Friday, March 6, 2009

Settlements--Photographic Supplement

While driving from East Jerusalem through Ramallah and then along exclusive Israeli roads towards the border with Jordan, I saw dozens of settlements. Some of these were decades old, many more were established within the last few years--all of them were well secured. I did not have the luxury to photograph them from up close or in a conspicuous way. Instead, these are all shot from a moving car window. I share them here to illustrate the steps in the formation of a settlement, along with their typical placement and appearance. Enjoy.

This is the most up close image I captured of a newly created settlement. In the background are the preliminary dwellings, low to the ground beneath their budding infrastructure. In the foreground are structures that served as storage for military vehicles. In front of this proto-settlement, I saw approximately 15 identical military troop moving trucks, parked in their garages. There were storage facilities for five times that amount of equipment.

On this distant hilltop, you can see the outline and communications towers of a second recent settlement--a little further along than the first. Perhaps forty squat living containers are congregated here--waiting to be demolished and replaced by more comfortable and imposing dwellings. Apparently, during this unglamorous stage of development, people take shifts occupying the hilltop.

A medium sized settlement, in the snow near Ramallah. Characteristic walls around the perimeter along with communication and water towers.

This large, completed settlement, at the top of a very steep incline has a series of walls along the perimeter.

Just in case you thought the walls of the settlements appeared quaint in a run-down Medieval sort of way--here is a good example of a more no-nonsense perimeter.

Up close, these walls tower above vehicles and pedestrians alike, concealing the settlements from view and sending a neighborly message. This is not the wall around the West Bank--that wall is often higher and routinely adorned with various unfriendly wires--this is just the access point to an established hilltop settlement (which term, at this point, should be sounding redundant).

And in case you might be tempted to believe that these settlements are just the isolated and curmudgeonly fortresses of people who are minding their own business. Here is a tiny sliver of the destroyed olive plantation on the outskirts of one settlement. Deemed a security risk, hundreds of carefully cultivated, Palestinian olive trees were chopped down and burnt several hundred yards from the current boundary of this younger outpost. Nothing quite so threatening as olive trees--or Palestinians making a living.

Lastly, by way of contrast, here is an early morning view of Ramallah in the snow. Notice we are looking down on an unwalled area. As building and renovation becomes more difficult and costly, expect Palestinian enclaves to lose their polished and relatively modern look.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What am I doing?

The internet (and I will not capitalize that word unless it comes at the beginning of a sentence) pesters me to connect more frequently and with more people than I want. The expectations created of me as a web citizen also compel me to spend hideous amounts of time in front of my computer, which I resent and consider unhealthy. Some people around me seem compulsively driven to manage a complete and parallel existence online, whereas, I have been scaling back my own use of the internet for personal and professional connections over the last three years. Oddly, those three years correlate exactly to the years that I have worked in online education--specifically on initiatives to increase the "fruitful," "productive," and "high impact" use of the internet by young people.

My work often finds me playing advocate (salesman, really) for the educational and transformative power of the internet, or, more broadly, of connectivity. This is a bit awkward, since I dislike salesmanship about as much as I dislike the way that technology has crept into my life and the lives of those around me. At least for the reasons above, I have to revisit my motivations and ambitions for remaining involved in e-work.

Online mentoring is a concept with promise because it taps into a vast, global reservoir of lazy volunteerism (a cynic might note that it does so with unusual success because it appeals to the narcissism of frequent web users or to the need for validation that is felt by isolated people). In harnessing this social capital, it also has the potential to create and sustain communities around centers of learning that will inevitably make them stronger and help their students. I've watched too many tedious power point presentations about online learning initiatives that failed "for lack of local support." And I've heard from numerous web literate (and aspiring web literate) adults that they wish they could be more involved in the learning of the less fortunate young people with whom they identify. Also, statistically, at least in the U.S., one of the most common justifications that students advance for dropping out of the educational system is that they feel like there were not any individual adults who made the effort to understand and help them in particular. So, educational projects need support of the local community, adults want to help young people in safe and easy ways and young people are more likely to remain engaged in education when at least one adult takes a particular interest in them. That's a fairly idiot-proof little triangle. One of the things that prevents me from cashing out of this e-cage is that I want to see more intelligent and sustainable projects inspired by those three self-solving facts.

The other major trend in my efforts is bringing scattered classrooms together with different web tools. Since the schools involved in these projects are typically quite disadvantaged--comprised of students whose starting point is borderline web illiteracy--it is likely that the real benefit for participating students is the carefully prepared introduction to online existence rather than the opportunity to share rudimentary web pages with other children far away. This coached transition into web citizenship offers the possibility of teaching valuable lessons about being a good human to people who are just coming to understand all of the intricacies that constitute the online social contract that guides the behavior and self-presentation of web citizens around the world. Helping networks to form between people who have no other way of connecting is also a useful action--though there is still a lot of thinking to do about how to build online communities of practice that are worth the digital space they occupy.

Over the course of this year, I'll develop a much better understanding of how useful it is to connect scattered students to one another and how powerful it can be for groups to network together in an autonomous and self-directed way. If these tools turn out to be as powerful as their proponents suggest, I may have to continue this hobbling proximity to my computer and related devices.

This post has become a sort of introduction to the thinking behind the different initiatives that may get a bit more attention in coming months, or, it may be the only background that I offer into the professional currents that will impact my location, my travels and my thinking. In any case, if I venture into these issues again, it will only be because some specific events have actually changed my thinking on the way that young people can be better served by connective technologies. It will not be to further disrespect the internet nor will it be to communicate about online learning initiatives simply because they occupy so much of my time.