Bar-Ilan University in the Tel Aviv suburbs is using video conferencing in an attempt to bridge the gap in educational standards between central institutions and those on Israel's periphery.
Baruch Offir, head of Bar-Ilan's computer and communication division, explained that the aim of the three-year-old project was to link Bar-Ilan with its northern regional colleges in Safed, Tzemach (Jordan Valley), Ashkelon, Judea and Shomron.
Offir says that the problems in education in these areas start a long time before university, at school level. However, he emphasises that "distance learning systems can help us by delivering a lecture from the centre to the periphery."
Bar-Ilan uses Picturetel video conferencing over digital fibre-optic lines leased from Bezek, Israel's national communication company. Its Ramat Gan campus is linked to the Safed and Jordan Valley colleges, enabling 250 students each week to study subjects such as Bible, history, English and teacher training courses. "It's not enough that we deliver the knowledge. The personal approach is very important," Offir stresses.
The system is fully interactive, with complete two-way communication, and uses a studio at Bar-Ilan, linked to classrooms in the north.
According to Eitan Weiner of Binet, Picturetel's Israeli distributor, the next step is to use Bezek's ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) service rather than leased lines. ISDN works out cheaper for intermittently used connections, and as it is a dial-up service, an institution with an ISDN line can, in principle, receive courses from other institutions all over the world. Weiner anticipated that the switch to ISDN would happen within the next few months. In the meantime, Bar-Ilan has developed several different methods of transferring knowledge to its regional colleges. Offir explained that each method's effectiveness has been evaluated: "Our main interest is an analysis of the students' feelings, their achievements; to compare them to other students learning in the regular method." Researchers concluded that small groups were "the most personal".
"Our main question is how to gain the satisfaction of the students," Offir stressed. He believes that the level of learning will only be raised if the most suitable teaching methods are employed.
Plans include broadcasting teacher training courses to a Picturetel studio in London next year and to two high schools in Hatzor and Safed in northern Israel, as well as the university's regional colleges.