A problem school in Israel has achieved great results by linking pupils' and teachers' homes by computer - so students can have virtual lessons at times that suit them. Helena Flusfeder reports
Several years ago, the Makif Zayin high school in Israel was a typical school in a troubled district, where the pupils tried as hard as they could to avoid their studies. However, four years ago an experiment called "the school as communications centre" was introduced, and the place has been transformed.
Makif Zayin was chosen to participate in an experiment launched by Ben-Gurion University's Centre for Futurism in Education in co-operation with the education ministry and the Amal chain of technology-oriented schools.
The project includes studies for pupils from home through a computer communications network; personal instruction (instead of in a classroom with 40 pupils); the creation of a more flexible work environment; more freedom for pupils to choose what they want to study; and alternative methods of evaluation to tests in which the pupil takes a more active part in deciding criteria for evaluation.
The school's new computerised communications network, which has been in place for six months now, connects all of the pupils' and teachers' homes, the school, other centres of activity in the country, and the Internet. Pupils are using a system that "allows them to learn when and where it's comfortable for them", explains Manuela Atias, the school's principal.
However, there is a price to pay for such a revolution. Soon after its installation Ms Atias discovered that the most popular site in the computerised communication network was a pornographic one. "We have an educational dilemma. On the one hand, I'm not sure we set up the infrastructure at the school for pornographic sites. On the other hand, we are also aware of the problems of censorship."
The infrastructures set up at the school were the Internet and an intranet (a closed network for internal use). Pupils can take part in discussion sites or forums on the intranet, submit their homework to their teachers, ask them questions, and so on. But, now, says Manuela Atias, after a dozen pupils followed a special course, it is the pupils who are handling the technical changes in the school. The plan is to connect 500 users by the end of the year, she says.
The enterprising principal is not worried, she says, that pupils can copy from a site which contains the best work. On the contrary, she believes that the pupils will gain at least "minimal scientific information" by copying this work.
Dr Roni Aviram, an educational futurologist at Ben-Gurion University, says the aim of the project was to design a model which was the exact opposite of the existing school. "When we began to plan the project, it was clear that our model would be based on computer communication. At that time, we didn't know the Internet, but we understood the general direction. Computers were not the aim but only one of the ways of creating different study processes."
The project received donations this year, which will finance the building of the communication centre's infrastructure. But the revolution started four years ago, when the system of teaching at the school was changed from a frontal approach to personal instruction; there was also a change in the emphasis from knowledge to skills.
Na'ama Bar-On, one of the project organisers, says: "The teachers love computerised communication as a way to dialogue and as a way of teaching. When you go through the first instruction stage and succeed in talking to the pupil in an equal way through the computer, a wonderful dynamic develops."
However, she admits that the new tools can be problematic: "A week ago, I instructed 13 technology and electronics teachers from the school. Most of the teachers liked it, but one said that he needs the mental distance from the pupils. He said that the possibility of every pupil writing something creative on the computer at midnight was not acceptable to him."
Na'ama Bar-on said that difficulties had also arisen among the teachers: "The building of a new school since the installation of the computer communication network revealed the hierarchy not only between teachers and pupils but also between teachers. Suddenly the most senior teacher and the co-ordinator of the subject is not the most expert in the network."
The principal emphasises that the transfer to a new mode of teaching is not simple. Despite the new methods, the education ministry has emphasised that the school still "has to learn and teach enough material for the bagrut (matriculation) examinations". So, the teachers have started to divide their time between the new project and the old demands - to make sure they reach bagrut standard.
Manuela Atias admits that "the bagrut exams and the new model don't go together. We are close to integrating what we will have to choose from. However, it's impossible to tell pupils to study what interests them, but to still test them on all the material. The experiment shows that the pupils don't try to avoid their studies - the opposite, in fact. We got the impression that we don't have to give them exams to get them to study."
One solution to the problem of conforming to official education ministry requirements is to count the school's internal grades instead of the bagrut; this method has already been initiated in two subjects: English and history.
The budget for the five-year project is 200,000 shekels (Pounds 36,400) annually for the first two years, and 1,200,000 shekels (Pounds 220,000) each for the next three years. The system can be used by special needs pupils as well as by high-flyers. "The more developed they are, they better they can use it," Manuela Atias says.
One sign of the project's success is the rise in motivation for studying among the pupils - the teachers involved have noticed a marked improvement in the young peoples' thinking and learning skills.
According to Dr Aviram, future trends seem to be leading to more and more pupils studying at home. "I think the existence of this project (in Israel) bears witness to the fact that the education ministry is also beginning to think about the future," says Dr Aviram.