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Athena Fund Press Release June 18, 2021

Athena Fund Press Release June 18, 2021

President and Founder of Athena Fund, Uri Ben-Ari, in a Special Event of Athena at a UN Conference:
"Many Teachers Worldwide Still Don’t Use Computers for Teaching”
Governments should provide them with computers and training to enable students to enjoy a better future"

Tel Aviv, Israel, June 21, 2021. As part of the 14th session of the Conference of States Parties to the UN CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), a special side event of Israel’s Athena Fund was held, dealing with the use of technology for teaching special education students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Athena Fund empowers teachers through advanced technology, providing them with a digital toolbox that includes a laptop or iPad (depending on the program), training, a printer, a classroom projector, wireless internet for the classroom and more. The event was held online last Friday, June 18, 2021. Speakers included Prof. Amnon Shashua – Co-Founder and Co-CEO of OrCam Technologies, Noa Tishby - an author, actress and film producer in Los Angeles, Yaffa Ben-David – Secretary General of the Israel Teachers Union, Maj. Gen. (res.) Eliezer Shkedi – former commander of the Israel Air Force, among others.
Noa Tishby led and moderated the event. “Technology isn’t the goal. It is a basic tool which enables us to successfully reach the future ahead,” she said. “As human beings, we are obliged to provide a digital toolbox to teachers, especially those who have yet to receive this much needed support. We must do it in order to make the most basic thing possible in any country – educating the next generation in line with ongoing human development.”

Uri Ben-Ari, President and Founder of Athena Fund, warned that many teachers worldwide still don’t use computers for teaching. "I call on governments to provide teachers with computers, iPads and training, and give them the opportunity to help students – especially those with disabilities – maximize their potential and enjoy a better future," said Ben-Ari. "In special education, advanced technology is not only a means of teaching, but also works miracles, helping students with special needs communicate with their surroundings.”

Ben-Ari said that since its establishment in 2006, Athena Fund has distributed digital toolboxes to 28,000 teachers and kindergarten teachers in 172 local authorities across Israel, teaching about 650,000 students. This figure includes over 9,000 special education teachers and kindergarten teachers who teach about 72,000 students. Athena Fund’s strategic partners include the Israel Teachers Union’s Professional Advancement Fund, Bank Massad, Israel’s Ministry of Education, the Ted Arison Family Foundation, the Silvan Adams Family Foundation, the United Israel Appeal of Canada and more.  
Prof. Amnon Shashua, Co-founder and Co-CEO of OrCam Technologies, a global leader in assistive technology innovations, spoke about harnessing highly advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) for the benefit of people with disabilities. Prof. Shashua presented OrCam's globally award-winning, personal AI-driven solutions that include OrCam MyEye – a voice-activated wearable device for blind or visually impaired people that instantly reads any printed text and digital screens out loud, recognizes faces, and identifies products/bar codes, money notes and colors – and OrCam Read, a first-of-its-kind handheld device that empowers users who experience reading challenges. 

Prof. Shashua said that the company is currently developing a new device aimed at helping people with hearing impairments that can identify – and isolate – the voice of the person talking to them in noisy environments. "These are examples of the ability of artificial intelligence to decipher visual context, decipher acoustics and being able to manipulate them in a way that ten years ago was considered science fiction – and today can meaningfully help people with various disabilities," said Prof. Shashua. 

In addition to his role at OrCam, Prof. Shashua holds the Sachs Chair in Computer Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a 2020 Dan David Prize laureate in the field of Artificial Intelligence, as well as President and CEO of collision avoidance system leader and autonomous driving innovator Mobileye (an Intel Company) and a Senior Vice President at Intel Corporation.

Yaffa Ben-David, Secretary General of the Israel Teachers Union, said that "Alongside its pedagogical advantages, technology promotes the empowerment of students and educators and helps raise motivation to learn and express curiosity in new fields." She added that “During the COVID-19 pandemic we have witnessed how technology has affected everyone’s lives, and how it has allowed education teams to keep in touch with students and continue teaching in spite of the limitations. This was the case even among very young children with learning difficulties." Ben-David emphasized that the integration of technology in teaching methods and pedagogy among special education students can be very helpful, saving precious time and much frustration for both teachers and students alike.” She added: "I was glad to have the opportunity to witness this up close with my daughter, who is a kindergarten teacher working with children in special education. Even remotely, she was able to do exciting and impressive things that astounded me.”

Ben-Ari, together with Prof. Adina Shamir, head of the PhD Committee, Special Education Program, and head of the Center of Technology for Students with Special Needs at Bar-Ilan University School of Education, addressed preliminary findings of a study led by Prof. Shamir and Dr. Sigal Eden, and focused on the use of technology during the COVID-19 pandemic by education teams, in special education and regular education, who received digital toolboxes from Athena Fund. Preliminary findings showed that the educators used the tools for distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. While before the pandemic only 45.1% of the participants used the laptop or iPad on a daily basis, during the pandemic 70% used it on a daily basis.

Prof. Shamir added: “Looking at the results, it is not surprising that teachers who have received an iPad used it more during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is certainly interesting to hear that the professional training they got together with the iPad, has advanced their teaching abilities, and interaction with parents and pupils, during the Zoom meetings. Well, in light of previous findings, about the digital gap between teachers and students, this is really significant. Regarding special education, we see that the use of technology is really vital. Therefore, the need, the necessity, the actual use of technology, is evident before and during the pandemic, and so, we can see that the project was really strong.”

Two senior representatives of international organizations also presented at the event: Natalia Amelina – Chief of the Unit of Teacher Professional Development and Networking, UNESCO, and Dr. Praveena Sukhraj-Ely – First VP, International Council for the Education of Persons with Visual Impairment (ICEVI), and World Blind Union Representative on the International Disability Alliance (IDA) Inclusive Education Task Team.

Natalia Amelina said that “All activities implemented by Athena Fund are of high importance and they are one of the steps for the capacity building in education on the national level. “ She noted that “Unfortunately educational opportunities remain out of reach for the majority of children with disabilities worldwide,” adding that “new technologies play a crucial assistive role in delivery and access to educational resources for students with disabilities.” 
Dr. Sukhraj-Ely said that “During the COVID-19 pandemic, educational institutions in most countries were closed and alternatives hastily developed methods had to be adopted for continuity of the learning process. For children with disabilities, this created severe challenges.” She added that “I must take the opportunity to commend and congratulate the Athena Fund for the project of providing digital toolboxes to teachers in Israel. It is evident that the project has had a positive impact on promoting quality education and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Maj. Gen. (res.) Eliezer Shkedi – former commander of the Israel Air Force, said that “We all have the ability to dream, to understand, to develop the methods, to develop the technology, and much more important – the belief that we can do everything.”
Justine Zwerling, mother of a child with special needs, said that the description of people with disabilities should be replaced to people with determination. “We must ask ourselves how could we make the world a better place for the people of determination. The answers: kindness, empowerment, digital skills, acceptance and listening,” said Zwerling. 
Noa Nitzan – Director of the Technology Center, Beit Issie Shapiro, described the educational activities of Beit Issie Shapiro, which provides innovative therapies and state-of-the-art services for children and adults across the entire range of disabilities, impacting over half a million people annually, and described technologies used in education. “Thank you so much, Athena Fund, that most of our staff members have their own iPad. This is really crucial for the implementation of those technologies,” she said.

About Athena Fund

Established in 2006, the Athena Fund is a nonprofit organization working to promote the empowerment of teachers in Israel by providing them with tools for self-fulfillment and professional advancement. The fund was founded by several prominent business leaders under the direction of President Uri Ben-Ari (CEO of UBA Ventures and former Executive VP of Ness Technologies). The Athena Fund's programs include Digital Toolbox for Every Teacher in Israel (launched 2007), Digital Toolbox for Every Kindergarten Teacher (2012), Digital Toolbox for Every Science Teacher (2014), Digital Toolbox for Every Special Education Teacher (2015) and Digital Toolbox for Every English Teacher (2018).  Since its establishment, Athena Fund has distributed digital toolboxes to 28,000 teachers and kindergarten teachers in 172 local authorities across Israel, teaching about 650,000 students. This figure includes over 9,000 special education teachers and kindergarten teachers, who teach about 72,000 students.
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