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Online learning set to stay at Israel's universities after COVID-19

The mass move to online study may present an opportunity for ambitious institutions seeking to reach wider audiences. The rapid expansion of academia into the digital realm in recent months is unlikely to retreat, even after the coronavirus outbreak subsides.

While the University of Cambridge has already decided that virtual lectures will continue until summer 2021 in a decision that will likely be replicated elsewhere due to social distancing requirements, the mass move to online study may also present an opportunity for ambitious institutions of higher education seeking to reach wider audiences.

Having pivoted to all things digital in recent months, Tel Aviv University is expected to extend and continue offering its virtual courses by implementing online learning into the regular curriculum and the application process. In addition, the university is working to launch digital courses for international students located abroad, and for older Israelis attracted by lifelong learning opportunities.

While the Tel Aviv University campus already welcomes a large number of foreign undergraduate and postgraduate students every year, lectures delivered via Zoom or similar digital platforms during the summer and next academic year will enable the wider public and registered students to study full courses online, no matter their location. “On one hand, we are very conscious that we have seen a lot of interest to come and study at Tel Aviv University from international students,” Tel Aviv University International director Maureen Adiri Meyer told The Jerusalem Post.

“On the other hand, there are so many unknowns and factors that are not in the hands of the students. We wanted to guarantee that any student who is not able to come due to the situation will be able to start their studies as planned. All our international courses will have an option of taking them from afar, as long as it is needed.”

Earlier this week, Tel Aviv University opened registration for an online four-week, 12-session, English-language course called “COVID-19: From Crisis to Opportunity,” and has been developing an entirely-digital MBA program since before the outbreak. Despite the “phenomenal response” to the course, university officials recognize that a key factor attracting many international students to Tel Aviv is the city itself, which cannot be replicated online.

Tel Aviv University is also expected to expand its acceptance criteria to include graduates of digital courses, replacing the need for psychometric entrance tests in some cases. The new acceptance procedure, called Start&Up, will enable prospective students to study relevant foundation courses online and then, should they complete the courses successfully, be accepted to full-time study.

At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a representative said the Rothberg International School is currently gearing up for online summer courses in a range of fields, a full online Master’s program in Jewish Education, and is also working to launch additional online courses in entrepreneurship and other subjects.

A spokesperson for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev said the institution is rolling out a summer course in global health, and is currently working to offer programs online for international students unable to arrive at the start of the Fall semester.

Beyond digital learning, officials from Israel’s major universities recently told the Post that admissions departments are enjoying soaring interest ahead of the 2020/21 academic year, both from Israeli and international applicants. While the true increase in student interest will only become clear in October, with the debut of the academic year, the sharp rise in applications from domestic students has largely been attributed to the cancellation of post-army backpacking trips due to travel restrictions, the lack of employment opportunities and the waiving of psychometric exam requirements.

Applications from international students have also increased significantly, likely due to the perception that Israel managed to control the coronavirus outbreak quickly, and the greater likelihood of a full year of in-class lectures.

Eytan Halon