Prof. Haim Hames, rector of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has not taken a day off from work in his on-campus office since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in Israel. "It was very important to me that when I join a Zoom call, people will see that I am talking from the office," he said, "Even when the campus was completely empty and I was the only one walking in the corridors and turning the light on and off."

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From his office, Hames, along with his colleagues, led a rapid transition to online learning – for some 20,000 university students and 4,000 faculty members. He also led various projects dealing with the crisis – from interdisciplinary research groups to help the fight against COVID-19, to a mobile hotspot distribution network for students in Arab villages with poor internet service. After the end of the spring semester, or the “corona semester, ”Hames reflected on the past months, and demanded from policymakers: "Don't hang us out to dry."

We moved to Zoom in only four days; we didn’t have time to engage with the pedagogy of online learning

The COVID-19 crisis shuttered the university during the second week of the new semester. "I think I started realizing something monumental was happening when more and more of our instructors returned from abroad and went into self-isolation," said Hames.

What does the transition from "classic" academics to online learning look like?
"The whole transition took four days. When you think about it deeply, it's almost impossible for people not used to this technology. We didn't have time to deal with the pedagogy of online learning – which is an entire world of methods, thought, and theoretical tools that guide online teaching."

"We did  two days of tutorials on how to teach through Zoom. Hundreds of instructors participated in tutorials, and then we piloted lessons with instructors and students where there was a live stream of an instructor teaching from the classroom and students listening, all on Zoom, of course. From there, we went straight into the rest of  the semester."

Did it work?
"Initially, everyone was very happy about returning to the routine of classes, but as time passed, a lot of problems began to emerge. I guess we’ll only understand the price of this transition during exams."

Prof. Haim Hames, dean of Ben-Gurion University (Photograph: University)

Zoom learning did not work well with everyone, from students who do not have computers at home, to students with learning disabilities who find it difficult to use online resources, to instructors who failed to use online tools to create engaging content. "These may be the best instructors, ones that can captivate entire halls, but this transition to the small, fragmented screen can break everything –  surely when there is no real experience and knowledge of how to use it," Hames said. 

Hundreds of thousands of young adults left the job market. How does this affect the students?
"There has been tremendous financial damage. Most students work in order to finance their studies and the situation they encountered presents a very big challenge to this system. Students who cannot work will not be able to finance their studies. Perhaps if all learning moves to Zoom, students outside of Be'er Sheva will choose to stay at home to save on expenses. I’m proud that we have found the right balance in dealing with these issues with the students. But I will honestly say: I have no idea how a student who’s sitting at home and has a family as well, can succeed in their studies. I assume that studies were not top priority for students that are having financial issues.”

Student Loan Arrangements Should Be Guaranteed by the State"

Have you considered reducing tuition?

"Academic studies in Israel are heavily subsidized. Student tuition is a very small part of the university's budget, and does not begin to cover the real costs of teaching. However, it is an important economic source that universities cannot forgo."

Students at Ben-Gurion University. "The academic experience does not amount to just studying, and campus life has a unique meaning and value." (Photo Archive: Dudu Grinshpan / Flash 90)

Hames argues that there is a need to consider establishing a special student loan system, something similar to the systems in the United States, but ones that will be granted and guaranteed by the state.

 "I don't think we'll get to the point the United States is at, where people are accruing decades of school debt, where it's a big disaster and the result of the free market, at least here we have a certain social outlook. Working in cooperation with the Ministry of Finance and the banking system, lending can be state-guaranteed, which is ultimately a move that will help us return to a period of economic growth."

Bedouin female students felt much safer attending online classes

Ben Gurion University is home to a wide range of students in the Negev, including Bedouin students. Hames says that the "corona semester" intensified socioeconomic gaps, and required a unique response, but also that it revealed opportunities.

"We noticed inequality in communication technology, for example, some places can't even be connected to the internet. At first, students could sit in computer rooms on campus and study; there were no microphones and headphones, so we provided them. After the general stay at home order didn’t allow students to come to campus, we understood that some students just don’t have any way of participating. Together with the Student Union, we bought mobile hotspots for students to help them come to class."

"On the other hand," continued Hames, "Instructors have told us about Bedouin female students who would never raise their hands in class to ask questions, who felt much safer to attend and ask questions on the online platform. We’re talking about a culture that often requires women not to stand out, not to engage in eye contact with professors, etc. Online instruction has given them a means to communicate that they did not have before."

We haven't changed our teaching methods yet"

After four months of online learning, Hames sees the possibilities and opportunities in executing online learning, but also the difficulties. "There is no one way of learning that is good for everyone," he said. "A recent survey at the university revealed that there are students who excel in online classes – it allows them to participate and be concentrated, while in the classroom they were bored. For others, they have a very unpleasant experience, and they would prefer traditional face to face meetings in classrooms.”

How did the instructors experience teaching online?
"Most of the instructors are not very enthusiastic about online teaching, and complain that it is alienating and doesn’t allow them to create meaningful discussions. All this is because we didn’t change our teaching methods, we just did a technological transition, a sort of copy-paste, all the while employing the same style of teaching. We'll see what happens in the future when we can create a new type of pedagogy through which we will change the syllabus, lesson structure, training systems and more."

Twenty interdisciplinary research groups 

In addition to the effort of continuing university studies, Ben Gurion University has initiated research that will contribute to the fight against the medical and social consequences of the COVID-19 epidemic. "We called on all the researchers at the university, from all disciplines, calling everyone who wants to put aside their regular research and focus on COVID-19. We did this as early as March. A hundred researchers came together to form twenty different research groups across a whole range of fields. These research groups included fields such as psychology and health systems management, that have dealt with public resilience and have done a series of studies throughout the period on the attitude of Israelis in this time of crisis."

Growth engines

"Higher education and the research done here are growth engines of unusual proportions. Even in times of crisis, even a big budget crisis – it's time to invest in growth engines. It is time to invest more in us. This will translate into growth in the economy – whether it be new technologies, or training more professionals for the job market."