Israeli Study on Distance Learning Shows Attendance Is High, but Effectiveness Low

While most students are present for online classes, the proportion of students actively participating is lower and drops further with age

Or Kashti
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A child participates in an online lesson.
A child participates in an online lesson. Credit: Eyal Toueg
Or Kashti

Three-quarters of elementary school teachers who answered a recent survey said that at least 75 percent of their students were attending their online classes. One would think that these were numbers the Education Ministry would be happy to publicize.

However, when the teachers were asked about their students’ active participation, submitted assignment and the percentage of students who they thought were really getting something out of the distance learning, the statistics dropped. Nearly half the teachers believed that online learning was effective for only half their students.

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The data was collected in a study done by Tel Aviv University and presented recently to Education Ministry officials. Ministry sources noted that the gradual return of most students to school is not expected to do away with distance learning, making it necessary to find ways to improve it.

The study by Prof. Lilach Shalev-Mevorach of TAU’s School of Education is apparently the first attempt in Israel to delve past the dry statistics about online class attendance rates during the coronavirus pandemic. The aim is to examine the most common methods of online teaching and evaluate their effectiveness from the teachers’ perspective. Aiding the study were Tom Maayan, Moran Farhi and Efrat Kotzer, and it was funded by the ministry’s chief scientist’s office.

Some 200 teachers from all over the country participated in the survey, mostly from state-run secular schools. They teach different elementary school classes and have varying levels of education and experience. Shalev-Mevorach stressed that the respondents were not a representative sample, since those who answered the detailed questionnaire are presumably those who put considerable effort into transitioning from frontal to distance teaching. In other words, the question marks raised by the study about distance learning are probably even more common among other teachers.

There was a high level of participation among first- and second-graders, perhaps because at this age, parents are more closely involved. But 40 percent of the teachers of fifth- and sixth-grades report that less than half their students actively participated in the lessons. As far as the ministry is concerned, this age group is meant to work relatively independently.

Around a third of the teachers said that over 75 percent of their students submitted their homework, another third said between 50 percent and 75 percent did, while a third said that fewer than half their students did. Only 10 percent of the teachers felt that most of their students were getting something out of their lessons, while 45 percent believed that less than half their students were really learning anything.

The study showed that the most common practice teachers used in their online teaching was asking students to turn on their cameras “to identify cases of lost concentration.” The other four most common practices aren’t specific to distance learning but are taken from traditional teaching: Observing rules of behavior; giving students feedback; connecting the different parts of the lesson and taking questions. Less common were methods more characteristic of distance learning, like prerecording lessons or using Zoom for working in groups.

The teachers were asked what methods they used to ensure that distance learning would be effective. First- and second-grade teachers used breaks during the lessons “to assure alertness”; in the third and fourth grades, it was taking attendance and homework assignments; and among the older grades, it was homework, encouraging active participation and “navigation cards” for relatively complex tasks. These cards are widely used by special education teachers to help students deal with a complicated assignment piece by piece, and are apparently well suited to distance learning as well.

Given that “the percentage of students actively participating in online lessons drops with age,” as Shalev-Mevorach says, “it’s important that every school decides on learning objectives and the skills required to achieve them, according to the age of the students, out of awareness of the contribution of online lessons and the submission of assignments to the effectiveness of the learning. You don’t have to invent anything; the teachers are able to do it well.”

Another recommendation, she said, is to find teaching methods that “can help students become independent learners,” such as using the navigation cards. She added that the transition to distance learning “significantly increases the need to ensure student involvement in the learning and their ability to share responsibility for the learning.”