Screen test: Coronavirus causing ‘academic Darwinism’ as campuses stay closed

With Israeli university and college students heading back to school this week — virtually, for the second semester in a row — the weight of what they are “absent for” academically and socially due to the coronavirus pandemic continues to grow.

These students-by-screen are — perhaps — missing out on the full university experience and the tools it provides, such as teamwork and brainstorming sessions. But is this period doomed to affect their future job prospects — given that it is these students who will ultimately have to foot the coronavirus bill once they enter the workforce?

As Israel takes phased steps to exit its second lockdown, universities and colleges have launched their academic year with online-only lessons, aiming to move when possible to a hybrid model so that at least some classes will be held in person, especially for first-year students.

They are the ones hardest hit by the pandemic, said Prof. Danny Raz, the vice dean for teaching at the Department of Computer Science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, where classes start on Wednesday. “They don’t even know what it means to study,” he said. “They have not experienced what university means.”

Prof. Danny Raz, vice-dean for teaching at the Department of Computer Science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology (Courtesy)

If classrooms reopen after just two semesters — the spring and autumn of 2020 — the damage will be relatively minimal, he said. But the longer the coronavirus persists and studies remain virtual, the bigger the impact, he said. A year and a half, or three semesters, out of a BA degree of three or four years “begins to be significant,” he said. “Nobody knows how this will play out.”

Some 320,000 students are set to start the 2020-21 academic year, the Council for Higher Education estimated, and for now all classes will be online.

Illustrative: University faculty practice distance teaching ahead of the online spring semester. (Haifa Technion Spokesperson’s Office)

On campuses, in “normal” years, students learn to work together, forming study groups to solve problems and hand in joint project assignments. They work together and they succeed together, the Technion’s Raz said.

They also form a personal relationship with teachers. With online classes, the ability to interact and react is more limited, he said. Teachers also learn less from their students.

“I have been teaching introduction to computer networks for 14 years already, and I can teach it almost blindly. And yet, each year, it is a different experience, because the students are different and ask different questions.” Raz said. This interaction is lost in online lessons, he said.

Prof. Guy Harpaz, dean of students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Douglas Guthrie)

Prof. Guy Harpaz, dean of students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, warns of a coronavirus-triggered “academic Darwinism,” in which strong students prosper while the weaker ones get weaker, or drop out.

Distance learning is a challenge that those who come from a high socioeconomic background can overcome, Harpaz posited. “But those who are weak, who need to learn how to study” will be hampered.

These weaker students are made up of “very many sub-groups, that if united, become a high percentage” of the student population, he said. These could be first-generation university students, Arab Israelis, East Jerusalem students, the ultra-Orthodox populations, new immigrants who are here without their families; members of Ethiopian community, students with learning disabilities, students with psychological problems and those on the autistic spectrum.

“All these students are a minority, but if you put them together, they account for a big critical mass of students that will find it hard and have the potential to drop out,” he said.

According to data provided by the Council, there are approximately 54,000 Arab students this year, constituting approximately 17% of all students in Israel; Arabs constitute 20% of the total population. There are some 4,060 students of Ethiopian descent, constituting 1.3% of all students; Ethiopian-Israelis constitute 1.7% of the total population. There are some 13,400 ultra-Orthodox Jewish students, accounting for 4% of all students in Israel, while the ultra-Orthodox constitute 12% of the total population.

As the pandemic struck, universities pretty successfully set up online lectures, Harpaz said. “Necessity is the mother of all invention, and everything went very fast, and Zoom worked relatively well,” he said. But economic, infrastructure and social issues loom large, he said. “I am very worried.”

The virus has exacerbated students’ economic challenges faced by the students, with more and more of them asking for financial assistance.

“This pool of people in need has been enlarged, touching circles that don’t generally need help: Israelis who don’t come from poverty but also don’t come from riches, who used to have student jobs that have disappeared, or were dependent on parents who can’t really help anymore,” he said.

Furthermore, many low-income students don’t have laptops, don’t have access to a reliable internet connection and don’t have a quiet place to work at home.

Illustrative: Students at Tel Aviv University on October 14, 2018. (Flash90)

A study by Israel’s Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research published on Monday found that the pandemic had a disproportionately negative effect on students’ employment and income, “potentially affecting their ability to graduate as planned.”

Those who do graduate, the report said, will find it more difficult to support themselves amid soaring unemployment and increased competition for the existing jobs, the report said.

“These current hardships may be magnified by future ones, since today’s students will one day have to be able to shoulder much of the future burden of repayment of the mounting government debt,” the report said.

Illustrative image of students at the Rehovot Campus of Hebrew University, on January 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Loneliness is another challenge students need to contend with, Hebrew University’s Harpaz said. “There are endless kinds of emotional distress,” he said, made up of economic and health concerns, as well as hours and hours of being confined at home with their laptops.

Suddenly, the student experience has become “very lean,” Harpaz said. CAmpus was a place that had cafeterias, friends, green grass, meeting centers, student life. “You meet friends and smoke in breaks,” Harpaz said. “But then, suddenly, university life has become rectangular, on a screen.”

At the moment, he said, “there is no indication of a rise in dropouts, even though this could change.”

Prof. Jonathan Huppert, of the department of clinical psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

Prof. Jonathan Huppert of the department of clinical psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said it’s too early to assess the social impact of the coronavirus distancing and remote learning, said Huppert.

“We are social animals by nature and in Israel and in the Mediterranean society we have a culture of strong social bonds,” he noted.

But, he said, the coronavirus social setback is likely to be temporary. “The students of today are not infants who are being deprived of their mothers at the beginning of their development,” he emphasized. “And, therefore, the likelihood that they will adapt and adjust relatively quickly is high.”

But will these students have a permanent mark on their record? Eyal Waldman, the co-founder of Mellanox Technologies Ltd, that was acquired by US tech firm Nvidia Corp. for $7 billion last year, doesn’t believe so.

“The coronavirus maybe makes things a little harder,” Waldman said, but “we will view them without discrimination…In the end of the day it depends on people. People with motivation, willingness and ability and potential will find a way. I think that it is easier to study in class, but even studying from home is not the end of the world.”

Rethinking academia

Every crisis provides fertile ground for growth and change. And the virus is causing universities to rethink how they work, said Prof. Benny Applebaum, academic head of the Sciences for High-Tech program at the Tel Aviv University.

“This is not only a crisis, this is also an opportunity,” he said. The university is working to improve the online experience and to engage students in different ways.

“With Zoom, it is harder to engage or charm people using your charisma,” he said. “But projects can still engage, like when you give students something to build or partial freedom to choose what subjects” to work on.

The university is also trying to figure out how to mimic the social atmosphere of the campus, and how to facilitate effective teamwork even when members of the team are not in the same room.

“With the whole world moving to work from home,” he said, “maybe the concept of what teamwork means is going to change.”

Technion’s Raz said the pandemic will also force universities to rethink what they offer their students, as online classes now enable students to attend virtual classes anywhere and any time.

The current situation raises an important question, he said: “Why pick, why belong to a specific university if you can pick any course given online by top foreign professors?”

“What is the place of academia in the world? These are questions that are on the mind of many,” he said, and will push universities to emphasize things that are unique to them. It will also force them to think about what is the “essence of the campus” and how research teams working from afar can continue to brainstorm informally as well as formally.

In the end, universities will go back to what they were before the virus, Raz said. “And maybe in the end, things will be better. Because it causes us to refine our thoughts.”

‘On their shoulders’

In light of the coronavirus, Israeli students have asked universities to lower their academic fees by 20%, but to date rates have not changed.

The Council for Higher Education said that institutions of higher education have increased their assistance programs and have provided grants and loans, while the Council has put together an additional assistance program for a total of NIS 100 million ($29.5 million).

The Hebrew University has provided laptops and USB cellular modems for needy students, extra online tutoring hours, and 1,000 scholarships, said Harpaz. It also has its team of psychologists working “at full capacity” to help students in emotional distress and has set up a free student hotline.

But, “there is a limit to how much institutions can help economically,” Harpaz said. “We can set up a fund, but it is like an Acamol (painkiller), a Band-Aid, it will not solve root problems.”

There must be a dramatic increase in government funds for scholarships, loans, financing for computers, mentorships, help with learning difficulties, and psychological services, he urged.

The more time passes, he fears, the worse things will get.

“I am concerned that the effect could be an added-on effect– a snowball that as time goes on grows, rather than becomes smaller,” he said. “This is a generation that is critical to the nation. It is the spinal cord of our future. They will be carrying all the others on their shoulders. If they fall, they will bring down all of us with them. We have to be generous with them.”

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