When Yoram Harpaz went to Harvard 20 years ago to write his doctoral thesis, he never thought that it would one day form the basis of one of the 12 best digital courses in the world.
In fact, Harpaz, now a professor of education, was close to giving up. When he sat down in front of his computer at the univeresity library, he came across an avalanche of books and articles on his subject: teaching thinking, which strives to develop good, creative, critical thinking.
“I went back to my rented apartment in Boston in a dismal state,” he recounts. “I had undergone bibliographic trauma.”
The thesis that he eventually wrote was later adapted and published as a book; it formed the basis of a course he gives at Al-Qasemi Academic College of Education in the Israeli Arab city of Baka al-Garbiyeh near the northwest West Bank.
Two and a half years ago, Harpaz’s course was converted into a digital course entitled “The Hook, the Bait and the Fish,” which the college offers for free on the Campus-IL website. With this course, Harpaz and two lecturers at Al-Qasemi, Abeer Watted and Baha Zoabi, teach students how to think.
In early October, the college was informed that the course had been chosen by edX, the popular platform for remote learning, as one of the 12 best digital courses in the world. It beat out hundreds of candidates from leading universities and colleges around the globe, and was a finalist for best digital course of 2021.
Al-Qasemi Academic College found itself in the company of Harvard, MIT, Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology. The achievement is even more remarkable because the course isn’t in English, but in Hebrew with translation into Arabic and English.
An announcement presenting the final candidates stated: “Higher ed has arguably been one of the sectors most impacted in the past 18 months by the COVID-19 pandemic, and this group of finalists exemplifies excellence in online teaching in this most challenging of times. From COVID-19 related courses teaching lifesaving skills, to courses in topics that helped learners ‘escape,’ explore and learn new things, this group of instructors represents what makes our partner consortium so incredible – their commitment to high quality learning for our over 40 million learners.”
Springtime for digital courses
“I imagine that schools of higher learning abroad are asking themselves, ‘What is this college that got into the final?” Harpaz says, visibly pleased. “I think that the course succeeded because it addresses good thinking, and that’s a universal aim of education.”
Al-Qasemi, a religion-oriented college that specializes in training teachers in Islamic studies, languages and sciences, isn’t well known outside the Arab community. It was established in the 1990s as a college for religious studies and was converted in the early 2000s to a center for teacher training funded by the state.
In 2018, it made headlines amid the shortcomings revealed in a report by the registrar of nongovernmental organizations, including the employment of family members. Sources at the college say these problems have been fixed, and now, with their impressive achievement under their belt, they plan to expand the field of digital learning.
“Prof. Harpaz taught this course at the college for many years, but the digital version, which was created in collaboration with Dr. Watted, has had a unique effect on the students. Based on their reports, it seems to be one of the high points of their educational experience,” says the college's president, Prof. Anwar Rayan.
According to Rayan, when the course was first offered last year on edX, hundreds of people signed up, and now around 4,000 students from around 60 countries are registered. A study that accompanied the course noted that students had greater motivation in the digital version.
Until about three years ago, Israel had scant presence in the world of academic digital courses, also known as massive open online courses, MOOCs. In 2018, Israel’s Council for Higher Education and the Economy Ministry’s digital experts launched Campus-IL, where online academic courses are offered.
About 350 courses are currently available on Campus-IL, and there are about 700,000 registered users, most of them Israeli college and university students. Eran Raviv, Campus-IL’s director, says this reflects “the importance of disseminating academic knowledge to Israelis free, while promoting the democratization of higher education.”
Based on data retrieved from the Class Central search engine for digital courses, some 900 universities around the world offered digital courses in late 2020. About 180 million users took at least one course.
Until the coronavirus crisis, digital courses were sidelines for universities, meant mainly for people outside the academic world. Now most Israeli universities are developing digital courses and plan to merge them into the curriculum.
Harpaz and his team at Al-Qasemi converted the course into a digital platform in collaboration with the Tel Aviv-based Center for Educational Technology, which did the production, directing, photography and editing. “I rewrote the lectures and added a teaser that opened each lecture,” Harpaz says.
“We decided that the lectures, some of them filmed in front of an audience and some in a studio, would be especially short. In this way, we made the lectures communicative. We added interactive features, locations and interviews. Several times the director sent me off to rewrite the texts, so they’d be more friendly.”
How do you teach someone to think?
“Teaching people to think is like teaching swimming by correspondence course. It’s impossible to do it without gaining experience. The course aims to explain what thinking instruction is, what good thinking is, and how to teach children to think well. It gives participants tools that I hope will make their thinking better.”
It took a year to create the course, and the filming took place at sites including the Ramat Gan Safari and Tel Aviv’s Museum of Natural History. The 400,000 shekels ($128,000) for creating the course was received from the Council for Higher Education and the government’s Digital Israel program after a special committee deemed it among the 70 academic courses with high potential for success in a digital version. Then Campus-IL and the Council for Higher Education submitted it as the Israeli entry in the international competition.
In Israel, the course’s selection as a finalist came as a complete surprise. “We chose the course as Israel’s representative due to its qualities, but we didn’t expect it to make it to the final round, because this is a course at a small college on a complex subject presented in Hebrew,” says Raviv of Campus-IL.
As Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, the head of the committee, puts it, “Al-Qasemi developed a special course that highlights its relative advantages. We set up Campus-IL to build a working digital platform, and I’m pleased that the institutions have developed digital instructional capabilities thanks to the initiative.”
Watted, a lecturer for the course, has wide experience in developing digital courses. She was a member of a team that in 2014 developed Israel’s first digital course, a nanotechnology course at the Technion under the supervision of Prof. Hossam Haick. It was also the first course on the subject in Arabic, and the first available to an international audience of English speakers.
“To date more than 40,000 people have enrolled in this course. Even if only 5 percent have completed it, that’s still much higher than the total number of graduates in a single university semester,” says Watted, who is the science instruction dean at Al-Qasemi and supervises the college’s digital courses.
“There are people in these courses from diverse cultures and disciplines who meet in forums and sometimes carry out shared tasks,” Watted says. “The main target audience are people 40 and over who take courses to refresh their knowledge in their free time. In less advanced countries, most participants are students seeking access to academic knowledge from the best lecturers in the world.”
What’s the secret of your success?
“The course’s methods are diverse and effective based on storytelling – Yoram managed to get across all the concepts by telling stories. The visual presentation is unique and there are interactive components, tasks, surveys and discussions.
“But what’s nice about the course is that each instructional unit is based on part of the course’s title, ‘the Hook, the Bait and the Fish.’ In the first part of each unit, the bait, we used a brief video to prepare the students for what they would learn. In the second part, the hook, we presented the content of the course. And in the third part we presented the product of the learning, the fish, and tested the learners’ comprehension.”
Creating a new language
The Center for Educational Technology made its media director Gidi Yehoshua and director Shai Katzav responsible for production. “We took a complex philosophical and educational course and broke it down into an almost television-like experience,” Yehoshua says.
“To make an academic subject interesting, you have to create a new language that converts the academic knowledge into digital media. You can’t film a lecturer talking for 90 minutes and call it an online course. Anybody who does this is trying to pull one on you.”
Katzav adds: “From the start we marked out the obstacles that could have blocked the course from being more accessible. We devoted a great deal of thought not only to how the lecturer wanted to run the course but mainly to the viewers’ experience. Nobody can survive a series of filmed lectures even if they’re highly interested, because this is a different medium. Similarly, it was very important for us to create a graphic language that would help viewers understand where they are in the chapter and the course.”
Give an example.
“Yoram said he wanted to create a map of concepts for the learners, so we created a real map that the students would be able to print out at the end of the course. In each chapter, we filmed Yoram showing another part of the map, exactly like a puzzle that’s being put together in front of your eyes. I remember saying to Yoram that he would have to do things he wasn’t used to doing, and he would have to act a little, because everybody who wants to do the course with him also wants to take a journey and achieve an emotional attachment.”
Yoram, don’t you think that this whole business of teasers and the animation of the MOOC courses is cheapening the academic world?
“No. In recent decades, the academic world has opened up to new social classes. This is a welcome process. To attract students, pedagogy in academia has improved and become more accessible. The MOOC courses are the spearhead of making education accessible to a broad range of social classes. I need to explain knowledge, communicate and make it accessible to students; the also improves the lecturers’ comprehension.”
What is “teaching thinking,” really?
“The idea is simple. Instead of teaching children knowledge that they’ll forget soon after the test, let’s teach them to think well. To think well means to think effectively, critically and creatively. In the course I explained that the idea succeeded too well and that it has spawned countless theories on how to teach thinking.”
Fighting against the flat-pack method
Children don’t understand what they’re studying?
“Most don’t understand. Understanding any subject means being able to think with it – analyze it, compare it, apply it in new contexts and so on.
“Most children aren’t capable of thinking with what they’re studying. They’re like people who bought furniture at IKEA, brought the wooden boards home and now don’t have the strength to put them together. You come over and they tell you, ‘See that pile of boards over there? That’s a bookcase. And that? That’s a table.’
“This is the situation of most students. In their minds, they have piles of wooden boards. There’s no furniture there. They lack the know-how of how to think with it, how to build with it something of value.”
In recent years, countries around the world have actually stressed teaching skills – thinking skills, leadership skills and so on.
“Education systems love skills. It’s relatively easy to teach them, especially to measure and assess them. Measurement and assessment make supervision possible, and that’s what school systems want – to supervise and mete out punishments.”
Thinking skills aren’t enough?
“They really aren’t. Thinking skills are important, but a lot less than thinking and comprehension. Children are drilled on thinking skills, they’re tested on them and they do pretty well, but after the test they throw out all these skills and go back to thinking as usual, based on old habits.
“Thinking and comprehension are hard to teach and hard to measure and assess. That’s how it is in education: What’s not important is easy to measure and assess, and what is important is hard to measure and assess. The education system is interested in measurement and assessment.
“The development of the skills approach is only one of the approaches in the teaching-thinking process. Another approach says that good thinking is the outcome of understanding the subject that we’re thinking about. If you don’t understand physics, for instance, or sports, you can’t think well in these disciplines. I think a school system has to largely adopt this approach and teach comprehension.”
As early as 2006, Israel’s education system adopted the progressive approach of targeting deep thinking and comprehension of the material.
When Prof. Yuli Tamir was education minister from 2006 to 2009, the Pedagogic Horizon program was launched; the schools were asked to adapt learning methods to 21st-century life. In 2009, a senior Education Ministry official at the time, Prof. Anat Zohar, said: “We are committed to give student not only the fish but also the hook.’”
But when the ministers changed these objectives were forgotten, despite several attempts otherwise, including the reforms championed by Shay Piron when he was education minister in 2013 and 2014. Learning in the schools is still based on memorization.
Over a decade ago, toward the end of Tamir’s tenure, the Education Ministry drafted principles that seemed revolutionary even compared to the present-day education system.
“High-quality knowledge is created only when the student thinks in depth about the content and is an active partner in the learning process,” a report said. “The changing labor market seeks employees possessing thinking skills and advanced tools for treating information.”
The report added: “Future graduates of the education system can no longer make do with a predetermined body of knowledge. They need superior thinking skills that will enable them to acquire new knowledge.”
As Harpaz puts it, “Every new education minister thinks that his job is to erase the previous minister's agenda. Education policy in Israel is hyperactive. The upshot is that we’ve raised 200,000 teachers with the mentality of ‘this too shall pass.’
“The teachers know that they’re expected to make sounds of ‘meaningful learning’ or ‘reinforcement of mathematics,’ and then wait for the minister to be replaced. Israel’s education ministers have disqualified themselves. The teachers don’t take them seriously and may even ridicule them.”