Developments in Technology in Jewish Schools in Eastern Europe



   
    May 2008            
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The (Jewish) White Heat of Technology

By Joseph Mintz

What does the term "Eastern Europe" bring to mind? Drab, grey concrete buildings? Neglected children in orphanages? Societies with low wages, where many of the population hope for emigration to the West? Stereotypes or not, many of us actually know little about life across what was the iron curtain, nor indeed about what life is like for the Jewish communities now emerging from under the long shadow of communism in those countries.

I have been looking at how education and technology have been playing a role in the development of the Jewish and wider community in Bulgaria, one of the poorest nations in Europe, which just very recently became a member of the European Union.

Technological innovation and creative use of up-to-date computing is probably not what many of us would associate with schools in Eastern Europe. Yet the reality is that there are developing pockets of cutting edge educational computer use across the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries, where the "white heat" of technology is making a radical difference to the way in which some children learn. Surprisingly often, the impetus for these developments has been rooted in innovations in Jewish schools.

One example is the Dimcha Debeljanov school in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. The school was founded in the 1993, as the Bulgarian economy was beginning to emerge from the shadow of communist economic policy. One way in which it was hoped that the "new economy" would face the challenges of competing in the 21st century was through the use of education to develop technological proficiency and expertise, an approach which was pioneered at Dimcha Debeljanov. Although the school is part of the national state school sector, it mainly serves Sophia's Jewish community, although a significant proportion of the pupils come from other faiths and none.

The school takes children from the ages of 7 to 17, most of whom come from families on lower incomes. Yet in this context of potential economic and educational deprivation, these children are being taught using technology that rivals that being used in North America and Western Europe. These developments, many of which have come on stream over the last five years, have not occurred in isolation, but have in fact been the result of a collaboration between the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and World ORT, which although it is involved in international educational projects involving 16,000 people across 60 countries, is relatively unheard of even in Jewish circles outside of Israel and certainly has a low profile in the general educational community (although the recent split between World ORT and ORT Israel may have raised its profile somewhat).

Perhaps this lack of recognition is partly attributable to its unusual name – ORT is an acronym for its original Russian name "Obshevesto Remeslenfo Zemiedelchesofa Truda" or perhaps slightly more comprehensibly – "The Society for Trades and Agricultural Labour". Founded in St Petersburg in 1880, its original objectives were to raise funds for training to develop agricultural and artisan skills amongst Jewish peasants suffering from the privations of life in the Pale of Settlement. It now works, mainly in collaboration with governmental bodies, to provide seed money, expertise and enthusiasm to kick start educational technology projects across the world, working with over 270,000 students last year. Although its focus is on work in Jewish communities, particularly since 1990 with emerging Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, it works as well across the wider community, spreading expertise and ideas.

As a result of the collaboration with ORT, computing is being used across the curriculum at Dimcha Debeljanov, with all children from receiving specific computing lessons. As well as developing skills in basic packages such as word-processing, the children use a specialized suite of programs called "Toolkid", developed initially at the University of Sofia. The Toolkid suite includes drawing, animation, programming and game based applications. Staff at the school have, according to Plamen Petrov , the school's Computing Co-ordinator seen real engagement and enthusiasm from junior age children when using these programs. The logical games, in particular, such as the "Tower of Hanoi" have captured children's interests and helped them to develop problem solving skills. Plamen also explained that all the teaching staff have undergone an in-depth computing skills training programme and many have developed multimedia presentations to deliver lesson content.

In the High School department there has been a particular emphasis on using computing to deliver effective teaching in biology, physics and chemistry. They make particular use of Multilab, a comprehensive program developed by Fourier Systems in Israel, that allows data to be collected from a range of sensors is used across these subjects for data collection, analysis and graphical presentation. When I asked Plamen how this had made a difference to children's learning, he told me about an 11th grade Physics lesson in which the children used the Multilab movement and acceleration sensors to investigate the relationship between velocity and acceleration for moving objects. As Plamen explained, "the ease with which the students could derive accurate measurements of the variables allowed them to concentrate on working out a model of how they related to each other, deepening their understanding of the key concepts".

Simulations of investigations have also been developed by students using their own programming skills and teachers and students regularly refer to internet based resources to help them develop their understanding of science concepts.

The school is also ahead of many schools in the West in its trialling of learning platform technology, which provides a shared virtual space allows teachers to upload and check students' marks online and allows teachers to refer to students' homework assignments. However, the virtual absence of broadband access at home has meant that slow connection speeds are hampering the effectiveness of such technology for students and their parents.

As well as its work in Bulgaria, ORT has been quick exploit the interest and need of former communist economies to use technological education as a way of engaging with the new realities of international competition. ORT has provided technology start up funds and training expertise across the region, including work with schools in Prague, Vilnius and Riga. Development has also not stopped at the school gate, with a number of projects under way to develop technological skills for adult learners. For example, in a joint project with Hewlett Packard, ORT has opened a centre in Stabilish, near Chernobyl, to promote skills development for people relocated after the 1986 disaster, training them in technology, accountancy and graphic design.

Although, as with its work in the schools sector, ORT is often focused on the Jewish community, its remit is much wider. In Sophia, drawing on the work at the Dimcha Debeljanov school, ORT has sponsored the development of a textbook in the use of computing in education, to which many of the teachers at the school have contributed. This is now a standard text, helping to disseminate the successful use of technology to develop learning across Bulgaria. ORT has also pioneered the development of Russian language versions of Western software packages. As the lingua franca of the former Soviet Union, many people across Eastern Europe are Russian speakers, although it is interesting to note that at Dimcha Debeljanov, where English language skills amongst the students are barely evident, some children still show a marked preference for English language texts and interfaces.

In many ways, ORT has been in an excellent position to develop understanding of how technology can be rapidly introduced in to curricula where its use has been absent or minimal. For example, ORT has had specific projects in Israel, Argentina and Russia, which have all revised their school and higher level curricula since 1990. It is this international expertise, focused on a networked group of trainers and teacher educators that has been brought to bear in Sophia. As Vladimir Trabinsky, ORT's Head of International Coordination at its London UK headquarters, explains, the key limiting factor in developing the use of technology in the curriculum has not been the provision of hardware and software, but the provision of targeted training, allowing teachers to see how the technology can be exploited to promote learning.

As the experiences at the Dimcha Debeljanov School show, when the correct mix of appropriate technology and teacher training and support is achieved, real differences can be made to children's learning. In addition, the exchange of examples of good practice is also an important way in which teachers and schools can be encouraged to go further with their use of technology. Educators across the world, in both Jewish and non-Jewish contexts should increasingly be looking to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from success stories like Dimcha Debeljanov. Further, governments and policy makers in education should be looking more closely at the work of organisations like World ORT, which are spreading expertise and ideas across the global educational community.


Joseph Mintz is a Principal Lecturer in Education at the London South Bank University

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from theMay 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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