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In Israel, back to school means letting educators ‘hack’ teaching and learning

Classrooms all around the world look very different from before as a new academic year begins during the pandemic.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The COVID-19 health crisis has given the world’s education arena a jolt. Schools, academic institutions, and development training centers around the globe have rejigged their timetables for the new school year with a mixture of in-person, online, and remote learning, or what is being called “hybrid” learning.

In Israel, educators and policymakers say a new era of education is underway—coronavirus or not, the way we learn and teach is transforming to embrace digital and alternative methodologies.

“Gone is the question of whether it is right to mesh tech with education, formal and informal. The question now is how to do it right and how to do it best,” Merav Horev, senior VP for educational policy at the Digital Israel national initiative, tells NoCamels.

Indeed, the novel coronavirus crisis accelerated the need for distance learning methods.

In March, Israeli schools shuttered their doors and were forced to figure out new ways to teach. But distance learning expertise is not built overnight.

“Schools, youth movements, colleges, boarding schools. . . all closed. At the beginning, the teacher or lecturer went into automatic mode and said, ‘Okay, this is how I taught in class, so this is how I’ll teach online in front of a screen.’ As we all know, standing in front of a camera requires different skills. The fact is that we’re all now learning how to teach and how to learn differently,” says Horev.

When the pandemic first disrupted life as we know it, the school year was already underway. Around the globe, educational institutions simply tried to finish off the year as best as they could.

While not ignoring or dismissing the health concerns this virus still presents, educators see this new 2020–2021 school year as one filled with possibilities and opportunities.

“One of the limiting factors up to now has been the weekly schedule. It didn’t leave much choice in designing learning experiences. Now, we have to be more creative in our teaching methods,” Maya Wizel, who works in academia and with leaders in the educational field in Israel and the US, tells NoCamels.

Wizel, who refers to herself as an educational hacker and challenges the traditional paradigms, says being more creative with technology, using different educational tools and crafting a schedule that mixes at-home and in-classroom encounters will produce fresh learning experiences.

“I hope this will change the teacher’s role. We have been talking about this change for over 30 years. Speaking optimistically, a major change would include the understanding that there’s no one right way to learn and no one right way to teach,” says Wizel. “It’s not just traditional, or project-based, or problem-based. We have all the opportunities to choose and be flexible and address whatever the student needs. There is a need to accept the teacher’s ability to be adaptive and use any of the teaching and learning methods that we have in our huge collection.”

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Redefining education in Israel and elsewhere

Here, like elsewhere around the world, this need to adapt is a necessity.

Israel’s class sizes are 25% more crowded than the OECD average, according to an “Education at a Glance” report published this week.

With calls for social distancing to keep the infection rates down, and thus making smaller class sizes a must, many schools in Israel found themselves lacking physical space for all their pupils.

“COVID-19 has shown that learning can occur everywhere. There was never a motive to try this idea, but now it is necessary to teach outside. In art galleries, playgrounds, zoos, agriculture fields,” says Wizel.

There are also museums, theaters, and even universities being used to enable classes to be split into smaller capsules for safer and socially distanced learning.

“The coronavirus outbreak hurled the entire world into a new reality, and presented us with a challenge of an unprecedented nature,” Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai said in a press statement when the school year started on September 1.

“The schools of September 2020 will be unlike the schools that we have known to date. The coming year will bring new challenges, but there are also opportunities: to implement upgrades, to accelerate pedagogical and structural processes for which the time is now ripe, and to reexamine our educational premises. We have prepared for every scenario that we are expected to confront this year in the shadow of the coronavirus, and we are all hopeful that this year will advance us to unprecedented and different levels of ability,” he said.

Those abilities include Israel as a leader of digital education.

In the first wave of the virus from March to mid-May, Digital Israel’s Campus IL platform, which offers free online courses, saw a jump of 313% in the number of people who signed up and a 147% rise in the number of people using the platform as compared to last year.

“It is crazy. In one month during this time period, there were one million online lessons,” Horev tells NoCamels.

“There is no doubt that COVID-19 has created opportunities for education. Things that were supposed to take three years to occur, happened in just three months,” she says. “This new reality has forced us all to create new ways, new methodologies, and new channels to continue learning. We need to improve our digital education.”

Horev is clear that digital education and technology are not one and the same.

“Technology is not pedagogy. We believe there is a place for frontal learning, but it is only one of the channels for learning. Distance learning is not a copy-paste version of physical frontal learning,” she says.

Education technology refers to language apps, virtual tutors, online learning software, and video conferencing tools.

Digital education, according to Horev, includes teaching pupils the skills to learn alone, learn together as teams, use different tech platforms, and to know how to present what they’re learning. “There are a lot of skills to take from digital education.”

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The new learning environment highlights socioeconomic gaps

And while digital education is indeed part of the new school routine, for it to work across the board, the socioeconomic gap must be addressed. Access to digital devices, which is a global issue, is only half the problem.

“For there to be a creative change in education, we have to make sure that everyone is on the same page. In many cases, the strong communities find the solutions—parents who can support the alternative way of learning, have devices at home, etc. We have to make sure the weaker communities are keeping up, and not only have the same opportunities, but more opportunities to be able to close achievement gaps. Israel is not there at the moment, unfortunately,” says Wizel.

Horev says the government initiative is trying to narrow the socioeconomic gap in offering free courses, but is fully aware that more needs to be done.

And still, it can be said that resilience, creativity, flexibility, and optimism are the buzzwords for this school year and the years to come.

“No one is talking about going back to what was. We’re all talking about the new normal. Coronavirus came and ripped off the mask of ‘but that’s how it is done’ and today we are creating a new way,” says Horev.

“Coronavirus or not, we will continue with distance learning. To keep teachers and students skilled in digital education. We’ve made the jump. It was too abrupt and not necessarily done right. But right now, we have the chance to get it right,” she tells NoCamels.

Creating and designing the “new normal” has meant introducing a different type of learning. “We are in a new routine with some of the old ideas but also new ones, and with more digital elements in all fields,” says Horev.

This article first appeared in NoCamels, which covers innovations from Israel for a global audience.