WebbStaff Note: This is part of a series of posts entitled “Muslims Making a Difference,” featuring Muslims benefiting society at different levels. To nominate someone to be profiled, please email their name, contact info and bio to: submissions[at]suhaibwebb[dot]com.
“This is `Adel from Studio Arabiya Support,” said a voice through my computer. I introduced myself, and then he proceeded to ask me questions about my knowledge of Arabic (minimal, in case you were wondering). We scheduled my classes; I would simply log in and my Arabic instructor would contact me to begin our first class.
That day, I was a little hesitant as I logged into Skype (learning online? I wasn’t so sure). But I needn’t have worried. My instructor was friendly and cheerful, overcoming the initial awkwardness I felt and engaging my interest in the material. We connected right off the bat, and after that, it was smooth sailing.
And it all started with John and Stacy Graff, two of the founders of StudioArabiya.com, a website dedicated to teaming the best of instructors with the best of course materials for students who can’t go overseas.
Stacy: Let me give you just a little bit of background on us and how we got started and you can take it from there.
My husband John (Yahya) Graff and I have been in Cairo studying Arabic and he has continued his studies to Al Azhar University. Throughout the years that we’ve been here, we’ve recognized the interest from others in the West to study as we have, however for most people, getting up and moving overseas is not feasible.
We started Studio Arabiya in May of last year as a means of helping to connect qualified teachers of Arabic and Quran here in Egypt with potential students in the West. We bring the Egypt Arabic Center ‘markaz’ system to online students, so that they, too, get the opportunity to study with Arabic specialists and Qur’an teachers.
To continue on the topic of background, what prompted the idea to connect students and teachers online? You’ve mentioned the latest interest of the students in the West and the qualifications of the teachers in Egypt, but learning Arabic and Qur’an online– and I understand you use Skype to simulate the learning experience–seems to be a novel idea.
John: I have actually been involved in teaching online as far back as 2007 while I was an Arabic student in Cairo. I began by simply acquainting my Arabic teacher with the idea of teaching his current students through the Internet. I got him set up on Skype and showed him the ropes. In the beginning, this was merely for the sake of my teacher to teach myself and other students through the Internet. This new phenomenon (learning Arabic Online) then quickly gained popularity amongst both students in the west and with teachers in Egypt until it became quite clear to me that it needed to be expanded and organized on a much larger scale. In the beginning of 2011, all the puzzle pieces began to fit together to where we could launch a full and comprehensive program with Studio Arabiya. Launching Studio Arabiya took a lot of time and brainstorming. My wife and I, along with our good friend and co-partner, Muhammad, spent a lot of time developing the best system for our online program. We wanted to model it after the Arabic center system that we’ve studied under here in Egypt, after we saw how effective it has helped us to learn and become fluent in the language.
Can you share with us any stories about launching Studio Arabiya or signing up your first teachers? What challenges did you face?
John: Our first interview with teachers was interesting. We held a large interview, where 40 or 50 teachers showed up to apply. We hold high standards for our teachers and in the end of this interview we only accepted 2 to work with us. We have found this to be one of our biggest challenges. There are a lot of great teachers here in Egypt, it takes a lot of weeding through to find the gems.
You say you were involved in teaching online as far back as 2007; was this in the capacity of teacher or student, and what was your subject? I can see your experience was a positive one.
John: I began getting involved in the teaching online idea when we took a one-year break from school a few years ago. I wanted to continue with my Arabic studies online with my teacher, so before we left Egypt, I taught my teacher how to work Skype, and we continued our regular weekly lessons online. At the time, I was preparing for my first year at Al-Azhar University, so we studied more advanced Arabic studies as well as the first year Azhar curriculum.
Since I began the online studies with my teacher, it was always in the back of my mind to make it more available for others in the West that wanted to study Arabic and Qur’an from teachers like whom I had studied with. Life and school kept us too busy to start anything official. So at the time Iset up my personal teacher with a few of my friends in the U.S. One of whom—a convert like us—started as an Arabic student in level 1 and after only 7 months of part-time classes through Skype, he and I were able to carry-on a 30-minute conversation, only speaking in Arabic. He obtained all the same skills and successes that other students (of our Shaykh) achieved by coming to Egypt and in the same amount of time without even setting foot in the country. So the benefits and viability to learn online became obvious to us and we started brainstorming how to offer this khayr (good) on a much larger scale. Finally, last year, a few months after we had our second child, we decided to get it started officially.
What exactly were the puzzle pieces you had to put together before launching?
Can you tell us about the system the three of you developed for Studio Arabiya?
Stacy: Egypt is known for their Markaz model of teaching Arabic to non-native speakers. This is the same model that countless non-Arabic scholars, Azharis, and others have gone through and testified to its affordability and superiority over other models. The only shortcoming of this model – where students get to learn one-on-one with an experienced certified Arabic teacher – is that it wasn’t very accessible. Really, how many people can drop everything they’re doing, travel overseas and live for months in an overly crowded foreign country to study Arabic? And not to mention, rarely do children have the chance to come to benefit from the independent personal attention that this model has to offer, which they most certainly need. We wanted Studio Arabiya to be an online version of that system wherein we perfect the model and assure the quality of each teacher. By the use of Skype, an electronic whiteboard, and various media aides – we offer students a virtual classroom where they can meet with their personal tutor, one-on-one every day to learn Arabic or Qur’an. This allows that Egyptian Markaz system to be accessible to the rest of the world.
John mentioned that one of your biggest challenges is finding teachers, although many apply. What are your qualifications for teachers? What makes this such a challenge for Studio Arabiya?
Stacy and John: The qualification for our Arabic teachers is that they have all graduated with higher degrees in the Arabic Language from Universities such as Al Azhar and Dar al-Uloom. Our Qur’an teachers must be a hafiz (a person who has memorized the Qur’an) and hold an ijaazah (certification), as well as they must speak sufficient English to communicate at the basic level with our students. Since their duty as teachers is greater than just conveying knowledge, they must additionally be role models that portray a good Islamic character such as honesty and patience. Those who require additional experience or abilities such as speaking English are initially required to complete our specialized training course, which we have crafted ourselves.
We have had hundreds of applicants to teach for us since we began and on average, we can only accept about 1 out of every 25 applicants, due to our high standards. For our Qur’an teachers, if they meet our initial requirements, they then meet with and read for Shaykh Ali, a highly sought after Qur’an teacher among the students (who was one of Suhaib’s teachers) here in Egypt. Shaykh Ali tests them on their Qur’an reading, tajweed (rules of recitation), etc., and determines whether they are really qualified to teach Qur’an to our students.
For our Arabic applicants, we administer a test on both Arabic content and one that determines a potential teacher’s flexibility, Arabic cultural awareness, personality, how to deal with a student, etc. Some come out of university with experience, but we make it mandatory for them to get training. We have had some teachers that have scored very well on their content area, but they had a dry, impersonal, unenthusiastic manner. Much of the time, our training course really turns that around and infuses those who pass the content area exam with an energy and enthusiasm for the teaching aspect. And they have had great feedback from students—it’s created a totally different person than the one that came in with just strong Arabic or Qur’an.
Subhanallah (glory be to God), it sounds like the Markaz system is working really well for you. Can you expand on the Markaz system? What are its key features and how does it differ from any other system used to learn Arabic?
Stacy and John: In a classroom setting, there are always some students that are ahead of the pack, some that are behind, but with the Markaz system, you get one-on-one learning with your teacher. It’s just you and your teacher, so you take the course at your own pace and there are no other students or distractions that hold you back from achieving your full capacity.
I hadn’t heard of the Markaz system before this interview, so just so I know I got this straight, does it only refer to the one-on-one style of teaching?
Stacy and John: The Markaz systems often teach one-on-one, but they also offer group classes for those that can’t afford one-on-one. One of the key features of the Markaz style is learning Arabic through the Arabic language with a Native speaker who specializes in Arabic, as opposed to the lessons being taught by using English translations or by non-Native speakers, who often don’t have an Arabic degree. This system has been the dominant and most successful system in the Arab world. We strive to implement this in our programs, however every student has a different learning style and we do have to adapt our teaching styles for some students, such as children.
So far you’ve mentioned Arabic classes and Qur’an classes. Are these the only two classes you offer?
Stacy and John: Arabic and Qur’an classes are the main courses that we offer. Our Qur’an classes focus on three areas: reading properly (tajweed), memorization, and review. The Fus’ha (Classic) and Business Arabic classes cover reading, writing, understanding and speaking, as well as preparing for the understanding of Qur’an. We have teachers that are trained to teach children and adults, from the beginning levels to the advanced. For the advanced students, we offer preparatory classes for entering Al-Azhar University.
What can people expect when they register for a class?
Stacy: After filling out the registration form on our website, www.studioarabiya.com, our management team will contact the student to schedule their evaluation. The evaluation allows us to place them in the correct level and with the best teacher for their needs. We work out a weekly schedule that works best for the student and they begin their lessons soon after.
What costs do the course fees cover, and how does this compare to what you might find in Egypt?
Stacy and John: The basic tuition covers the private, one-on-one lessons with your teacher. Our standard rate of $79 per month will allow the student to take lessons 5 days a week for 30 minutes. We also offer a more intensive schedule, doubling the amount of one-on-one time the students get with the teachers for only $139 per month.
What you find in Egypt differs among the centers. You’ll find some centers that have really low fees where the quality of the teachers is often poor and you’ll find others (centers that are more well-known among Western students) that charge outrageous fees. Because we have very low overhead in our operations, we are able to give our teachers higher salaries than even the most expensive centers in Egypt, thus enabling us to hire the highest quality of teachers. In addition, what sets us apart from these centers is that students don’t have the extra costs of moving to Egypt to get the same quality of education.
What advice do you have for students of Arabic and Qur’an?
John: From my experience, there are 3 factors necessary for success in one-on-one learning of Arabic and Qur’an: the best student, the best teacher, and the best curriculum. All three need to be present to assure optimal success.
A poor student with lack of motivation, who is studying to please someone else, will not attain success – even if he are she has the best teacher and is studying from the best book ever written on the subject, unless the student changes that which is in his or herself. Sincerity, the purification of intentions, and then asking for tawfeeq (success) from Allah subahanhu wa ta’ala (Glory to God) should be present in the student.
Next is to find the best teacher, which means making sure that he or she who is teaching you is a properly trained and an experienced SPECIALIST in the subject you are learning. Not doing this results in substandard learning, or even learning mistakes costing the unnecessary time and money with both the so-called qualified teacher and then again with the expert specialist to painstakingly correct your mistakes. For example, teachers who are not native speakers or are native speakers but are not properly trained as a specialist, then quality screened, will often make mistakes in pronunciation. A mistake in just one letter in Arabic means uncountable mistakes in reading Qur’an, and could even take years for the student to unlearn in their speaking and recitation.
There are many Arabic curricula out there and choosing the best should be a priority. This is quite difficult for a new student being a layperson who, for the most part, relies on what he or she hears. Foremost, your Arabic curriculum should cover all foundational aspects of the language, and secondly, it should be proven as the most thorough and effective curriculum by the consensus of educators who have compared and taught all the leading books on the subject. This will enable you to learn the subject using the most sequential and structured method that exists and to eliminate any weaknesses in your skills that holes in a curriculum cause, thus leading to proficiency and then fluency.
The eloquence, preciseness, depth and vastness of the Arabic language make it (as some say) the most difficult language to master. Therefore I would remind all who wish to dismantle the language filter of translations – those who desire to understand Allah’s words in the language He intended that obtaining proficiency in the language is not a microwave process and doesn’t happen overnight. It is step-by-step, level-by-level, using a proven process, with sincerity, consistency, and a trusted guide that success in this life for the sake of the next can be obtained. Anything hard can be achieved with Allah. Allah says in the Qur’an:
“And We have certainly made the Qur’an easy for remembrance, so is there any who will remember?” (Qur’an 54:17).
What are some of your short-term and long-term goals for Studio Arabiya?
John: Our goal from the beginning was and will always be to provide an affordable learning experience for those who can’t move overseas to study Arabic or Qur’an with qualified teachers.
What plans do you have for Studio Arabiya now? What areas of the site do you plan to develop, and what effects do you expect?
Stacy: One of the areas we are currently developing and perfecting is the curriculum that we teach for Arabic. There are so many options out there and we want to offer the best and most beneficial curriculum we can. We have recently completed our very own beginner’s Arabic Reading book that allows our students to learn to read Arabic at a faster pace, while learning their first words in the language, in which approximately 90% of the words come from the Qur’an. (Here’s a little more information about our book: http://studioarabiya.com/blog/a-revolutionary-new-way-to-learn-to-read-arabic/)
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about Studio Arabiya?
Stacy: We offer a free 1-week trial of classes to every new student, so you can try us out and see if it fits your learning style. For virtualmosque.com readers, we will also add an additional 5% off the monthly tuition for anyone who uses the promotional code “WEBB05″.