohibitively-expensive shipping costs, Goldberg said.
At $5.99 for each level, or ramah, the digital version is slightly cheaper than the textbook price of $7.99. Both together cost $9.99 per level.
In addition to providing the full curriculum of the printed books, the program allows students to listen to prayers being chanted and offers interactive activities such as putting phrases from a prayer in order, matching up Hebrew and English words and answering multiple choice questions such as the meaning or root of a Hebrew word. Students get instant feedback on whether their answers correct, and if they’re not, they’re given the chance to try again.
Schools use Mitkadem in a variety of ways. Some, like Losch’s Barnert Temple, use it as an at-home supplement to the textbooks. Others have brought it into the classrooms, allowing students to work through the levels at their own pace.
While the instant feedback is motivating to students, reports generated by the program — such as what percentage of the students were using the program — provide gratification for the teachers.
“In the first couple of weeks only 28 percent of the kids were actually going online. Now it’s 60, which is really phenomenal,” said Losch.
“When we went from 28 percent to 40, we got so excited,” she said. “There’s a metric. And how many things in Hebrew school do you have a metric for?”
As for Losch’s students, the computer version has some kids more enthused than others. “I was surprised that there were kids who weren’t excited about it,” said Losch. “They were excited when they heard online, but then when they went online, well, it was work.”
Most, however, find it less boring than traditional homework, and some, have thrived on it.
“We’ve had about five students who are really excited — and also a little competitive in moving up in the ramot,” said Losch.
“Our goal is two ramot in a year, most do three in a year. But these kids are doing a ramah in a week,” She said.
“At first we looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, my god, we need to slow them down,” she said. “But then we looked at each other and said, ‘Why on earth would you slow them down?”