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Peace planfor the next generation

Could ancient conflicts in the Middle East be dissolved if children from all over the region started talking to each other? Helena Flusfeder investigates.

A plan that could help cement the Middle East peace process by computerising the schools of the region has been brought to the drawing board in Israel.

Based on Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' vision of the New Middle East, and co-ordinated by Israel's Foreign and Education Ministries, the plan is intended to raise the Arab states' level of education, and to transform "swords into ploughshares" in the region.

The plan was proposed to the European Commission in February in the hope of securing European Union funding; and although its implementation will be long and complicated, it has been approved in principle by the Commission, which is waiting for more detailed proposals.

The European Community is interested in the project because it wants to increase its influence on the peace process and to export technology to the Middle East. Israel hopes that rising educational and living standards will reduce religious fundamentalism in the region and also strengthen its trade; it also wants to export its own educational technology.

Political resistance by some Arab countries is expected, although Israel has had high-level meetings with Jordanian government officials and academics, according to Dr Elad Peled, the education adviser co-ordinating computerisation in Israeli schools. While he found the level of computerisation in Jordan's schools to be behind Israel, the education system in Israel has also been undergoing a revolution over the last three years.

Dr Shimshon Shoshani, director general of the Israeli Education Ministry, says it started in 1992 when the Government decided to invest in educational technology. Since then, the Government has put in $40 million per year with the aim of improving specific schools. The Education Ministry decided to try to improve teaching standards by increasing salaries and in-service training. It also decided to lengthen the school day.

Two Government reports were commissioned in the early Nineties in an attempt to improve standards. In 1992, Peled finished his report on a masterplan for integrating computers into Israel's education system. The second report, by Professor Haim Harari, president of the Weizmann Institute of Science, outlined his recommendations on how science and technology should be taught in the schools at all levels. These reports formed the basis of an official plan called Tomorrow '98.

Dr Peled's recommendations were based on the ideas that technology can change the learning environment, that the children "learn best by experience and doing and not by hearing and repeating" and that the "major factor in moving the learning process of the child is the teacher. We don't think the computer is a substitute for the teacher."

These changes have happened quickly: 15,000 PCs were introduced into 450 schools last year (there are approximately 2,700 Jewish and Arab schools in Israel) and the same number will be added every year for five years. However, Peled knew that the changes should be systemic: "It is not enough just to introduce the hardware. We had to act simultaneously on all major elements of the education system." As part of the Tomorrow '98 plan, 10 schools in Israel were selected as pilots. They received extra money, but they are not model schools in the sense of the brightest students: they're often schools serving large populations and difficult children.

The image of the traditional classroom is broken in these schools. Students have individual computer projects in addition to their usual structured timetable. Individuals or groups sit around computers in the class, each working on his own project with the overall supervision of a teacher, but with a sense of independence. One project, a joint venture between 30 schools linked up via the Internet had schools analysing the quality of water and air.

Seeing the computer in this classroom, where one student was collecting the mail from other schools involved in the project, it didn't take much to imagine a wider network across the Middle East. Dr Shoshani says: "We would like to see 10 model schools in the Middle East in computing and science. We offered the Jordanians such a plan, but we didn't get an answer yet."

There are other educational projects sprouting, in which children in schools are linking up via Internet or other networks, to "talk" to each other and to schoolchildren all over the world.

The Peres Plan is likely to start with limited pilot projects, rather than all at once, such as setting up a science teaching program in a high school in Jerash, Jordan, or a language teaching program using modern educational software and Internet resources.

David Nordell, adviser to the government's National Committee for Information Technology and Infrastructure, estimated that it would take about six months to get proposals to the European Commission and that the first projects wouldn't be in place before September 1996 at the earliest.

But the success of the plan to link Middle East schools will still depend largely on local politics.

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