Thursday, June 18, 2009

Learning in an Emergency

It has been strange not to have written the blog with the frequency that I did in the past. However, with the heart attack behind me, I do now feel ready to start again.

One of the objectives of this blog was to bring to the wider world, news from Haifa where possible. In restarting, a wonderful story has emerged how the city council has reacted to the potential lack of education in the children of the city in any emergancy situation.

When the Haifa Mayor asked his wife if they would have sent their daughter to school during the Second Lebanon War, she responded with a firm "no way."

Since Hizbullah rockets from southern Lebanon pounded the country's north during the summer, when pupils were out of school, The Mayor's question was a hypothetical one, but one that gave him cause.

"I realized, if we weren't going to send our 16-year-old to school during such a situation, how could I expect anyone else to?". "We would have had to close down all of the schools in the city, and it got me thinking - how could we ensure the continuation of schooling, even during emergency situations?"

The Mayor raised $1 million in donations from Israel and abroad and this led to the creation of "Learning From Afar," the Haifa Municipality's latest education initiative, which will allow students to learn from home during times of crisis.
The program, which is called a type of "e-learning," draws heavily on the Internet, where Haifa-area teachers have built up a virtual schoolhouse, complete with a wide of array of lessons, instruction and worksheets, homework and even games and extracurricular activities for their pupils.

Pupils log on from their home computers, as teachers - who, would likely sit in a fortified area within the school during an emergency - administer the classes, teaching pupils interactively, and even monitoring attendance from their computer screens.

The program's first test run was held last week. Some 450 students from 12 Haifa schools - elementary, middle and high schools from the secular, religious and Arab sectors - logged on and continued their studies on-line.

"It's really just an exceptional program, which went off without a hitch last week," the Mayor said. "We're going to keep testing it in all of Haifa's 126 schools, and we plan to be 100 percent ready by the start of the school year next fall." The program is moving along smoothly it's been such a success, that teachers have asked to use the system for sick pupils,"

However, "Learning From Afar" requires that pupils have a computer and an Internet connection at home, and the city is trying to assure that. "We did a survey and found that among the 40,000 pupils in the Haifa Municipality's jurisdiction, only 339 did not have computers," he said. "For us, it makes sense to purchase those computers and make sure that everyone is up to speed, rather than look for other alternatives."

Teachers are excited about the possibilities presented by the new program, in part because they helped design it, and were able to customize the instructional methods for their classes.

"The ability to include professional colleagues in the building of the system certainly improves the quality level of learning, and allows each pupil to express themselves individually, to take part in the lesson and succeed, which is amazing for an Internet-based program," said one Haifa high school teacher and recipient of the Rothschild Prize for teaching. "As a teacher, I see this as not only a tool to assist all pupils, but a way to help those same pupils who may have trouble expressing themselves in the classroom."


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