Dr. Ofer Zellermeier

Dr. Ofer Zellermeier, a lecturer in marketing at the Faculty of Business Administration at the Ono Academic College believes that due to the current state of COVID 19 infections in Israel, institutions of higher education should remain closed. However, in an article in Israel’s business journal, Calcalist, he argues that the Corona virus presents Israel with the opportunity to demonstrate its techno-pedagogic excellence.


The starting point of Zellermeier’s piece is the fact that the COVID 19 virus is extremely complex and has long-term consequences, even for patients who have recovered.  He cited a study conducted at Cal-Tech University simulating the maximum number of students who are relatively safe to teach in a class during the Corona epidemic. The study found that in a classroom normally sitting 149 people, only 16 students can be safely taught, and in a room with 200 chairs, only 24 students can study safely. Moreover, in a closed environment, with an air conditioning system that accelerates the spread of viruses, over time, the safe distance between the occupants is not the meter and a half to which we have been accustomed, but almost two and a half meters. This leads to a safe occupancy of just 11-12% of the original capacity. Based on these data, Zellermeier concludes that there is no safe way to accommodate all the students on campuses in Israel now.


Zellermeier claims that the problem is even worse than that. Campus interaction in narrow corridors is another vector for virus transmission.  Since one of the main reasons that students come to campus is for the social interaction, maintaining social distance works at cross-purposes to their goals. In addition, higher education students have been found to be more susceptible to the disease than primary and secondary school students.  In contrast to higher education in other places, most Israeli students interact with populations outside of the campus, whether through work or living at home.  Therefore, infections which begin on campus will not be restricted to and will also harm other environments.


For these reasons, Zellermeier advises higher education institutions to continue operating remotely.  He notes that for the economy to work, infections cannot be allowed to bring the health care system to the brink of insufficiency. Academic institutions can, by working in a decentralized manner and teaching remotely, reduce the Corona virus’ effects and therefore of contribute directly to the economy.


Zellermeier believes that remote learning is not as bad as some make it out to be and asks why it has gotten such a bad reputation.  He says that a lot of it is politics.  Another reason is the negative experiences of the lecturers who crave audience feedback, like actors who need a stage and an audience.  This constituency is very vocal, but its interests must be assessed in comparison to the serious health and economic storm the country is facing. 


On the other hand, the findings of recent student surveys in Israel and around the world regarding the distance learning experience are telling a different story. When students are asked about distance learning – or sometimes directly about studying via “Zoom” – their answers did not indicate that they were totally dissatisfied. For example, a survey by Tel Aviv-Yafo College found that when students were asked to “compare their satisfaction with the quality of online lessons compared to regular face-to-face learning,” the majority were more satisfied with regular learning than with distance learning.  However, when the question was phrased to measure their satisfaction with remote learning, without comparing it to on-campus studies, only 29% objected to distance learning, 33% were moderately satisfied and 38% expressed high satisfaction.


A survey conducted by Zellermeier tried to separate out the different elements through the phrasing of his questions.  He found that 82% of the respondents felt that remote learning would increase.  While only 17% answered that remote learning was more enjoyable than classroom learning, 53% answered that they experienced the same level of enjoyment, and 30% answered less enjoyment. From this, Zellermeier makes the interim conclusion that students recognize that it is possible to study remotely although it’s less fun. When he asked the students: “Given the knowledge and experience you have today, if you were given the choice between attending this course in person (as was done pre-corona) or in the online format (as you did this semester), what would you choose?” 65% answered they preferred the online course on Zoom,  24% answered they would have preferred an on-campus class, and 11% answered that they were neutral.


From this crisis, Zellermeier sees a unique pedagogical opportunity. The Corona virus is putting pressure on the academic world, and in particular on its knowledge transfer sector, to make a leap which is long overdue. Oxford University is 900 years old. Harvard University is 400 years old.  The Technion, the oldest academic institution in Israel, is 110. All of these institutions use the same model. Students are taught by teachers, more or less as they did when the institutions were founded. A person stands in the center of a room and imparts knowledge to many other people who gather in the same place at the same time. Generally, change happens slowly. Because of corona, change has occurred much faster. At least in the field of academic learning, Corona will be more of an opportunity for the State of Israel than a crisis.  We must allow the change to happen, embrace it and even push it. Even before COVID 19, the logic of transporting hundreds of people in rush hour traffic to listen and watch a person with a board, slide projector or projector, was diminishing. Even the students thought so. Anyone who has lived in the academic world knows that it is common to see half-empty classrooms.  The change was coming and now Israel can lead it.


Israel can be a world leader in techno-pedagogy if the technophiles, pedagogues and entrepreneurs are allowed to experiment rather than letting the technophobes and autocrats torpedo innovation. With the outbreak of the Corona crisis, Israeli academic teaching was one of the first sectors to recover. In a global comparison, Israel acted quickly and well. The transition from physical lectures on campuses to distance learning took place relatively quickly and successfully in most institutions and for most of the students in the country.


This was in March. Since then, millions of hours of lectures have been zoomed in, and the world has straightened out and even surpassed Israel’s achievements. Leading academic institutions in the world have created and published best practices, orderly instructors and tools for remote learning. Now, it’s our turn to return to the race. The Israeli academy competes not only with itself but also with institutions around the world. In order for us to have a chance to win, we need to, at the very least, participate.


Zellermeier concludes with a list of recommendations.  Firstly, he notes it is important to produce certainty.  By this, he means that Israeli institutions must announce immediately that in the coming year, there will be no learning on the physical campuses. For students, this will be a certain disappointment. However it is preferable to not knowing. For faculty, this announcement will give them direction and provide an incentive to develop and invent innovative learning methods.  Secondly, allow the faculty to engage in trial and error. Refer to the 2020-2021 academic year as a techno-pedagogical start-up year. This is the opportunity to let “academic freedom” run amok. This should be a year without judgment. If nothing works very well, we’ll go back next year to what we did 110, 400, or 900 years ago.


Thirdly, academic institutions, local councils and the business sector need to cooperate to address student needs. Communications companies can offer students, increased phone/data packages at a discounted cost and create instructional videos on the best way to build a home network.  Fourthly to enhance the student experience, socializing sessions in open spaces need to be produced to provide the interpersonal glue that is so lacking in distance learning. Such meetings will be initiated by the students themselves, in small groups. They will enable social networking that is such a central part of the student experience.  Institutions can also expect more from the students and to involve them more. The time freed up from commuting to campuses can be channeled into volunteering and mutual help. 


The complete article can be found at: https://www.msn.com/he-il/health/health/%d7%94%d7%a7%d7%9e%d7%a4%d7%95%d7%a1%d7%99%d7%9d-%d7%a6%d7%a8%d7%99%d7%9b%d7%99%d7%9d-%d7%9c%d7%94%d7%99%d7%a9%d7%90%d7%a8-%d7%a1%d7%92%d7%95%d7%a8%d7%99%d7%9d/ar-BB18iDV9