Fibre-optic olive branches

October 13, 1995

Helena Flusfeder reports on Israel's expanding virtual OU classrooms. An experimental satellite system is enabling lecturers at Israel's Open University to teach distant classes simultaneously without physically being in the same room. The two-year pilot was launched six months ago in Israel and has exciting possibilities for the country's education system and for transcending national borders with technology and education.

The Ofek system - one of several new technologies being used at the OU - is a joint venture with satellite communications company Gilat Communication Engineering and Arel Communication and Software. Ofek is a private communication network based on satellite communication. Its audio and data communications allows a student-teacher dialogue, turning the teacher's lecture into a "live" lesson.

The lectures are transmitted from a central studio to 13 specially-designed classrooms all over the country. The equipment includes a picture and transparency display board, a video, a PC, a CD and a scanner. Each lesson is transmitted from the studio to the satellite as compressed digital video. Any classroom equipped with a special antenna (VSAT) can provide this two-way communication. Each student has a telephone connected to the system.

Until recently, the OU, like its British model in Milton Keynes, was based mainly on written course materials with broadcasts on Educational TV and radio, video and audio recordings, lab kits and slides. Although the OU had an agreement with Educational TV, it now broadcasts regular programmes on cable TV Channel 8.

Israel's OU was founded in 1974 and is accredited by the Israeli Council for Higher Education. It offers 400 courses and has more than 20,000 students (including 1,500 in Russia). The OU's courses include: natural sciences, life sciences, computer sciences, mathematics, humanities, education, economics, management, Jewish studies, music and art.

The emphasis has always been on good quality textbooks and written material. The OU sells about 400,000 copies of its textbooks annually; about half of which are used in other universities.

However, the OU has a special role to play. Menahem Yaari, OU's president, explained that the institution's aim was to "serve where the other institutions did not" - people limited by space or time, but seeking higher education. The OU had to design a flexible method of study for working people including teachers, who want to upgrade their education without interrupting their work, bright high-school students, men in active service in the army, senior citizens and people living in the country's periphery in kibbutz or development towns, mothers at home with young children, or the disabled.

The OU is working on technologies which can highlight and supplement this material. In an attempt to make up for OU's lack of campus life, a "virtual campus" - a computer network - was launched a year ago, according to Michal Beller, who heads the design section for distance teaching methods. Introduced in computer science courses, it will be expanded to social science classes.

Other technologies will enable students to see a lecture via satellite at home on their television screens, since it will be connected to fibre-optic cable. The OU plans to expand these technologies by setting up a centre for distance teaching methods in higher education. The plan is to operate five separate but interconnected labs in: satellite communication, telecourses (television courses), CMC (computer-mediated communications), multimedia lab and informatics.

Elissa Allerhand, director of the OU's public relations department, says there are more than 600 students in the OU's computer-mediated studies programme.

Plans for multimedia include the development of courses, such as a sophisticated chemical laboratory on CD-Rom in which the student will be able to use a multimedia system to perform realistic experiments.

The pilot programme of the telecourse, a 26-episode series, The World of Chemistry, incorporates interviews with Nobel prize-winning scientists and a bird's-eye view of the world's ozone layer.

These technologies will help to bring higher education to all sectors of the population throughout Israel. They also offer exciting possibilities of crossing national boundaries - into international cooperation. As a first step towards a more broadly-based study framework, talks are in progress on the translation of some of these courses into Arabic. The OU has also raised the possibility of offering training and higher education to other Middle Eastern countries.

The OU has devised two training and updating programmes for Middle-Eastern professionals that use multimedia and satellite links. One is a postgraduate training programme in family medicine in which instruction will include written materials, lectures and clinical seminars to be held over a communications network based on satellite links and email.

The other is an update programme in management and business administration. The programme still has to be agreed by specific countries and political and technical obstacles have to be ironed out.

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