Billions Allocated for Computers in Schools, but Experts Worry Program Favors Technology Over Teaching

The Education Ministry is to provide laptop computers for teachers, as well as display monitors and Internet access, to 400 schools in the north and south of the country in the next school year. In 20 schools, students will also receive laptops.

After intense discussions about the new program between education and finance ministry officials in the past few weeks, its budget was slashed from about NIS 5 billion to NIS 3.2 billion.

"This is a 'thinner' plan than what we had wanted. We had to give up many things," a source in the Education Ministry said. But academic experts say that massive equipment purchases will not produce the desired results. "The Education Ministry has declared that the pedagogic issue is important, but there appears to be nothing backing it up," Prof. Roni Aviram of Ben-Gurion University's Center for Futurism in Education, says.

According to various sources, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and director general Shimshon Shoshani are pushing for the program's swift implementation.

One expert overseeing the program said: "For the change to be effective, there must be time for teacher training and to prepare the schools properly. These things don't happen overnight or even within three or four months. But there's pressure from above."

The installation of information and communications technologies in schools is one of Sa'ar's pet projects. Presenting it six months ago at the Herzliya Conference, he said it would bring about a "revolution in the Israeli education system."

The director of the Education Ministry's science and technology administration, Ofer Rimon, who is leading the program's development, told the Knesset Education Committee about two months ago that Israel is one of the few countries in which the student-computer ratio and the use of computers in education is declining.

According to an internal Education Ministry document that was written about two weeks ago, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, the school computerization plan has undergone major changes. The first stage, involving the installation of monitors and other basic equipment as well as teacher training is scheduled for implementation between 2010 and 2014. In the next stage, which does not appear in the plan for the next few years, the ministry plans to "subsidize the purchase of laptops for students, to reach the point of one laptop for every student."

A source in the Education Ministry said the ministry is considering accepting contributions from the business community in Israel and abroad to fund the purchases.

According to the document, the program will begin in outlying areas and in elementary schools. In addition, students in 40 selected schools (20 this year and 20 next year ) will receive laptops. These schools will "demonstrate how information technologies can be incorporated and their pedagogical uses increased," according to the Education Ministry document.

A source who is familiar with the program, however, said that at present it is not clear what each of the 20 schools is to receive, "beginning with technical issues like the bandwidth of the Internet connection" and up to the nature of the teacher training. "It is also unlikely that something will happen on September 1 because everyone is on summer vacation," the source said.

The document says the plan calls for the installation of technological infrastructure in teacher training colleges to insure that "before they enter the education system, education students will receive expertise in the use of information technologies for teaching."

However, according to the budget, the training of education students will be nominally funded only, at about NIS 40 million.

"There is not enough emphasis in the program on training teachers in the 'new pedagogy' and on the ability to use the technology," Prof. Gabi Solomon of the University of Haifa says.

"The success of the change depends decisively on the extent to which a teacher knows and wants to move from traditional pedagogy to the "new pedagogy", Solomon added. "Without deep training, this won't happen. Research worldwide show that technology by itself changes mothing," Solomon said. One study even showed that there is no value in a single teacher-training course, because teachers go back to what they know, he said. "It's like giving an excellent car to people who don't know how to drive and don't want to learn."

Aviram welcomed the program, calling it the "first time since 1993 that they are trying to formulate a methodical program." However, he warned that "care must be taken not to emphasize equipment purchases. From 30 years' experience it can be said that in most cases schools don't use the equipment, and if they do use it, it quickly becomes obsolete. There is a danger that they are going to throw out a lot of money here. Especially because funding is limited, it must be utilized correctly."

Aviram also said: "We must have computers because that's the reality, but the Education Ministry should learn from endless failures in computerization elsewhere in the world, and suit the situation to Israel.

Solomon said that using computers in teaching "incorporates rational, critical and independent thinking with cognitive skills and is done as a group effort. There is an essential clash between the well-known structure of schools, based on the evaluation of unchanging data that is conveyed one-way, from teacher to student, and the digital culture, which is typified by a great deal of information and open communication. It is not enough to suit existing educational programs to the new technologies. If, for example, the matriculation exams do not change, we have done nothing," Solomon said.