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Chaos theory shakes the old ways of learning

Helena Flusfeder reports on the multimedia revolution in Israel. Changes in information technology have revolutionised education. Danny Dolev, a member of the Hebrew University's computer science department and chairman of the government's Internet policy committee, takes it a step further.

He says that now that "the masses" have access to the sources of knowledge themselves through modern technology, they no longer have to rely on their national leaders.

"The information revolution is going though a state of chaos, one of four stages that will culminate in a new society," he says.

Professor Dolev is chairman of the National Committee for Information Technology and Infrastructure, as well as head of the Board of "Machba" (the Inter-university Computation Centre which represents the country's seven universities). He says there is no turning back: "Society has come too far. The Industrial Revolution took 200 years. So, the Information Revolution has taken a few years."

Professor Dolev predicts that in the next five to ten years, there will be a new ethic about what should be done with new communication tools.

The changes can be bewildering: and one level of change is academic research using the new media. Ten years ago, few could have predicted that experimental research on email and Internet Relay Chat could change people's relationships.

Brenda Danet, a lecturer at the Hebrew University's department of sociology and anthropology, is a specialist in computer mediated communications (CMC). Her research ranges from experimental language on the Internet, to video wills, people getting married on-line, and online forums/plays where people create characters and have multiple identities.

Professor Danet studies the "Hamnet Players", a group which has been experimenting with virtual theatre on IRC. "For these performances, 'actors' from all over the world log on at a pre-arranged time and convene on ##hamnet channel. . . they are not so much actors as players in a virtual puzzle game, in which the full script, with improvisations, unfolds on their screens."

Nava Ben-Zvi, director of the Hebrew University's Centre for Multimedia Assisted Instruction and one of the leaders in the field, has been trying to stimulate change in education, by introducing the new technology at all levels of university teaching. Universities are gradually being transformed "from the top down and from the bottom up," Professor Ben-Zvi says, including computation centres, language labs and online libraries. He wanted to grab the opportunity of the "vast changes in communication technology which bring about a change in the real world. We have to re-think our message, mission and models - what we want to achieve in higher education".

The multimedia centre was set up in 1993 in the Hebrew University's social sciences faculty as a "multi-purpose teaching enhancement facility". Staff try to integrate multimedia techniques into the curriculum of all the faculties. One of the centre's aims is to coordinate multimedia work on the university's campuses: including a video unit in the Hadassah Medical School in Ein Kerem, the agriculture faculty in Rehovot which uses video, and the Givat Ram multimedia unit which has facilities for video and computer presentations and provides multimedia material to campus libraries.

The centre's activity is likely to result in more use of the Internet: students and researchers share laboratory results this way, but new international software will enable them to share video, sound, and multimedia information, and to hold online conferences.

The Hebrew University believes all this needs a revolution in attitudes. That is part of the mandate of its new "Tikshuv" (Computer Mediated Communication) committee, according to committee head Ronny Kosloff, who is also a member of the theoretical chemistry department. He says that the committee's aim is to "revolutionise whole attitudes and the infrastructure of computers inside the university". The plan is to construct a network of services for students, faculty and administration.

Kosloff and his colleagues in the theoretical chemistry department have also started using the new open standard programming language Java to create small multimedia "applets" that run on any computer platform for illustrating the problems of structure and dynamics in chemistry.

In contrast, Sheizaf Rafaeli, a lecturer in the university's school of business administration, and co-editor of the Journal of Computer Mediated Communications, is a good example of how the medium is being actively used.

The journal's original aim was to encourage communication between scientists and publish research results. Two years later, the journal has 2,000 scientific citations and a bibliography of organised CMC resources.

While Rafaeli is in daily contact with his American colleague at the University of Southern California, they have only met once. CMC has tremendous implications for teaching, according to Rafaeli, and is also affecting the market for textbooks. As a lecturer, he is cutting down on information through traditional channels and referring his students to information on the Internet.

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