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Looking back, moving forward
by David Lloyd

It is not often that we are witness to a technological revolution - a new development that will significantly change the way we do things.

Despite my "ancient" years, I arrived a bit late for the invention of the television. My mother once told me that when the television was invented, her grandmother told her - "I don't believe that such a thing can exist! And even if I do see it with my own eyes, I still won't believe it!" Not to mention the radio and the telephone … which were daily fixtures long before my mother was rushed to the delivery room. Does anybody remember what things were like before we had the telephone?

In 1991, I discovered this thing called the Internet. How I came about it - stumbled over it, more or less, is another long story - one not to be told here. There was nothing overly glamorous in the outer appearance of the Internet when we first came face to face. This was still well before the World Wide Web. No one dreamed of showing graphics over the slow 2.5 modem connection. (No, this was not a 2.5 mega connection, but rather 2.5 K - one thousandth of what many of us have today from home). Needless to say, everything was "text only" - gophers, IRC, muds and moos - and even then, it wasn't all that fast. But I was excited. Excited by the concept, by the possibilities it offered. "Was it just me?" I asked myself. Why was it that almost no one else noticed? People went on living their lives as if this new invention was something that would never have any real impact on their lives. Even institutions such as banks scoffed at the idea of ever being connected to the general public. "Who would ever want to do such a thing?"

But being me, a social misfit, a maverick who just couldn't accept things as they were, I got our high school "connected". This wasn't a trivial matter back then in 1991. We had to get special permission both from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Communication. We then had to "choose" an Internet provider. There were approximately two in the country at the time, and to connect, you had to dial Tel Aviv from the desert. Not cheap, not cheap at all. Imagine the time when we got excited because Bezeq offered us special rates after 10 o'clock at night. That was when we really started to communicate with other teachers over the net and plan our collaborative projects together. I was still able, then, to concentrate after 10 o'clock at night.

So we got connected, and we were having great communication with teachers worldwide. But what about our students? Well, it all really began with the Kidlink Celebration - an annual event during which students from all over the world went on an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) three day marathon. Some even had pyjama parties in which they would stay up all night so that they could converse online with students in other parts of the world who were normally online when they were asleep. At the time we only had one computer connected to a modem in an office.

This reminds me (pardon me for a short diversion) of the story told at an Internet advertizing seminar by the man who brought the "kespomat" to Israel (you know, the machine in the wall that gives you money). He said that he was so uptight, the first day it was installed, at the thought that no one would use it, that he had all of his friends and family go and withdraw money from the machine. The rest is … as they say … history.

Now back to our own story. Hannah and I (Hannah was another crazy teacher - but not an English teacher - who joined forces with me to revolutionize the school through using the Internet for interdisciplinary teaching) started pulling students out of their classes in order to bring them up to the office and sit them down in front of the computer during the first day of the Kidlink celebration. I fell into the same trap that many teachers did at the time (maybe many still do) into believing that this type of online communication could only be done with the best English students who had a fairly strong command of English. So we targeted them first. Getting them out of their regular classes wasn't an easy matter and demanded "hutzpah" (family crisis, principal wants to see her again, etc….). We took the rather startled students to the office and sat them down in front of the computer. "Talk" we commanded. We had no idea what to expect. But we did believe that our enthusiasm would be shared by our students. We had a basic tenet back then. If we were doing something real, something authentic with our students, and they could see how genuinely involved we were with the subject, they would join us, and soon they would be forging ahead, leading the charge. Isn't that what teaching is all about?

And it was amazing. Word got around the school as to what was happening. Soon we had students from all different classes and English levels lining up to chat (we are a boarding school, so this went late into the night). What happened next was a real eye opener for me. A weak 3 point student pushed his way through and sat down and started typing. "I don't know what you mean," came back at him. He tried again and again, until he finally wrote something that was understood. You should have seen the look on his face then. Nothing you would have ever seen in a regular English class. The feeling of empowerment. For the first time, learning English had real meaning for him. (This same student, who continued to work with the Internet, later moved up to a four point class, and did quite well on the Bagrut.) What had changed?

Picture this:
  • ten students grouped around the computer in the office - "talking" with students in the USA (much younger than them) about their feelings about the new peace treaty with Jordan, at a time when the ceremony was taking place not far away from our school.
  • A weak 4 point student deciding to take it upon himself to prepare a topic in English about Environmental Education (we have a special four year environmental education program at our school) for the weekly Kidlink discussion club. With the help of his friends, he not only prepares the discussion, but also moderates it in English.
  • Students from our school travel to Oregon for the Bi-Annual 21st Century Schoolhouse youth conference - the highlight of an online international collaborative project. One of our average five point students gets up, and in front of 120 delegates from around the world, and local press and dignitaries, presents our school's contribution to the project in a twenty minute speech in English. The Japanese, who at the time were the only school to come with an interpreter, were so overwhelmed by the authenticity of the learning experience that they pledged to come without an interpreter to the conference in another two years' time. And they did. This one collaborative online project changed the whole curriculum and emphasis of teaching English at their school.
And the list goes on and on. We knocked down walls and created a larger computer room where all of the computers were connected through a much faster fibre optic connection. Soon we managed to get more teachers from all of the different disciplines involved. Many of the students who had shunned our efforts during the years because they thought the computer would draw them away from nature (our High School for Environmental Studies is situated right in the middle of the Negev desert) finally saw how well the two could complement each other. Even the Ministry of Education, who for years had totally ignored the presence of the Internet when talking about the use of computers in education, recognized that it was a force to be reckoned with. But by then it had become a household item. Anyone could connect, and at speeds from home that we had never dreamed of.

And now we are bombarded with so many technological developments - wikis, blogs, facebook, youtube, google this and google that - that it is hard to keep up with it all. And if you don't, no matter. As long as you don't forget the essence, what it was that excited us all in the first place. The promise, the potential, where we can take it in our teaching.

As for me, personally, the Internet lets me live a fairly secluded life in the desert and still be connected to almost everything. Who said you can't have your cake and eat it too.

I'm excited. Are you?

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