Machshava Tova’s Shuli Weiss: This is the first time in the world someone’s doing a mobile computer lab that doesn’t need to stay in a vehicle.Wednesdays are computer days at one kindergarten in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood. Walking into the colorfully decorated classroom, a visitor is greeted by the sights and sounds of 12 boisterous five-year-olds sitting at miniature tables, busy at work learning the “Seven Species” of Israel.
But instead of drawing sheaths of wheat in their notebooks, these children are learning to create basic PowerPoint presentations on laptop computers brought to their school for a few hours by Machshava Tova (Good Thoughts), a non-profit organization based in Jerusalem.
Machshava Tova’s aim is to bring technology and technological ability to some of the neediest children and youth in Israel’s capital, with the ultimate goal of helping to minimize the increasing social gap in the field of computers and digital media.
In Katamon, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, many families can’t afford to have computers at home. The result, says Machshava Tova business development manager Shuli Weiss, is that many children in this diverse neighborhood begin their education without learning how to use a computer. As they grow up and integrate into schools with children from different neighborhoods, this lack of knowledge and computer confidence puts them at a disadvantage.
Founded four years ago by high tech entrepreneur and investor Astorre Modena, Machshava Tova has permanent computer centers in the Talpiot, Kiryat Menachem and Pisgat Zeev neighborhoods of Jerusalem. But their latest pride and joy is the Mobile Computer Unit, (MCU) – which today is visiting Katamon.
According to Weiss, the MCU is a turbo, 21st century bookmobile. A portable computer lab that can be easily transported from school to school and neighborhood to neighborhood, the MCU enables Machshava Tova to serve areas that do not yet have a permanent computer lab of their own.
But, unlike the bookmobile, which was a free-standing traveling library, the MCU is a mobile system that operates outside the vehicle, and can be used in any classroom, community center or private home.
In order to make the MCU adaptable to as many environments as possible, members of the Machshava Tova staff designed mobile trolleys containing docking stations for 18 laptop computers, including a server, as well as a unique wireless system that allows them to bring a networked system into a classroom at minimal cost.
“This is the first time in the world someone’s doing a mobile computer lab that doesn’t need to stay in a vehicle, and can go from place to place not depending on anything,” Weiss told ISRAEL 21c.
When the Machshava Tova vehicle arrives and the computer trolley is wheeled towards the classroom, the children’s anticipation shows how popular the program is. “The computers are here, the computers are here!” they shout.
The children’s excitement about having computers in their classroom is obvious. “I’m happy when the computers come,” says big-eyed Yuval, aged five, who likes to play with puzzles and write words. “It’s fun.”
His classmate, five-year-old Amir, agrees, explaining that his family has no computer at home. Even for children in the younger age group, who have their turn after the five year olds, computer days are special. Three-and-a-half-year-old Liron said that her “favorite color is pink, and it’s fun to paint a cup of wine on the computer.”
Machshava Tova teacher Pnina Kutner, a teaching assistant and a technical staff member, accompany the computers into the Katamon classroom. Kutner, an energetic former kindergarten teacher, teaches the children how to choose which of the Seven Species they want to work with – wheat, fig, and pomegranate are some of the more popular choices – and encourages them to use the graphics available in the basic, child-friendly computer program. She and a teaching assistant are available to help the children individually.
“The excitement of the kids makes this very gratifying,” remarks Kutner as she hurries from child to child.
Kutner is teaching the children computer basics from a program developed by Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential program (UP) that has been adapted for use by Machshava Tova. Because these children are so young – there is a group of five year olds, followed by a group of three to four year olds – Kutner focuses on age appropriate skills the children can build on.
“I take something very obvious [a word, a drawing], and then we change it. And that’s what they react to. They could draw in different colors, but here is something graphic, which is exciting.”
For the three and four year olds, the priorities are different. “What I want here,” explains Kutner, “is that they work with the mouse to develop coordination skills. The older ones can already read and write, their coordination skills are good. But for the little ones, they need to develop coordination.” For all of the children, she says, the work on the computers “helps build them.”
Each of these stages of early computer learning is extremely important for children, according to Dr. Sydney Engelberg a professor of non-profit management who works as an independent evaluator for the Microsoft UP. He explains that the reasons for beginning computer training in children so young goes far beyond making sure they’re technically competent.
“The most important thing [about a program like this] is to give the kids a positive self-image and a sense that they can control their environment, rather than being controlled by their environment,” he said. Part of that, he added, is showing the children they can do things “with flair,” like changing their words into multi-colored circles or interesting shapes. For Engelberg, this element is critical.
Additionally, he explains that a program like this one offers young children an introduction to technology they may not have otherwise, and gets them to a level of comfort and familiarity so that later in life, when they have to deal with these things, they won’t be intimidated. The third element, he says, is giving them specific skills.
“Clearly we want them to come out with concrete skills,” Dr. Engelberg told ISRAEL21c, “but it’s more important that they feel that they can accomplish something.”
And since the cash-strapped Israeli education authority is unable to provide computers and training for classrooms like these, Machshava Tova helps fill the vacuum. “It’s something that the education system and the children really need,” says Weiss.
The MCU, which began operating in February, is currently in use three days a week, with a goal of operating seven days a week, including Friday mornings and Saturday nights, and reaching 150 people per day.
For Machshava Tova, teaching children computer skills and giving them access to the latest technology gives these kids the opportunity for a better future.
“To break the cycle of poverty, you need to bring these kids the best,” explains Weiss. “The best computers, the best screens, the best software. You tell them this is what you have to look for in your life. You have to look for the best.”