Computer-based program would keep Haifa kids studying, even in emergencies

"E-learning" program sponsored by mayor draws heavily on the Internet, where Haifa-area teachers have built up a virtual schoolhouse.

yona yahav 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yona yahav 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav 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, Yahav's question was a hypothetical one, but one that gave him pause. "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?" Yahav told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "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?" Yahav's pondering, and his subsequent raising of $1 million in donations from Israel and abroad, 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 Yahav 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, Yahav explained, 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," Yahav 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." Yahav said he was tired of waiting for government funding for such a project, and encouraged other municipalities to implement similar programs of their own. "We're not going to wait for the government to help us anymore," he said. "What we learned from Lebanon II is to always be ready, even when it doesn't seem necessary." The program is moving along smoothly, he said. "It's been such a success, that we're even being approached by teachers who want to use it for sick pupils," Yahav said. "It's truly an answer to the problem of continuing studies outside of the classroom." 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." As far as the Internet connection is concerned, however, Yahav said he understood that many bomb shelters were not equipped with Internet service. "If there is a siren and the kids have to run to their shelters, the teacher will obviously understand why they aren't 'present' during that time," he explained. "But so be it - 15 minutes here and there is much better than a whole day, or week, and so on. This is an idea, built up by our teachers, that has simply become a reality, and we couldn't be happier about it." 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 Shlomit Artzi , a 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."