ORT Argentinas Virtual Campus shows its not to be sneezed at


29 July 2009 ORT Argentina’s Virtual Campus is not to be sneezed at Thanks to ORT Argentinas Virtual Campus thousands of ORT high school pupils have kept up with their studies in spite of the Governments closure of the countrys schools to contain the swine flu epidemic. The success of the Virtual Campus in enabling students to maintain close and productive contact with teachers and classmates to the extent of collaborating on project work marks a coming of age of the innovative Internet learning platform. During just the first five days of the two-week closure, there were 80,000 visits to the Virtual Campus and more than 640,000 pages were viewed. Two years in the making, the Virtual Campus has only been on-line for a year but has already garnered international interest (see https://ort.org/asp/article.asp id=731) . Its performance in effectively keeping ORT Argentinas two high schools open in the face of the worlds second worst swine flu outbreak is likely to increase consideration of how the model can be applied in different educational environments. This has proved to everyone how important, how useful, the Virtual Campus is, said Virtual Campus CEO Guillermo Lutzky. This has been a stress test to certify that you dont only learn and teach within the walls of the classroom but you also need to learn and teach by Internet. Here we had kids using 21st Century tools. They were working in an information society environment where not everything is done with someone physically present. Originally designed to expose students and teachers to new technologies and especially to collaborative tools known as Web 2.0 applications teaching staff at ORT Argentina started work on adapting the Virtual Campus last month, as soon as it became apparent that swine flu in the country was having a serious affect on public health. Mostly this involved changing the role of the teachers, Mr Lutzky said. Some teachers were assigned to follow students to ensure that everyone was involved and in contact with each other; others were involved in developing content for distance learning, and others were involved in developing content for each subject. The size of the task can be appreciated by considering that, for example, uniform content needed to be prepared for 28 classes of second-year maths alone. In addition, a Facebook-like internal network was added which not only enabled students and teachers to exchange information but also to engage in group work, and establish socialisation networks to compensate for the loss of personal contact they had at school. Two weeks later, at the beginning of July and with the death toll climbing towards 170 (second only to the United States), the Argentine Government ordered schools to close a fortnight early for the winter vacation. However, those ORT students who were looking forward to a nice, long holiday were to be disappointed: Mr Lutzky said a few had complained that their homework load had actually increased. But the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. One parent emailed: My daughter worked, spoke with her classmates on the phone or sent and received emails; she studied, she read. Indeed, during the two weeks of the health emergency she made quite an effort. But the organisation and the coursework came from the school: I congratulate the teachers on their work and Im grateful to all of them for their commitment. Another wrote: I observed and evaluated the operation of the virtual exchange between my son and his teachers during these two weeks. He progressed with his learning, developed the subjects at home and delivered his papers and homework via email. [ORT Argentinas] anticipation of the effects on the school of such an atypical emergency once again showed why ORTs educational provision is different from others. You are always a step ahead. We thank you for that. Such responses have vindicated ORT Argentinas visionary and principled approach to education. A month without classes in the middle of the year was unthinkable for us, said ORT Argentina National Director Adrian Moscovich. However this crisis was turned into a challenge of keeping the schools open. And here was where well-applied technology came to the rescue. We feel we have passed with flying colours the test of this critical period thanks to the skill and commitment of our teachers and the enthusiasm and maturity of our students. Mr Lutzky and his team are not resting on their laurels; this months experience has proven the potential of their pioneering project. Were thinking of how this project can develop over the next 10 years, Mr Lutzky said. We want the Virtual Campus to reach not only computers but also PDAs [Personal Digital Assistants] and cell phones; not only teachers and students but also the whole Jewish community. The Virtual Campus is not static, it is constantly evolving to adapt to and incorporate technological innovations. But it also has to change in response to changes in the way the students work and learn so that it can maintain its appeal. World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer congratulated ORT Argentina on its response to the swine flu emergency. ORT Argentina is leading the way in Latin America with its application of new technology to education, Mr Singer said. But the practical benefits experienced from ORT Argentinas innovative approach are as much to do with its adherence to age-old professional and ethical standards as to the ingenuity and vision of its staff. It is a winning combination that is giving generations of Jewish high school students a great start in life and serves as an inspirational model for other ORT operations around the world.