Welcome to the Coronavirus-proof Classroom: Israel’s First Virtual School

Starting in the coming school year, ZSchool intends to offer classes to grades 7 through 12 with nary a physical building or book, and not by Zoom either

Lior Dattel
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Remote learning
Remote learning (illustrative)Credit: Emil Salman
Lior Dattel

As the coronavirus continues to thrive, Israel may soon have its first fully online school. Starting in the fall as the new school year begins, the virtual institution plans to offer a full curriculum to students from seventh grade through twelfth grade, with no physical building or use of textbooks.

The virtual school, so far dubbed “ZSchool: School of the Generation Z,” is the brainchild of Moshe Kinley Tur-Paz, the director of the Kadima Mada educational network and former head of Jerusalem’s educational administration, and Paz Cohen, the CEO of Anu – Making Change, a social hub, and former parents association chairman. The two are in talks with philanthropic foundations and investors to raise 7 million shekels ($2 million), and are in talks with the Education Ministry to obtain certification to enable the school to access ministry funding. Education Ministry officials confirmed that the initiative is under discussion.

The vision begins with limiting classes to 12 pupils, who won’t have to buy physical books: the school will provide them with laptops and internet connectivity. Like brick-and-mortar schools, ZSchool will offer enrichment classes, social activities, community volunteering and counseling, but in its case, it will be open to students nationwide. The starting gross salary for teachers will be 14,000 shekels a month, more than the norm in the establishment schools.

The business model is based on a pilot for around 1,000 students during the coming school year, Cohen and Tur-Paz say. Ultimately the model could enable long-distance learning for hundreds of thousands of children if schooling is forced to move online due to the coronavirus.

“In an emergency, it would be possible to quickly ramp up from 1,000 to 300,000 students,” Cohen says. “This is not the optimal trajectory, but if Israeli schools close due to the coronavirus, we will be able to take responsibility for nearly every high school student in Israel. All the lesson plans are ready, in compliance with the Education Ministry curriculum.”

Moshe Kinley Tur-Paz, 2013
Moshe Kinley Tur-Paz, 2013Credit: Michal Fattal

Haven for good teachers

The plan coalesced, Tur-Paz and Cohen say, after consulting with educational experts in Israel and abroad, and is based on models of similar schools in the United States, Australia and Canada. Ami Salant, an information scientist, also contributed to its formulation.

At this point, the founders may have a working plan and a curriculum for high school students but can’t start hiring teachers until approval arrives from the Education Ministry. Even so, Tur-Paz and Cohen say they have already contacted potential teachers. “There are lots of good teachers who were in the education system and were ejected from it because they felt lost in the system,” said Tur-Paz. “The bureaucracy and management wore them out. I hope they find their place with us.”

“The initiative does not intend to fix the existing school but to replace it,” the ZSchool plan states. “The school that arose in the industrial age to provide vocational training has barely changed over the years. It uses antiquated methods for acquiring skills, some of which are obsolete. The world has changed, the labor market has changed, and even social networks rely on technological means. Yet classes are crowded and learning time in school is ineffective. There is a lack of professional teachers and many educators engage in teaching at the expense of time needed to cultivate children’s growth.”

Their school will focus on educational aspects, teaching, and on the social relationships between students, its founders say.

A disconnect has developed between technology and school education, says Tur-Paz. “Thus the educational system always speaks in two tongues. Our school that will enable education that will be 95% long distance. It will be a house of education that will meet the expectations of parents, students and teachers. A good school educates the student in studies and in society.” To elaborate: “The goal is not to teach remotely but rather to educate remotely. If we manage to achieve that, we will have cracked the code.”

Down the road ZSchool aspires to provide solutions to the roughly 100,000 seventh through twelfth graders in Israel whose needs are only partially met by the Education Ministry or who have no access to matriculation exams. Many have learning difficulties or come from poorer communities, struggle with the existing framework, and are at risk of dropping out. Thousands of Bedouin children have no framework for taking the matriculation exams; thousands of children are ill and can’t attend school; and thousands who are home schooled would like to study for the matriculation exams.

Remote learning (illustrative)
Remote learning (illustrative)Credit: Eyal Toueg

Cohen and Tur-Paz say they can also meet a demand in the Haredi community to enable yeshiva students to complete 12 years of study with a matriculation certificate, so they can get jobs or obtain higher education.

The school will also be able to admit students whose present schools do not offer high levels of some subjects, or offer them at all; as well as gifted students and Israeli students living abroad who want an Israeli matriculation certificate.

And it would save the taxpayer money

The school’s business model calls for an operational budget of 20 million shekels a year (including unexpected expenses of 4 million shekels) for 1,000 students. The Education Ministry now lays out on average about 30,000 shekels annually per high school student, not including parents’ fees, building costs, funding from local authorities and funding from additional ministries. According to the ZSchool plan, if it gets 20,000 shekels per student annually from the Education Ministry, it would balance its budget and the ministry would save at least 10 million shekels annually. Moreover, parents’ fees are expected to be symbolic or at least much lower than the norm.

“I’m sure this school will serve as an example in the education system,” Tur-Paz says. “We will take responsibility for students for whose needs the system has no full answer. This is a generation that grew up in front of the computer screen and isn’t afraid to learn on their own. The ability to learn by oneself is a talent that’s already needed in the job market, and the structure in which the school will operate will be suitable to many students who are used to learning this way anyway. It will be better for some of them than the current solution.”

Cohen’s family moved to Moscow two years ago because of his wife’s diplomatic appointment. While they returned temporarily to Israel to advance the enterprise, his children are still at the American school in Moscow, which recently went virtual due to the coronavirus. The school offers an international matriculation certificate. This learning experience reinforced his opinion about the whole matter: “The first question I asked myself was whether I would send my children to such a school even before the time of corona, when schools were operating as normal. Today, my answer is clear. The solution may not suit everybody, but here are children for whom the framework is ideal.

Paz Cohen
Paz CohenCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

Meeting with the ‘grower’

Limiting classes to 12 students will encourage pupils to be in touch with one another after school hours, and to collaborate on projects. Every class will have a dedicated teacher that the program calls a “grower.” The grower’s role is to conduct education lessons once a week in every class and keep both in personal and emotional touch with every student, mentoring them in their studies. Each grower will be responsible for five classes (60 students) a year, talking with each student one-on-one every two weeks and going to their homes once a year.

The pupils will also be obliged to do volunteer work once a week in the community.

“During the coronavirus crisis, most educators indicated that they were focusing on contacting their students and supporting them. They realized that this was most important for them,” said Tur-Paz. “We differentiate between the image of the educator and the image of the teacher. The educator deals strictly in fostering the student and caring for his wellbeing and interests, and the teachers look after teaching the material at the highest level. The educators will have technologies and means to focus on their task, and won’t have to deal with the rest of the issues that interfere with their work.”

The class schedule will be built of the subjects that make up the matriculation certificate and enriching electives. Class educators will adjust progress in the material personally for each student, and the lessons will be conducted by professional teachers online, and by sharing online lessons and exercises already on the web, plus those that will be especially prepared for the school.

In contrast to how remote learning has been handled since the coronavirus crisis struck, the school won’t settle for using the Zoom videoconferencing app. Instead, they will integrate several venues including online teaching, recorded lessons, interactive exercises and self-learning under teacher guidance, using tools that will allow teachers to track the progress and difficulties of each student individually.

A class in Givatayim during the time of the coronavirus
A class in Givatayim during the time of the coronavirusCredit: Moti Milrod

Unlike the way schools are organized now, with scheduled lessons at specific times in the week, at the virtual school, each day will be dedicated to just one subject: one day maths, the next day English and so on.

Different, but not problem-free

At this point, Israel has no model for full-time remote learning. The existing platforms focus on online private lessons and recorded lessons, mainly for matriculation subjects.

One such is the virtual high school established by the Education Ministry and run by the Center for Educational Technology (Matah in Hebrew), which is funded by the ministry, and the Trump Foundation. It enables students from anywhere in Israel to study for the highest level matriculation exams in mathematics, physics and civics if their schools don’t offer these subjects, due to a lack of teachers or absence of demand from students. Another is an effort by the ORT network and the Snunit website (a non-profit for educational content) to help students with matriculation subjects; and the Amal network runs a virtual school dedicated to English-speaking students wanting to practice the language. Additionally, the Education Ministry decided to partner with Tel Aviv University to make the university’s online academic courses accessible to high school students. Similar projects are operated by the Weizmann Institute’s Davison Institute and Army Radio.

Moreover, several private companies operate in virtual schooling, among them the Gool website and the Yschools website (owned by the Yediot Ahronoth group), which provide content for preparing for the matriculation exams, and other sites offering courses like the site Safa1 (which is partially owned by the Haaretz group).

Remote learning faces problems everywhere it is implemented, for example a higher dropout rate than at regular schools. The program hopes to minimize dropping out through the mentors. Another problem involves parents’ fears of impairing their children’s social lives and social skills. The model posited by Cohen and Tur-Paz proposes grouping students who have already created relationships within the class to study classes and to encourage them to develop social connections among them through educational activities, volunteering in society and afterschool activities. They are also relying on studies indicating that students in virtual schools did maintain social connections and forged relationships. For example, one study in 2005 examined the situation of virtual schools in Florida and found that students in these schools had more diverse channels of communication and social activities than students in traditional schools.

Over 300,000 children study full-time in virtual schools around the world, and millions of students, mostly in the United States, learn in a hybrid model, though the demand for that is mainly among outstanding students or children from a wealthy background. In Israel, the pandemic wound up demonstrating that the Education Ministry has not been been preparing for virtual learning, which has so far been confined mainly to classes by Zoom. Tur-Paz and Cohen offer a more organized and more diverse model.

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