The Board Is Interactive, the Teachers Not So Much

Scores of schools around the country have acquired "smart boards" - the electronic replacement for the obsolete blackboard. It's connected to a computer and wireless Internet and at the flick of a switch becomes a computer screen. Teachers can show the class Word documents, computer presentations and pictures.

Smart Board is the name of the first company in the United States to market this device. The name may reflect the awe with which schools relate to the new technology. Hannah Winnick, head of the Science and Technology Administration at the Education Ministry, takes care to call the new boards "interactive boards."

Those who doubt the need for the new board say it perpetuates the old, frontal teaching method. Yoram Haim, coordinator of the eighth-grade classes at the Sieff Secondary School in Jerusalem, says: "We are constantly trying to break the traditional classroom structure, but the board will tie the teacher even more to the old position at the board. The teacher will be lecturing students "instead of working with more advanced teaching methods."

When students see the board for the first time on September 1, no doubt there will be cries of amazement, but Haim doubts the smart boards will cover up the bleak state of attention in the education system. He worries that the number of computers in schools is too small - and most of the computers are obsolete.

He says schools tend to be a fortress against technological progress, buttressed by the natural conservatism of teachers. While students spend lots of free time on Facebook, there are many teachers just taking their first steps in the use of e-mail and that doesn't really contribute to strengthening the status of teachers, says Haim.

"This is the last word in education," says a high school teacher in the center of the country, who adds cynically: "But it has to be remembered that teachers aren't really computer savvy. So what are they going to do with this board?"

Winnick responds: "This is just a means of demonstration, as part of learning that integrates computerized means. There is no point in using it throughout the whole lesson."

Winnick says there are not enough lesson plans suitable for integrating the Internet and the entire issue is being studied. The means of evaluation - tests - will have to change to include the use of new technology.

As for the teachers' technology gap, she says, that two-thirds of teachers have opted this year to take a "computer literacy" course - an obligation under the New Horizon reform.

Meanwhile, there's hardly a local council that doesn't want to acquire the new boards. In the south of the country about 120 schools are getting them in an extensive move toward computerization following the 2005 government decision to strengthen southern locales. The process includes new computers and computerized stations for teachers and is being carried out gradually, with funding from the Negev Development Authority, the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Education. For now, the new technology will be integrated into one-third of the classrooms, initially only in the compulsory subjects.

Yoram Haim made a professional switch from high-tech to teaching (and probably feels more at home than other teachers in a computerized environment) and he was chosen - as an agent of change - to work with the Kishurim (Links) Group at Hebrew University, which engages in R&D in new education technologies. The Kishurim Group, set up in 2002, is funded by the European Union. Its DUNES project aims at developing thinking skills and the art of debate among students. It uses the Diglo graphics program developed at H.U. for conducting a discussion and has been introduced in 12 additional schools, including an elementary school in Ma'aleh Adumim and a high school in the Menashe regional council.

Virtual work groups

In Diglo, students sit in the computer room and are assigned to virtual work groups. They receive a task on the computer and write their arguments in "bubbles" like people talk in comics. In doing this, they learn about the right way to present arguments and reasoning. The teacher - the moderator - can conduct the debate and make comments to each student through a chat feature. Graphically, it is possible to see the debate expanding and taking shape in a concrete way, and it's also possible to teach the students about the way they think and to improve the discussion.

A sample question from in a civics lesson had to do with the recent case of Dudu Topaz: "Every day many people are violently attacked and the police do not find those who are guilty. How is it possible to explain that the police invested tremendous efforts in catching those who attacked the media people and exposed them within a short time?" Haim says: "With the help of software it is possible to see how students move from populist arguments about how the police are afraid of the media to more complex arguments concerning the role of the media and how important it is to protect their independence."

Debate on the computer, he says, is not a substitute for classroom discussion but is intended to vary it. In an ordinary classroom discussion only about five students usually participate; in a Diglo discussion, everyone participates.

"In an ordinary lesson many of the students don't answer the teacher's questions because they fear being ridiculed by their classmates," says Haim. In Diglo, "the teacher, in effect, moves from his traditional place and becomes a moderator. He is able to keep track, to see who is participating, to see what the answers are and afterward shows the students the map and they learn to improve the process of thinking and their arguments."

Haim's students, asked about Diglo, said it was a good tool for the shy because "everyone can express himself." But they missed hearing tones of voice and seeing facial expressions.

Bringing in Wikipedia

The Sieff School uses Wiki technology, which was developed for the Wikipedia online encyclopedia. Students build an entry on a topic after having studied it and used various resources. For example, in Bible and literature classes they worked on writing an entry for "heroism," each student adding his own heroes.

"Education systems are a cumbersome thing," says Reuma De Groot of the Kishurim Group. "Teaching hasn't changed since the 19th century, and it's hard to instill changes. For something to happen in learning, technology isn't enough. The teacher has to become the agent of change."

Haim says a teacher becomes more relevant and up-to-date "if you use new tools in your class." He acknowledges that very few teachers continue to use the new technologies after their initial enthusiasm. "There isn't enough backup from the system. The equipment isn't enough and by and large most of the teachers feel comfortable with the old methods."

Haim adds that the race for quantifiable achievements - the need to cover material for the matriculation (bagrut) exams - always works to the teachers' detriment.

In response, Winnick says that over the past year the Education Ministry prepared for the change. She foresees a classroom with a computer station for everyone - preferably laptops - and a computer station and a projector for the teacher and also a smart board.

"It's a mistake to focus only on the issue of the equipment," says Haim. The Education Ministry only appears to be interested in the technology, he says. What does interest the system? Getting high pass rates for matriculation, he says.