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Distance learning in the higher education system in Israel - the challenge

13.12.20 | 10:07  

Following the outbreak of the corona virus throughout the world and in Israel, the education system in Israel - from elementary schools to institutions of higher learning - has moved to distance teaching and learning.

With regard to the higher education system, on 18.3.2020 the Ministry of Finance and the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education reached agreement with the lecturing staff of the universities and colleges, that studies at all academic institutions would also take place if necessary in the summer - until the students had completed their academic obligations, and that the lecturers in all the institutions would teach the students through distance learning.

The option of conducting academic studies through online distance learning is not foreign to academic institutions. The term MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) has been a familiar term for many years, however, until recently most studies in higher education institutions continued to take place in the traditional manner through frontal teaching, with the use of various technological means to support the course content. Recently, in light of the government's decision to suspend studies in higher education institutions, the institutions were forced - instantaneously - to continue to maintain the study routine for students, in order to prevent the cancellation of the current semester, through distance learning only.

Distance learning has clear advantages and disadvantages. Amongst the advantages can be mentioned the increased accessibility of knowledge and learning, the reduced costs of academic studies, the strengthening of competitiveness and the development of academic teaching, improved measurement of the learning processes and course management and the strengthening of the connection and correlation between academic studies and the job market. On the downside, it is usual to mention the concern of a reduction in the "market value" of an academic degree, the concern of a deterioration in the quality of online studies, a diminution of the dialogue with lecturers, the academic experience and the student support system, and limitations on the ability to assess the academic standard of the students. [1] In addition to the aforementioned disadvantages, it is possible to mention the inability to hold practical workshops which in some cases constitute part of the academic requirements of the curriculum and the difficulty which weak students or students with disabilities have in meeting the challenge of distance learning.

The transition to distance teaching and learning has presented the academic institutions with a considerable technological challenge. First and foremost, the various technological platforms used by the institutions have had to contend with a significant increase in the number of lecturers and students using them extensively and simultaneously. Moreover, lecturers and students who were not accustomed to distance learning have had to purchase appropriate computing equipment as well as to ascertain how to operate the various systems. The teaching staff at the academic institutions indeed took upon themselves the task and within a short time the entire higher education system moved to distance teaching and learning.

Along with the technological challenge, from a legal perspective mass distance learning raises many complex questions in the area of data security and protection of intellectual property rights. As we all know, higher education institutions bear enhanced legal obligations regarding protection of the information stored on their servers, including and in particular sensitive information about their students. The use of various systems operated by third parties (such as the popular "ZOOM" software) which sometimes fail to meet the accepted data security standards, and the uploading of many materials to the virtual "cloud", opens the door to the leaking of confidential and sensitive information to unauthorized parties. Similarly, the extensive sharing of content, including between students and lecturers, may raise substantial questions regarding copyright ownership of materials, course content, and lectures.

The challenge facing higher education institutions, lecturers and students, following the transition to distance learning, is large and complex. Since academic studies are going to take place in this way over a long period of time, the end of which cannot, at this stage, be predicted, it may be assumed that technological solutions shall be found and perfected that will allow all the parties involved to complete and continue beyond the academic year. With regard to the legal aspects, the academic institutions must act - with the help of their legal advisers - to ensure compliance with data security requirements and to entrench the copyright in protected works.

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[1]  A document prepared by the Knesset Research Center entitled "Online Academic Learning and its Recognition", dated May 2013