Archive image showing students at a computer lab.
Archive image showing students at a computer lab. Photo by Tess Scheflan
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More than 100 10th-grade students from 28 schools all over Israel, mostly in the periphery, attended high-level math and physics classes sitting in front of a computer through distance learning this past academic year.

The classes were held inside the schools as part of the regular curriculum, but the classes comprised students from different schools and teachers communicating with them via their computer screens.

These 106 students were the first class of the virtual high school, a joint project of the Education Ministry, the Center for Educational Technology (CET) and the Trump Foundation. Some NIS 40 million will be invested in the program over the next four years for the development of computerized content and implementing the classes in schools. The project will be expanded to some 300 students for the next academic year.

The main goal is to solve the continuing decline in math and science education in Israel’s schools. One problem is the difficulty in opening high-level classes in these subjects, especially in small schools in the periphery where there are not enough students to study math and physics on the highest level. There is also a shortage of teachers trained to teach these subjects on a high enough level. Today, a third of Israeli high schools do not prepare students for the physics matriculation exam.

The program also provides personal mentoring through distance learning. This is done in groups and allows the teachers to understand the specific difficulties of each student with the material, and help – often, in a more effective way than in a regular classroom.

Teacher’s CET

CET views the project as an innovative pedagogic experiment, explains executive director Gila Ben-Har: “In reality, a new pedagogy is developing here - how a teacher who does not see the student face-to-face teaches a group of students.”

Significant progress has been made in locating where students have difficulty, she added: “One of the hardest things is to understand what is happening when a student gets 60s or 70s - what doesn’t he understand? Since they work after the class in small groups, it is possible to understand the problems and difficulties,” said Ben-Har.

The Education Ministry hopes the investment in developing the course content can help all Israeli students in the future, once such content can be integrated into regular classroom lessons, or through homework. Then it will be able to make use of the system of supervision and tracking, and it will also be possible to know exactly who has done their homework.

Such a system could also be used to help prevent students from dropping out of science studies. For example, there is a large abandonment of science classes between the 10th and 12th grades - over 50 percent of physics students stop learning the subject and never take the physics matriculation exam.

The vast majority of the students in the virtual physics classes will continue on in 11th grade, but this is the year with the highest dropout rate for the subject. Eli Hurvitz, the executive director of the Trump Foundation, believes this is the first significant test the program will have to face.

However, the virtual high school cannot completely replace the classroom teacher, says Hurvitz. “Studying in a virtual high school is not appropriate for everyone. To learn through a computer requires much more motivation and effort on the student’s part. If the virtual high school succeeds, our maximum goal is 2,700 students – that’s a very low percentage.

“The main solution, in which we are doing the most work, is training good teachers. There is no replacement for this,” added Hurvitz.