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May 27, 2010

Stanford educator promotes Mideast peace through technology

By Adam Gorlick

There's a school in the small Palestinian city of Qalqilya where students are sharing stories about soccer games, friendships and confrontations with Israeli soldiers.

One fourth-grader recalls the day he and two other boys were caught herding sheep too close to an Israeli settlement. The youngest of the three hid behind a rock. The oldest – a 17-year-old – told the fourth-grader to run away, but he stayed close. After a few questions from the soldier, the three boys regrouped with an understanding that what they assumed was a safe area was now clearly off-limits.

It's a child's view of the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and one that Elizabeth Buckner hopes will be shared in classrooms on both sides of the border to encourage peace through understanding.

Buckner, a doctoral student at Stanford's School of Education, is spearheading a project to collect stories from Palestinian and Israeli children and turn them into audio slideshows that can be watched and listened to on handheld devices and distributed in the region's schools.

She's working with organizations that can broker deals between Israeli and Palestinian schools and help make the storytelling project part of each system's curriculum.

"I'm looking at mobile technology as a tool that could promote greater awareness between Israeli and Palestinian students," Buckner said. "It gives them stories from a personal perspective of the conflict."

In a recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, Buckner and Paul Kim – the School of Education's chief technology officer – met with academics, peace advocates and school officials to discuss their ideas of using technology to foster positive relationships between Israeli and Palestinian children.

They also visited seven Palestinian schools and got students to record their stories on the handheld devices or write them down so they can be narrated and loaded on the machines later. The anecdotes ranged from humdrum tales of soccer games and picnics to stark descriptions of living in an unstable area.

One student recalled a skirmish with Israeli soldiers during a class trip. The student said a soldier began hitting another student at a checkpoint. The other classmates started shouting, and the soldier fired his gun into the air. The student said children began throwing rocks at the soldier, but were quickly rounded up and beaten by more soldiers. The classmates were finally left alone, but some needed to go to the hospital, the student said.

"Some of us suffer until today from this hitting," the student wrote.

The mobile devices used to record and play stories also double as teaching tools that promote critical thinking. Along with a few slideshows, the mini-computers are loaded with video games that challenge players to use basic math skills, match shapes and strategize.

Researchers at Birzeit University in the West Bank are now developing Arabic-language content for the devices.

"We're talking about tying these devices to the Palestinian national curriculum," Buckner said. "Kids aren't really taught critical thinking skills – everything is based on memorization. But using mobile technology in the classroom could impact students' abilities to think about how to solve problems."

Even getting the students to use the devices proved a lesson in itself. When she stepped into a classroom, Buckner handed out the contraptions without giving any instructions on what to do with them. Many children – especially those in the poorer schools where computer technology isn't a part of the curriculum – fumbled with the devices before finally figuring out how to turn them on.

"We wanted the kids to discover everything themselves," Buckner said. "After about 20 minutes, almost all the students had figured out how to start playing games."

Not unlike the United States, Buckner found that student performance and money go hand-in-hand. Student literacy rates and test scores were much higher in well-funded schools in Ramallah and Nablus, where classrooms are outfitted with plenty of books and supplies and students learn in Arabic and English.

Students in the wealthier schools are also farther from the violence and tension that percolates in areas closer to the Israeli barrier.

But in the poorer schools closer to the border – like the one in Qalqilya – many students have trouble reading and writing Arabic. Electricity is sporadic, and classrooms aren't heated during the winter.

The Israeli-built barrier runs through Qalqilya, dividing the land the school is on from the rest of the city. Students must go through checkpoints on their way to and from school, making frustration and resentment run high among the children and their parents and teachers, Buckner said.

While the barrier is a constant symbol of separation for children on both sides, Buckner is hopeful that the story-sharing program will build an understanding of the hardships, differences and similarities between Israeli and Palestinian children.

"Technology shouldn't focus just on educational outcomes, but on the next generation of citizens," Buckner said. "We want to use technology to reach students at a young age and teach them about the experiences of kids across the border. We want them thinking about other people's situations."




Adam Gorlick, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Elizabeth Buckner, Education: (510) 449-6250,

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