Tag: Tel Aviv University

TAU Launches Israel’s First Center for AI and Data Science

Center to take TAU and Israel to forefront of the global artificial intelligence revolution.

Tel Aviv University launched the new, interdisciplinary Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Science today, headed by Prof. Meir Feder of the Fleischman Faculty of Engineering.

The Center will enhance basic science in these fields, encourage cross-disciplinary research that uses the most advanced methods of artificial intelligence (AI) and data science (DS), and train a new generation of researchers and industrialists who will take Israel to the forefront of the global AI revolution in the coming years. Moreover, it will lay the groundwork for the rapidly growing field of quantum computing. The launch event took place during TAU’s annual AI Week.

Penetrating All Areas of Life

TAU President, Prof. Ariel Porat: “The establishment of the AI Center is one more step toward implementing TAU’s vision for advancing groundbreaking, interdisciplinary research that brings together the university’s finest researchers, the high-tech industry and the community. Not long ago we launched the interdisciplinary Center for Combating Pandemics and over the coming year we intend to establish more such centers, such as one for climate change and another for healthy aging. TAU’s great advantage is its enormous range of disciplines. Our new interdisciplinary centers will further extend the scope of research, combining different disciplines, from engineering and computer science through life sciences, medicine and psychology, to economics, management, humanities, arts and law.”

Prof. Meir Feder emphasized that “the AI revolution is expected to impact our way of life in every aspect, from drug development and data-based personalized medicine, to defense and security systems, financial systems, scientific discoveries, robotics, autonomous systems and social issues. In addition, it is very important to train human capital in this area, and therefore the Center will provide all TAU students with basic AI education.” According to Prof. Feder, the Center will include hundreds of researchers, and will promote collaborations among scientists all over campus. It will also foster collaborations with the defense and other industries, the public sector, and leading universities and research institutions around the world.

Prof. Feder added that next month the AI Center will launch its collaboration with Google Israel as part of the company’s “AI for Social Good” program.

Major Gen. (Ret.) Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, Head of TAU’s Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security and Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center, and Prof. Eviatar Matania, also of Tel Aviv University, are the visionaries behind AI Week and the university-wide AI initiative.

Prof. BenIsrael stressed that “the applications of intelligent systems have far-reaching implications for practically every area of modern life, including security, medicine, transportation, automation, retail, customer service and numerous others. Various AI and machine learning algorithms, together with the enormous increase in computational power, are already beginning to penetrate all areas of our lives, and understanding them requires proficiency not only in the obvious technological disciplines such as computer science, mathematics and engineering, but also in the social, legal, business and even philosophical spheres.”

Ready for Launch!

TAU’s first nanosatellite ready to be launched into space.

Watch it Launch

The moment we’ve all been waiting for is now only days away: TAU’s first nanosatellite, TAU SAT1 is about to be launched into space. This exciting journey has been followed closely by many on the university’s social media, and we are happy to share that the launch itself can be watched live on Facebook on February 20 at 7:36 PM. 

 

The development of TAU-SAT1 has been followed by many on the university’s social media

 

Small Satellite – a Big Step

“This is a nanosatellite, or miniature satellite, of the ‘CubeSat’ variety,” explains Dr. Ofer Amrani, head of Tel Aviv University’s miniature satellite lab. “The satellite’s dimensions are 10 by 10 by 30 cm, the size of a shoebox. It weighs less than 2.5 kg. TAU-SAT1 is the first nanosatellite designed, built and tested independently in academia in Israel.”

 

The nanosatellite was devised, developed, assembled, and tested at the new Nanosatellite Center, an interdisciplinary endeavor of The Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering,  Raymond & Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences and the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. The entire process has taken two years – an achievement that would not have been possible without the involvement of many people: the university administration, who supported the project and the setting up of the infrastructure on campus, Prof. Yossi Rosenwaks, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering; Professors Sivan Toledo and Haim Suchowski from the Raymond & Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences; Prof. Colin Price, researcher and lecturer in Athmospheric Sciences in the School of Geosciences and Head of the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and, most importantly, the project team that dealt with R&D around the clock: Elad Sagi, Dolev Bashi, Tomer Nahum, Idan Finkelstein, Dr. Diana Laufer, Eitan Shlisel, Eran Levin, David Greenberg, Sharon Mishal, and Orly Blumberg.

 

Space Weather

TAU-SAT1 is a research satellite and will be conducting several experiments while in orbit. Among other things, it will measure cosmic radiation in space. “We know that that there are high-energy particles moving through space that originate from cosmic radiation,” says Dr. Meir Ariel, director of the university’s Nanosatellite Center. “Our scientific task is to monitor this radiation, and to measure the flux of these particles and their products. Space is a hostile environment, not only for humans but also for electronic systems. When these particles hit astronauts or electronic equipment in space, they can cause significant damage. The scientific information collected by our satellite will make it possible to design means of protection for astronauts and space systems. To this end, we incorporated several experiments into the satellite, which were developed by the Space Environment Department at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center.”

 

Like the weather on Earth, there is also weather in Space. This weather is linked to storms that occur on the surface of our Sun, and impact the environment around the Earth. Prof. Colin Price researches and lectures in Atmospheric Sciences and explains that “When there are storms on the Sun, highly energetic particles are fired at the Earth at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second, and when these energetic particles hit the Earth’s atmosphere, they can cause lots of damage to satellites, spacecraft and even astronauts.” TAUSAT1 will be studying these storms and their impact on the atmosphere at the height of 400km above the Earth, testing the damage produced by the tiny particles. This will help understand the hostile environment satellite face due to space weather.

 

WATCH: TAU’s Nanosatellite Project

 

Satellite Station on Roof of Faculty Building

At an altitude of 400 km above sea level, the nanosatellite will orbit the earth at a dizzying speed of 27,600 km per hour, or 7.6 km per second. At this speed, the satellite will complete an orbit around the Earth every 90 minutes. “In order to collect data, we built a satellite station on the roof of the engineering building,” says Dr. Amrani. “Our station, which also serves as an amateur radio station, includes a number of antennas and an automated control system. When TAU-SAT1 passes ‘over’ the State of Israel, that is, within a few thousand kilometer radius from the ground station’s receiving range, the antennas will track the satellite’s orbit and a process of data transmission will occur between the satellite and the station. Such transmissions will take place about four times a day, with each one lasting less than 10 minutes. In addition to its scientific mission, the satellite will also serve as a space relay station for amateur radio communities around the world. In total, the satellite is expected to be active for several months, after which it will burn up in the atmosphere and return to the Earth as stardust.

 

TAU Joins ‘New Space’ Revolution

Launching the TAU-SAT1 nanosatellite marks TAU’s first step of joining the ‘new space’ revolution, aiming to open space up to civilians as well. The idea is that any researcher or student, from any faculty at Tel Aviv University, or outside of it, will be able to plan and launch experiments into space in the future – even without being an expert in the field.

 

Over the last few years, TAU has been working on establishing a Nanosatellite Center to build small “shoebox” size satellites for launch into space. “We are seeing a revolution in the field of civilian space”, explains Prof. Colin Price, one of the academic heads of the new center. “We call this ‘new space’, as opposed to the ‘old space’, where only giant companies with huge budgets and large teams of engineers could build satellites. 

 

After undergoing pre-flight testing at the Japanese space agency JAXA, TAU-SAT1 was sent to the United States, where it “hitched a ride” on a NASA and Northrop Grumman resupply spacecraft destined for the International Space Station. At the station, this upcoming Saturday evening, a robotic arm will release TAU-SAT1 into a low-earth orbit (LEO) around the Earth, approximately 400km above the Earth.

Last inspections in the clean room. TAU SAT1

TAU Announces First of Its Kind International Program

First in the world to combine politics, cyber and government.

Tel Aviv University launches a new program, first of its kind in the world, taught in English and targets Master’s students from Israel and overseas who wish to learn about the cyber-digital revolution and its impact on politics, society and the economy. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the program was launched this year as a small-scale pilot. It is expected to expand considerably next year, to include large numbers of international students. The Program is offered by the School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs at the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Exploring the Non-Technological Sides of Cyber and Digital

The Head of the Program is Prof. Eviatar Matania, who until recently headed the Israel National Cyber Directorate. According to Prof. Matania, “The new program provides the knowledge and skills required for leading operations, strategy and policy in the rapidly developing cyber world. It is open to people with or without technological background, because it aims to understand the non-technological sides of the cyber and digital worlds: modern economics, big data, artificial intelligence, cyber threats and cyber security, and the resulting changes in society, culture and politics.”

The new program was designed with three types of students in mind: those coming from the technological disciplines who wish to understand the broader aspects of the cyber-digital revolution; those from management and government, who need these tools to manage large systems in the new world; and finally, students from various interfacing disciplines who wish to broaden their education – and anchor their own research in the dramatic changes taking place in politics, society and the economy.

Cyber – More than Cyberattacks

Prof. Matania emphasizes “When people think of Cyber, they typically think of cyberattacks. We are trying to break out of this outdated perception. Cyber is so much more than attacks and security. It is the new economy, politics, culture and society. Anyone who wishes to take part in government and the management of large systems in the future must become acquainted with the connections between strategy, policy and technology.”

TAU’s VP International, Prof. Milette Shamir, adds: “The new Cyber Program is an important addition to the series of international programs offered by TAU. Our programs are built upon a solid foundation of local expertise and include studies in security and diplomacy, conflict resolution, emergency management, environment, immigration, archaeology, documentary films and more. Today, we create programs in which Israeli and foreign students from all over the world study together, generating a unique dialogue between the local and the global.”

Featured image: “Cyber Horse” on TAU Campus

More than 20,000 participants on TAU’s Open Day 2021

Record high attendance despite event held online due to Corona.

This year, TAU wholeheartedly embraced the challenge of organizing its Open Day event online, resulting in a hugely successful event spanning over three days and comprising more than 200 Zoom meetings.

  “In the months preceding Tel Aviv University’s Open Day, we produced an introductory video of the university campus, dozens of videos about the various fields of study as well as 50 pre-recorded lectures.”, explains Alon Weinpress, Tel Aviv University’s Marketing Director. “All this, we put together in order to helped those interested in studying here gain a clear understanding of the various study programs offered here at TAU, teach them about the admission options and also give them a feel of the campus – despite the online nature of the event. Our efforts proved themselves worthwhile and the end result was very satisfactory and with few glitches. The number of participants also turned out higher than expected!”

In the Zoom meetings, potential incoming students could learn about various study programs for B.A.s and more advanced degrees, and they could also choose to take advantage of personal counselling sessions, receiving tips on how to choose a suitable field of study for oneself and more.

  More than 20,000 potential future TAU students joined the online Zoom sessions where they met and interacted with the academic and administrative staff, current students and graduates of their field of interest.

  This year saw a particularly strong interest for the fields of psychology, management, biology, chemistry, medicine, the various engineering disciplines, computer science, neuroscience, sociology, law, political science and the health professions.

  Also tremendously popular were sessions offering tips for how to choose a field of study; alternative admission routes to the regular entrance exam and how one may improve one’s chances of admission by taking online courses.

  The Open Day marked the opening of the registration season for the academic year 2021/22.   

 

Online Impact: TAU 1st in Israel, Among Top 100 Worldwide

Webometrix ranks web presence of institutions of higher education.

Tel Aviv University was ranked 73rd out of more than 31,000 institutions worldwide, number one in Israel and third in Asia by Webometrics, a ranking system designed to measure the impact of academic knowledge made available online.

The ranking is published twice a year and was created to promote the availability of academic articles online and, more broadly, open access to academic research.

Webometrics’ higher education ranking is determined by three objective factors:

  1. Impact (accounts for 50% of individual institution’s score), measured by the number of external networks linking to the institution’s webpages;
  2. Openness (10%), measured by the number of citations from top 210 authors according to Google Scholar Profiles and
  3. Excellence (40%), measured by the number of papers among the top ten percent most cited in a given field.

Hebrew University is ranked 165th (on second place in Israel) and the Technion 226th (on third place in Israel). A total of 44 Israeli institutions can be found among the top 22,504 institutions.

Read more about Webometrix ranking here >>

View the full list of Israeli institutions with ranking here >>

Increased Diversity Secured On TAU Campus

Marketing efforts and direct lines of communication generate impressive results.

Consistent and Targeted Marketing

The number of Arab students in technological studies Electrical Engineering and Computer Science have doubled over the past five years: 459 Arab students (150 of these women) studied technology professions at TAU in 2020 studied technology professions at TAU in 2020, compared to 237 (59 of these women) in 2016. 

This significant achievement is not the result of affirmative action or easing of admission conditions, but of consistent and targeted marketing carried out over several years. The target audience in this case was Arab high school students and the goal was to increase the number of Arab students of hi-tech disciplines to reflect the proportionate size of the Arab population in Israel.

In 2020, 307 Arab students (18% of Electrical Engineering students, equal to the percentage of Arabs in Israeli society) attended TAU’s School of Electrical Engineering, compared to 136 (about 9% of Electrical Engineering students) students in 2016. There were 97 women (approx. 6%) studying Electrical Engineering in 2020, a significant increase from 31 (2.1%) in 2016.

TAU’s Blavatnik School of Computer Science, experienced a 50% growth in the number of Arab bachelor students. In 2020, 152 Arab students (12.2%, 53 of these women (4.3%)) studied for a bachelor’s degree in computer science, compared to 101 students (8.7%, 28 of these women (2.4%)) in 2016. 

Reaching out to Minorities

Alon Weinpress, Tel Aviv University’s Marketing Director, says: “In recent years we have made great efforts to convey to those from the Arab society interested in studying that Tel Aviv University is a home for them. Our efforts include: visiting high schools; organizing tours of the TAU campus; participating in fairs; sponsoring major events such as hackathons dedicated to Arab society and more. I am thrilled that these efforts are bearing fruit in general, and in the fields of engineering and computer science in particular.”

“In addition to increasing the number of Arab students at the university, we also wish to diversify enrollment and expose candidates to potential and important fields of study,” adds Shady Othmany, Marketing Coordinator for the Arab Society within the university’s Strategic Planning and Marketing Division. 

“Increasing the number of Arab students in high-tech professions has been challenging and the admission requirements are high. Despite this, and thanks to our chosen work method and strategies and the support of our professional marketing team and the assistance of Dr. Youssef Mashharawi, we have gradually advanced towards our goal.”

“The secret behind our success can be explained by our decision to be part of Arab society. We have consistently been conducting activities aimed at the Arab sector, in collaboration with multiple associations and institutions. We prioritize meeting the different needs of those interested on a personal level, also during the pandemic.”

“The father of a candidate contacted me directly when he understood the date for the entrance test was postponed because of Corona. He was concerned about his son’s chances to get accepted to our Electrical Engineering studies. We offered an alternative admission route for his son. This option had been advertised on the university website, but being able to make a simple phone call and have a pleasant conversation in their own language, lowered the stress levels for the father and son. Being able to offer this type of assistance is immensely satisfying for me.” concludes Shady.

 

Shady Othmany in dialogue with a group of university candidates

Prof. Mark Shtaif, TAU Rector notes that: “Along with academic excellence, Tel Aviv University sees great importance in making higher education accessible to various sectors of the population, with particular emphasis on the Arab society. A few years ago, we set an ambitious goal for ourselves: to increase the proportion of Arab students in our high-tech studies to reflect the proportion of Arabs in the Israeli population. I am pleased to see that in Electrical Engineering we managed to reach our goal even sooner than expected, and hope the positive trend that we are witnessing in Computer Science will continue as well, until we attain our goal.”

Featured image: Shady Othmany, Marketing Coordinator for the Arab Society, with Arab students at the Tel Aviv University campus

Tel Aviv’s Ecological Oasis: The Yehuda Naftali Botanic Garden at TAU

A donor-supported renovation focuses on research, facilities and visitor access.

By Lindsey Zemler

TAU’s Yehuda  ​Naftali Botanic Garden is a Tel Aviv oasis for all, a collaborative research hub for plant scientists, engineers and neuroscientists, as well as a beautiful urban nature site that welcomes schoolchildren, soldiers and the general public and numbers among the city’s top tourist attractions.

In the last few months, the Garden has been undergoing a massive rejuvenation and enhancement program.

“Thanks to the generous support of Mr. Yehuda Naftali, this long-awaited renovation marks a significant step forward in our mission to be at the cutting edge of botanical research, education and conservation in Israel,” says Prof. Abdussalam Azem, Dean of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, to which the Garden belongs. “This project brings us to the next level in improving infrastructure and access.”

Path construction in progress. Photo: Rafael Ben-Menashe.

A priority in planning the renovations, which are almost complete, was to increase access to all corners of the 34-dunam (8-acre) site, including to school groups, families, researchers, and students. This involved making the paths easier to navigate with wheelchairs, strollers, or groups.

Upon entering, the visitor will enjoy seeing native flora in the new beds adjacent to the garden’s western boundary fence, which are placed according to where they are found in Israel, from north to south.  The acacia tree planted by Mr. Naftali at the Garden’s inauguration in 2019 can be found there, growing nicely.

A variety of paths throughout the Garden. (Left): A natural blanket of pine needles is reminiscent of a walk through the Carmel Forest. Photos: Rafael Ben-Menashe.

The main pathways are wide, paved and comfortable for walking in groups. Smaller paths branch out among various habitats to allow visitors an immersive nature experience. They are all designed to emulate natural processes; sometimes a section is left unpaved for water flow.

Water pond with newly added wooden deck. Photo: Moshe Bedarshi.

Rainfall naturally flows downhill and arches in a waterfall to fill a pond, where the addition of wooden decks allows the visitor to stand comfortably at the edge of the water to view wetland plant species.

“When we planned the renovations, we put a lot of thought into the best visitor experience: to create a feeling of being transported to a nature reserve and being able to experience it from close range,” explained Kineret Manevich, Public Outreach Coordinator of the Garden.

New irrigation control center (left) and irrigation pipe (right) in the pine forest habitat. Photos (left) by Rafael Ben-Menashe and (right) by Moshe Bedarshi.

A new computer-controlled irrigation system is part of the critical infrastructure changes in the renovation plan. A large, complex network of pipes provides thousands of plants with essential water.

(Left): Rare plants being cared for in the nursery and (right) image of geo-mapping software. Photo (left) by Rafael Ben-Menashe and (right) courtesy of the Botanic Garden.

The Garden is also an active research center, where every plant is mapped and monitored, creating a robust database of botanical research. In addition, rare plants are rehabilitated and returned to nature.

The Garden offers a complete sensory experience, full of texture, color and shapes.

The area is a living ecosystem providing refuge to plants, animals, and of course, humans seeking nature without leaving Tel Aviv. The Yehuda Naftali Botanic Garden will be open to the public, and together with the adjacent Steinhardt Museum of Natural History will welcome visitors of all kinds.

See you in Dubai

The new agreements between nations have created new opportunities – A TAU student meets students from the University of Dubai.

Oleg Ben-Avi, a third-year student in the Digital Society Studies Track at the Gershon H. Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences, was the first student from TAU to meet with students from the University of Dubai.

Connecting through Instagram

Oleg’s meeting with the Chairman of the University of Dubai’s Student Union, the Union’s Consultant and the Head of its Gaming Club, was coordinated by Ido Montaniez, Head of Culture, Sports and Foreign Affairs at the TAU Student Union, who says:  “We have good relations with universities in the UAE, and every day we form more ties. But our ties with the Student Union of the University of Dubai are especially close.” Ido recounts how he created the initial contact through the Instagram: “We conduct thorough research on every institution we wish to contact. If we find that a certain institution is especially active on a social network, we use that channel. Encountering too many obstacles in the University of Dubai’s formal channels, I turned to the social networks, and it worked,” he smiles.

Once the channel had opened, Oleg, a TAU Union representative on holiday in Dubai, was more than happy for the opportunity to make new friends. He shared his experiences with us:

  •  What did you as a student gain from this encounter?

“As a student of Digital Society Studies (Sociology-Anthropology and Communication), I wanted to get to know their culture and social perceptions. At the beginning the conversation was a bit guarded, but gradually they opened up, and I found people who are not very different from us. They are cynical like we are, they enjoy free humor – as long as it does not offend their religion, but even this rule can be bent at times. They are in favor of criticism, and open to discussions and questions that can be challenging. For example, the standup performances of Achmed the Dead Terrorist are very popular over there.”

  •  What insights did you gain from the meeting?

“I realized that the degree I am studying for can really be useful, today and in the future. I saw how active they are on the social networks, and how the technological revolution has helped Dubai grow and become a world power in quite a few areas. It was also clear to me that this meeting was only the beginning. They expect to establish numerous collaborations with us, between our universities specifically, and with Israel in general. My new friends just can’t wait to visit Israel. I played some Israeli music for them, which I thought was their style (based on what they had played for me) and told them that we have an enormous range of music genres. They loved it!” 

  • What about a return visit to Israel?

“The Student Union is planning official visits, joint seminars and student exchange programs with its UAE partners. A full week of online events is planned for March, including both social and academic meetings between students. I invited them to Israel and promised to be their guide. I do hope they’ll take me up on it.”

Pic: Oleg, Ahmed, Matt and Abdullah at a café.

TAU’s Foreign Office

Behind the scenes, planning meetings and collaborations between students, we also found TAU’s VP International, Prof. Milette Shamir, and the team at TAU International – responsible for TAU’s interface with universities worldwide, serving international students and proposing suitable programs.

“From the moment the agreements were signed it was clear that, in addition to forming new academic connections and collaborations, we must also define the role of academia in building bridges between nations and cultures,” says Prof. Shamir. “Ties between students are an excellent basis for all the rest. The spirit of Tel Aviv University, which places great emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as the city of Tel Aviv – an international hub of entrepreneurship, go very well with the spirit of universities in Bahrein and the UAE, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where entrepreneurship and innovation also predominate.”

“One high-potential aspect of our connection with the UAE is the prospect of bringing over some of their outstanding students. Many young people from the UAE go overseas to study, and traditionally they prefer elite academic institutions in the UK or US. Now they can attend excellent universities closer to home, offering programs that can suit their fields of interest, and an environment that feels more like home. 20% of our students know Arabic from home. We are in the Middle East. We have hummus in our cafeteria.”

Featured image: Oleg Ben-Avi and his friends from the University of Dubai

Building Community during Crisis

When COVID-19 broke, hundreds of students who participated in “TAU Impact,” the University’s flagship community leadership program, were forced to abruptly terminate their field work.

In response, the TAU Impact team, run by the Dean of Students, transformed their roster of community service programs from hands-on to virtual “overnight,” according to TAU Impact director Rachel Warshawsky. This involved guiding schoolchildren who were learning remotely, as well as online and phone work with the elderly, blind, mentally ill and other groups, among other activities. The popular TAU program offers accredited courses integrating academic knowledge with community service and will soon be a requirement for all undergraduate students.

Ravid Yehezkely, a medicine and life sciences student, had been teaching a movement class for physically disabled adults for her TAU Impact course when the pandemic started. She was immediately recruited by Warshawsky’s team to tutor high schools students. In addition to assisting them with schoolwork, she helped them cope with the hardships of the lockdown.

In another successful TAU Impact project, students in the course “Ethics of Big Data in Smart Cities” created an app called TAU-Walks, which helps the blind and visually impaired navigate TAU’s campus.

“We succeeded in carrying out meaningful social projects which helped many people in the community—even if from a distance—as well as the students themselves, who were gratified that they could contribute to society during this difficult time,” concludes Warshawsky.  

During the Fall 2020 semester, TAU Impact students continued to carry out their field work remotely.

Featured image: Student Ravid Yehezkely. Photo: Moshe Bedarshi.

Academic First Responders

How TAU sparked a learning revolution in the wake of COVID-19.

By Idit Nirel

When COVID-19 broke in Israel in mid-March and the country shut down, Tel Aviv University (TAU) decided to continue teaching all courses online—almost overnight.

While many professors and students struggled to adapt, Prof. Guy Mundlak was ready.  

Prof. Guy Mundlak

​Prof. Guy Mundlak. Photo: Yoram Reshef.

Mundlak, who teaches both at the Buchmann Faculty of Law and the Department of Labor Studies of the Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences, made the change to online teaching 4 years ago. One of his courses, “Labor Law,” is a hybrid course; students study theoretical materials on their own through online videos of lectures, and the in-person sessions are dedicated to discussions and analyzing the latest case studies. Mundlak’s motivation to go digital preceded COVID-19 and stemmed from a different reason:

“Teaching this course for over 20 years, I couldn’t reinvent the wheel and find new ways to teach the same material every time,” he says. Making the course digital refreshed it.

Mundlak sees online learning not as a constraint, but as an opportunity: “The format allows students to learn the general concepts at their own pace, and I can focus my classroom lessons on what interests us here and now, without worrying if I’ve covered all of the material in time for the exam,” he explains. “This approach leaves me more room for spontaneity, for dealing with matters of the hour, and for diving deep into topics with the students. As a result, I don’t just lecture to my students; I engage and involve them in issues that touch their everyday lives—which is the best way to learn.”

With the pandemic and lockdown crushing the economy, Mundlak’s course became especially relevant to his students in the spring of 2020. He dedicated his classes—taught via Zoom—to employment issues that emerged during the Corona pandemic, such as the ramifications of layoffs and furloughs. Because most of his students had been working as waiters or in other hourly jobs to finance their studies, these subjects were not just academic theory, but reality, for many of them.

Coronavirus Pushes Learning Online

Dr. Tal Soffer. Photo: Yoram Reshef.

Providing Prof. Mundlak with digital tools for online teaching was Dr. Tal Soffer, Director of Virtual TAU, the unit responsible for enhancing the University’s digital teaching capacity and resources.  According to her, “online courses or integrating digital methods into other courses allow for learning that is customized to students’ needs.” At the same time, “online learning can provide students with skills for lifelong learning, which are crucial for success in today’s labor market—such as time management and the ability to learn independently.”

As Coronavirus spread in Israel and lockdown appeared imminent, Soffer and her team were already working around the clock to facilitate the shift to online studies. It was a success. More than 90,000 live online lessons took place over the spring semester, in addition to thousands of lessons recorded for independent study. All in all, online learning during the lockdown accounted for more than 50,000 hours and 10 Terabits in digital volume.

 

TAU student Michal Ferenz. Photo: Yoram Reshef.

Soffer and her team set up a technical support hotline for online learning; they received as many as 700 calls per day. In addition to assisting professors in overcoming the technicalities of online teaching, the team also created more than 50 video guides showing lecturers how to use online learning tools to make lessons more engaging.

The team also conducted large-scale surveys among 7,000 students and 750 faculty members. They found that a vast majority of students wanted to incorporate online learning into their studies in the future.

Like other universities around the world, TAU also faced the new challenge of conducting online exams and evaluations. Spring semester exams were conducted from home with supervisors overseeing students through Zoom.

During the 2020-2021 academic year, TAU is introducing a pilot computerized authentication system for online exams. The new technology will secure online exams by verifying students’ identity and monitoring their presence and activities during the exam. Although this is a big step forward, Soffer is aware that in the long run adopting more of these technologies may be intrusive. Instead of relying on anti-cheating applications, Soffer says, the University should also encourage alternative evaluation methods, such as essays and group projects.

“The Corona crisis profoundly disrupted higher education and forced it to make the transition to the digital world—and, in a way, I believe this is exactly the kind of disruption that was needed. The question is, how do we move forward from here?” Soffer says.

Innovating on all Levels

“Universities all around the world understood a long time ago that they have to transform learning and to enhance their online and digital tools,” says Yuval Shreibman, Director of TAU Online – Innovative Learning Center.  The Center started producing online courses long before Corona to make academia more accessible through technology.

“COVID-19 caused us to leap forward and address problems that we could previously overlook. At the same time, it shows us that we need to make complementary classroom learning more active and engaging.”

Given the volatile reality and constantly changing regulations, TAU prepared for all possible scenarios for the new academic year. While it intended to offer first-year students the option to physically attend classes, studies were conducted online for the duration of the first semester. In response, Virtual TAU has launched an unprecedented effort to arm lecturers with versatile presentation tools and introduce additional courses that are fully online.


Virtual TAU Team. Photo: Yoram Reshef.

Admissions to the University are also going online, with a new admissions track based on participation and success in specific online courses chosen by each faculty. The new track is currently intended for candidates who, because of COVID-19, could not take standardized university admissions tests. Yet, it also provides greater access to the University for young Israelis from disadvantaged backgrounds or outlying communities, who otherwise might not be able to study at TAU.

In the fall of 2021, TAU plans to launch a new fully online international MBA program, the first of its kind to be offered by an Israeli university. It will combine video courses that students will watch independently, with personal guidance from teaching staff, online study forums and projects. Based on the same high entrance requirements as the regular MBA programs at TAU’s Coller School of Management—recently ranked as the 13th school in the world for producing VC-backed entrepreneurs—the program is expected to attract ambitious students from across the globe.

COVID-19 underlined the importance of online learning at TAU so much that President Ariel Porat created a new position to oversee educational innovation; Prof. Liat Kishon-Rabin became Dean of Innovation in Learning and Teaching in July. “TAU has always prided itself as a leader in educational innovation, but the Corona pandemic has highlighted the need to focus on this field even more,” says Prof. Porat. “I trust that Prof. Kishon-Rabin will build on our existing achievements and lead us through the post-Corona era with vision and success.”

Read about Minducate, an innovation and learning center at TAU. 

Providing Critical Support during Online Learning

Alberto Meschiany. Photo: Moshe Bedarshi.

Despite the positive insights gleaned about online learning, TAU must take into account students who struggled with remote learning as it prepares for a new academic year in the shadow of COVID-19. Alberto Meschiany, Head of the Psychological Services Unit at TAU’s Student Services Division, says that at the beginning of the crisis, his unit experienced a 15% rise in requests for psychological support.

“For many students, the anxiety resulting from the pandemic itself and its economic implications was coupled with the stress of having to study and take exams from home,” he says. “For students who live in the dorms or come from lower socio-economic levels this was exceptionally difficult. Many of them don’t have a quiet place to study. Some live in remote towns that don’t have the Internet network to support continuous online studies.”

Yet, according to Meschiany, it isn’t only the logistical and technological barriers that made the shift to online learning difficult for many TAU students. “Distance from other students can create feelings of alienation and loneliness. All the technology in the world cannot replace the support that students get from their peers,” he says. “In addition, the lack of a personal lecturer-student relationship has a negative effect on academic development. The ability to knock on a lecturer’s door and ask a question or discuss a topic spontaneously is lost with online learning.”

Meschiany believes that as the University adopts more online learning methods, it should make an effort to tailor them to accommodate students with various difficulties. “They will need our active help,” he says.

The Student Viewpoint

Looking back at lessons learned from the “first wave” of online learning, there is no question that TAU can learn the most from its students. Jonathan Berkheim, a master’s student in chemistry and spokesperson for TAU’s Student Union when the pandemic started, experienced the lockdown and its aftermath from several perspectives.

As a senior member of the Student Union, he fielded numerous calls from students who struggled to study within the new framework. Even students who fared well felt shortchanged, according to Berkheim. “The social interaction, class discussions and campus life are crucial parts of the package that students expect from university studies.” 

Jonathan Berkheim. Photo: Moshe Bedarshi.

At the same time, Berkheim says that the unusual circumstances broke traditional, hierarchical barriers between students and professors. They found themselves communicating directly on WhatsApp groups, saw each other’s homes during Zoom sessions, and shared similar experiences of life during the lockdown. “I hope that the University will embrace this new paradigm for student-professor relations in the future.”

In addition, as a teaching assistant, he experienced distance learning from the other side of the virtual podium: “Something gets lost in translation. Students get distracted more easily. It was hard for me to know if they really understood what I was teaching.”

Finally, as a student himself, he found that watching recorded lessons at his own pace was convenient. “Face-to-face learning in the classroom is crucial, but combining it with independent online studies will have great benefits for students,” Berkheim concludes.

Among TAU students studying remotely are also hundreds of international students from over 100 countries, who are enrolled in over 60 English-led academic programs offered by TAU International. In the midst of the crisis, TAU International launched an online summer course, titled: “COVID-19: From Crisis to Opportunity,” which attracted more than 80 participants from Asia, South America, North America and Europe.

Read about how TAU Impact, the University’s flagship community service program, adapted to the pandemic.
 

As TAU heads toward another academic year, it is clear that life with COVID-19 has become the new normal. All players involved in online learning understand that TAU must embrace the advantages moving forward.

“Until recently, when I was presenting my own field of research—which deals with future trends in the labor market and predicts that people would increasingly shift to working from home—people would tell me that it sounds too futuristic,” says Prof. Mundlak. “Now it is has become a reality. The future is here.”

Featured image: TAU Life Sciences Prof. Nir Ohad films a remote lecture at the TAU Online studio. Photo: Yoram Reshef.

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