Bracing for long distance learning in Israeli higher learning institutes

EDUCATIONAL AFFAIRS: Institutions of higher learning and students are bracing for another semester of socially distanced intercourse.

Scenes like this at Tel Aviv Univerity last year will be replaced by Zoom screens  (photo credit: (MICHAL KIDRON/TAU))
Scenes like this at Tel Aviv Univerity last year will be replaced by Zoom screens
(photo credit: (MICHAL KIDRON/TAU))
Israeli universities will reopen Sunday during a time of unprecedented uncertainty.
Already during the early part of the pandemic, the novel coronavirus forced almost all faculties to switch to remote teaching to protect the health of students and lecturers.
Those challenging conditions will remain in effect next week, which presents a challenge for students and administrators alike.
“I’ll be spending roughly 20 hours per week in my house studying, which isn’t so great,” said Tel Aviv University International Program student Jacob Jafee.
“At the international program we pay $10,000 per year. While COVID-19 isn’t the fault of the university, it made one wonder if this money is being well spent when one could take plenty of online courses for far less,” added the 27-year-old philosophy major who made aliyah from Dallas four years ago.
At the Open University of Israel, as well as other institutions of higher education around the country, steps are being put in place to make the remote education experience as painless and rewarding as possible.
OUI president Prof. Mimi Ajzenstadt said that with 40 years of experience in remote teaching, her university had distant learning “in its DNA a long time before COVID-19.”
While the university offers plenty of remote studies, it also offered frontal classes as part of the courses taken. Which is why roughly 1,000 lecturers were given special courses on how to best use the digital means now employed to teach.
The OUI also noticed a surge with a 37% increase of high school students taking their first steps in higher education with them and a general 10% increase in applicants across the board.
The OUI couples the latest in digital technology, such as a virtual tour in a museum, with old-school paper books students receive in the mail to read and report on.
Ajzenstadt pointed out that the university also created a system that notices when a student fails to send in a task or attend a virtual class and informs the lecturer, who is then able to call or send an email inquiring about the student’s well-being – a vital aspect of teaching during a time in which depression and mental health are a growing concern.
If a lecturer realizes that students seem to drop out of his or her class, the system offers feedback on the quality of teaching being offered.
“We care a great deal about flexibility,” Ajzenstadt said. “We broke down the semester to allow those who are gifted to finish it faster or to take more courses in a single semester to earn their degrees quickly.”
A new path recently opened at the OUI is for high school students to exchange some of their graduation exams with a university-level course. Ajzenstadt pointed out that while that option is in high demand, “most of these students come from well-to-do communities.” She emphasized her commitment to offer a path to education to all social groups in the country regardless of background or gender.
“Our university is both a bridge and a passport to social mobility for first-generation university students,” she said. The current job market being what it is, the OUI is “gathering funds to help them realize their dream.”
KINNERET COLLEGE president Prof. Shimon Gepstein explained that the college prepared three plans of action to cope with learning this year – one for a complete return to pre-COVID-19 conditions – “which is unlikely to happen in the near future” – one for a situation that compels all students to study outside campus, and a hybrid program, which he views as the most likely to be implemented.
This program divides students into groups of 20 and redesigned the curriculum to ensure that not only will they share a “capsule,” but they could also take all their on-campus classes in one day. “This will allow first-year students to get at least a taste of campus life,” he said.
Gepstein made it clear that, from an academic point of view, teaching via Zoom doesn’t reduce costs, as faculty members are paid the same regardless of the method of instruction, and the maintenance and security fees for buildings has not gone down during the pandemic.
“The cost of creating a good online course, with filmed lectures and editing, is roughly NIS 50,000,” he said. “In addition, we invested hundreds of thousands of shekels to ensure that 80% of our classes will be equipped with cameras and be able to air live lessons online.”
The college agreed to delete recorded content created by the lecturers at the end of the academic year to prevent the theoretical danger of it firing them and relying on digital classes for future semesters.
THE COLLEGE also viewed the COVID-19 crisis as a chance to move toward problem-based learning (PBL), a student-centered pedagogy in which students are asked to solve a problem alongside the teacher and other schoolmates.
PBL might be a new fashion in academic studies, but a great part of what makes a student of art a mature artist is exactly that – the presentation of an artwork and examining the questions it presents on all sides, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design president Adi Stern pointed out.
“We are the only place in the country offering academic programs in ceramics and glass,” he said, two fields that require students to work in unison in a single space.
“This year we worked hard to allow safe, close-range teaching by breaking walls and ensuring we have enough spaces to offer students,” he said. This should allow students to hold small classes while abiding by the Purple Badge rules.
In addition, Bezalel began to use innovative VR classrooms that allow students to function in a virtual class, complete with desks and even a small kitchen, in which an object can be presented and examined in 3D.
The virtual solution, Stern explained, also incorporates the important element of time. Unlike a Zoom session, which has an opening hour and an ending hour, the class can be “opened” at any time and students can leave “objects,” notes and read articles even if they were unable to attend this or that session.
BEZALEL KEPT all of its lecturers despite the uncertainty and lent students cameras, recording devices, computers and even paint and drawing paper in an effort to do as much as possible for those who might be facing unemployment or family troubles due to the economic crisis, he said.
Other programs the school offers, such as industrial design, visual communication or architecture, are seeing high numbers of registration. Stern expressed his hopes that all those who will begin their studies will also finish them.
He also expressed his deep concern over the low priority given to culture and art in the current national discourse during the pandemic, pointing out that in large spaces such as museums, it would have been possible to keep them open while keeping social distance rather than shutting them down.
“Art has a mission in the world, which is to show a different way of experiencing things, to make us contemplate, and to be critical,” he said. “One gets the feeling that, for our government, that is something one can do without.”
He pointed to the UK, where £1.5 billion (nearly $2b.) was earmarked to support the arts during COVID-19.
“We [in Israel] are reducing our space to a technical and pragmatic sphere which does not allow for a reasonable human existence,” he warned.
DESPITE THE pandemic and lack of in-person classes, the Council for Higher Education reported on Wednesday a surge of between 20% and 25% of applicants to all universities and colleges in the country.
The council expects that tuition fees will eventually force some students to drop out and predicts a 2.5% increase in the total number of students this year compared to 2019, roughly 230,000 students in total across the country.
The total budget of higher education countrywide for 2021 will be NIS 12.3b.
Tel Aviv University vice president Prof. Milette Shamir pointed to the hundreds of foreign students who are planning to arrive in the country to enroll for the upcoming year, despite COVID-19 and the lockdown, as evidence of the power of higher education.
While many students are protesting that they are asked to pay full tuition fees while being expected to study from home at a time of financial instability, Gepstein explained that, in order to lower the fee, colleges and universities will need to get more state funding to cover their costs.
All academic leaders who spoke with The Jerusalem Post stressed that they are willing to do a lot for students, from offering payment plans to increasing scholarship options, but at the moment they are unable to reduce tuition costs.
Despite the financial demands and the challenges posed by Zoom classes, most students are biting the bullet and getting ready for Sunday, like David (real name withheld), a 19-year-old pre-army engineering student with the IDF Atuda program.
“Zoom isn’t something all teachers could do,” he explained. “Don’t misunderstand. I get why some teachers like to teach ‘dry and boring’ classes. You can pack in a lot of information during 45 minutes if you stay focused – and in a frontal class, where people keep their phones in their bags, it works. Zoom isn’t like that.”
“A dull teacher would have people place him on mute as they do other things online,” he said. “We also have great teachers. We have a teacher who makes up a song before each class starts and pays attention to us and asks us questions to make sure we get what he is trying to say. It’s good we have him; otherwise, we’d learn very little.”
David suffered a massive disruption in his life due to the COVID-19 lockdown policy. The son of a single mother, he doesn’t want to ask her for help with the rent, and is unable to secure work cleaning houses or washing dishes in a restaurant as he planned. 
“Sure, the IDF is offering help,” he said. “But at the rate the economy is going, I think I’ll have no choice but to drop out of school.”