Hebrew University joins move to multimedia learning

JERUSALEM – Is the Talmud entering virtual reality? Are Theodore Herzl CD-ROMs on the way?

A blend of video images, sound and computer data will be an everyday part of Israeli learning throughout the coming decade.

Preschoolers will learn about colors, shapes and letters by watching multimedia screens, while medical students will use CD-ROMs to explore the human body and watch the progression of diseases. Even traditional yeshivot, merging ancient and modern methods, will use multimedia programs to help explain the Talmud's more complex issues.

Hebrew University is getting in on the action, not only by following private-sector developments but also by forging its own multimedia tools for both formal and informal education.

The university's new Center for Multimedia-Assisted Instruction, several years in the making, is now lodged in the humanities building on the Mount Scopus campus. The center is a joint effort of the university and Yeda Computers, Israel's Apple representative. The Rashi Foundation donated $250,000 for state-of-the-art hardware. The multimedia center's 10-member, mostly part-time staff includes people with expertise in a wide range of fields — sociology, communications, education, computers and more.

Staffers are working with university departments on all four campuses in Jerusalem and Rehovot, exploring ways multimedia technology can enhance their curricula.

Heading the center is Professor Nava Ben-Zvi, a chemist and educational innovator. "I've been interested for many years in the use of computers for teaching the layman," she says. A few years ago, then-university president Professor Yoram Ben-Porath approached Ben-Zvi, asking her to involve the Hebrew University in new teaching technologies.

Since Ben-Zvi has worked on a Macintosh computer for years, she says, "I thought it was natural to approach Apple's representative in Israel to see if they were interested in working together on the project. They were very eager, but we will not include only Apple hardware or software in the center." This year, however, the Education Ministry did name Macintosh the most suitable tool for teaching and creating multimedia programs.

"The main aim [of the multimedia center] is to create a comprehensive compendium of multimedia and programs for training, especially for teachers," says Dr. Yoram Friedman, Yeda Computers' general manager. "Since the `80s, Apple has been the flag-bearer in this field … [which] has grown tremendously in recent years here and abroad. The sky's the limit."

At the center, Ben-Zvi says, interdisciplinary groups will create multimedia presentations especially for schools. They will also develop protocols for training teachers to use multimedia, and will encourage commercial and public organizations to develop programs at the school, community and national level. The center will maintain multimedia databases, collect relevant research material from around the world, stage Jerusalem-based international multimedia conferences and produce and distribute updates on multimedia via CD-ROM and electronic mail.

Center staffers have already found a way for Hebrew speakers to log onto the Internet in their own language. This system, called Snunit and developed by Dudu Rashdi, will serve as a bulletin board on which teachers can trade information. Ben-Zvi explains that biology teachers, for example, can compare notes on the multimedia software available in their field and trade ideas for explaining specific subjects, such as photosynthesis. (Snunit's e-mail address is ELIK@WWWHUJIA.AC.IL).

Despite the growth in multimedia educational tools, Ben-Zvi insists they will not eliminate textbooks, word- and data-processing or old-fashioned teaching.

"Each medium has its strong points," she says. "The important thing is to combine all of them in the most effective mix for the classroom."

The youngest grade-school children will probably have the easiest time adopting multimedia, Ben-Zvi says. Today's youngsters are so geared to TV and computers that the combination of sound, computer data and video will neither startle nor baffle them.

"They react as naturally to symbols as they do to letters," she observes. "We will try out our theories on kindergarten children, starting in Jerusalem."