Online Education in Public Health Emergency: A Note during the Coronavirus Outbreak 2020
Editor’s Note: This is a special bilingual report on new developments in online education in China, during the recent public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), COVID-19 outbreak. Our hearts and thoughts are with those affected.
Read this post in Chinese
Today was supposed to be a normal working day, but I am typing on my living room sofa. The weather is amazing, yet there is no pedestrian outside. Just like tens of millions of other Chinese families, mine has hibernated for days to hide from the Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia (NCP) caused by COVID-19. This new virus, though less lethal, is much ‘smarter’ than SARS, Ebola, or MERS. Due to its long incubation period and the fact that more than half of patients have no fever at the early stage of infection, it has been difficult to detect and contain. The virus has travelled fast and far, compounded by the Chinese New Year Rush Travel season. So far, the best prevention measure is to reduce face-to-face contact and to stay away from public areas.
Also today I learned that my two sons’ winter vacation classes are now moved online. My 9-year-old tried a Sketch class and decided to stop – not because the teaching was bad nor the connection poor – but because the learning experience could be so much better if hands-on support was available. Meanwhile, my 6-year-old’s fitness class was conducted through live-streaming on TikTok, which turned out to be surprisingly productive: virtual likes and gifts from parents were flying all over the screen for the teacher who acted like a cyber-celebrity.
Of course, the online education experienced by my sons is extra-curriculum and non-formal. For others, however, online education became a formal necessity in the past weeks. This is particularly true for learners in Wuhan, which is at the centre of NCP outbreak and where schools remain closed. On February 10, this city’s one million primary and secondary school students began their spring semester on the cloud, with 426 online courses delivered by selected teachers on Day-1. Wuhan’s Municipal Education Bureau partnered with four IT companies to make this possible: platforms allow lecture live-streaming, Q&A interactions, and homework assignment.
There are similar arrangements in other parts of China. In the city of Shenzhen where I live: on Feb. 3, a first batch of 6,400 teachers received online training to implement online education; on Feb.10, over 100,000 upper-secondary students began their new semester online; and on Feb.13, new sections of ‘Cloud Classrooms’ providing 24/7 free access to hundreds of K-12 courses recorded by local schools became available on major broadcasting networks. At the time of writing, primary schools and lower secondary schools are in preparation of their first day of online school on Feb. 17, and this is temporarily expected to last for a month. My 9-year-old’s class uses an online platform, DingDing app,
and parents were invited to the testing, where I received a detailed daily schedule of learning activities, 8:20 am to 7:30 pm, Monday to Friday. With exception of the shortened duration of each class session, that schedule mimics a normal school schedule,
In terms of higher education and continuing education, the Ministry of Education organized free access to 22 online course platforms with over 24,000 courses and virtual lab resources, covering most disciplines and majors in both general and vocational education. It is worth mentioning that the MOE stressed in its news conference on Feb. 12 that it does NOT hope universities ask faculty to perform live-streaming classes. Instead, universities are given recommendations on existing online course resources, that will both help reduce teaching workload and prevent low-quality instruction due to rushed preparations. For learners that are already in the labour market, there are also ample learning opportunities available online.
The current public health emergency is pushing online education to take the lead. For years, discussions about online education were abundant, and the consensus seems to be that a model of online-offline blended learning is more promising. In this regard, face-to-face interaction is still the core form of instruction, while online education plays an assisting role. However, during this NCP public health emergency, the result unfolding seems to indicate a potential explosive growth of online education participation from both the supply and demand side. This is also a moment to reflect on conventional wisdom. For instance, when we talk about blended learning we mostly refer to taking courses online and then discussing offline (flipped classroom approach), but how about learning the course online and then discussing collectively with teachers and classmates online, also? With well-designed platforms and stable internet connectivity, the results seem promising.
In addition to growth in participation, the ‘explosive growth’ in online education is also visible in three other aspects. To begin, hardware and software capacities are rapidly strengthened. On Feb. 3, most telecommunication platforms experienced system crashes due to the abnormally high number of logins. Supposedly in response, Alibaba added 10,000 cloud servers within just two hours after the crash of DingDing. Similarly, Tencent expanded its cloud computing capacity drastically by adding 100,000 cloud servers in just one week. On Feb. 10, DingDing (by Alibaba) and WeChat (by Tencent), both specializing in telecommuting and live streaming, ranked 1st and 2nd in Apple AppStore download. Tencent-Class and Xueersi Online School, two online learning apps, ranked third and fourth respectively. These apps received tens of millions of downloads combined. After the panic of NCP subsides, people’s reliance on these platforms will return to normal, but the hardware and software capacity that quickly evolved to support the surge in demand during this public health emergency will remain.
Secondly, the accumulation of teacher and learner experience stemming from necessity is immense. Not surprisingly, pushing online education to boom in such a short time will expose many problems. There have been many complaints about online education in the past two weeks, including those about unreasonable scheduling, system breakdowns, unstable internet connections, complicated user experience, e-material overload (not good for students’ eyesight), too many requirements to use printing and photos, teachers’ lack of experience in online instruction, students getting distracted easily, parents under pressure of assisting set-up, and so forth. However, looking on the bright side, such strong exposure in a short time is actually helping teachers and learners to archive experience, either good or bad, which will feed into the improvement of online education. To this end, the big data collected from tens of millions of learners will provide an instrumental leap-forward for many online education platforms.
Last but not least, business interests have put the spotlight on online education. Stock prices of NetEase Youdao (an NYSE-listed online education company) surged by 80% in two days. Other education-relevant Chinese stocks skyrocketed as well. In the Chinese stock market, many online education companies routinely meet the daily 10% growth limit; one of which surged by 10% per day for seven continuous trading days, doubling its market value in two weeks. This years’ public health emergency is stimulating business interests in education, and business investors are showing unprecedented interest in the 230,000 online education-related companies in China.
There are many issues that remain worrisome. For one, not all courses are suitable for online instruction, not all teachers can easily adapt to online teaching, not all learners are ready for online learning, and inequality is exacerbated in areas or households where it is both technically and financially difficult to participate in online education. For another, there remain additional challenges in a public health emergency like this. For example, how can schools serve children whose parents are working in emergency response, or those children whose parents are quarantined, or those children left-behind in rural areas whose parents are far in cities? Likewise, it is equally important for intact families to address the embarrassment of competing for mobile device and workspace at home. For governments, it is critical to regulate this emerging market to prevent profiteers from taking advantage of parents’ anxiety about their kids’ education during a time of crisis. Promisingly, teachers, learners, and parents have sketched out broad strokes of some potential solutions, such as staggered course schedules, blending tele-broadcasting with online education in remote areas, and small tricks like covering plastic wrap on a tablet to complete homework answers with a normal pen (in place of printing). These are precious knowledge and practical experience that could be useful for similar emergencies in the future, for both China and the world.
Finally, allow me to take this chance to salute to teachers who continue to teach in public health emergencies, no matter which country they live in and which sector they work for. A teacher might also be a parent, busy in keeping his/her kids’ own education; a teacher could happen to have loved ones affected by the crisis, worrying about his/her family’s health. Right now in Wuhan and in China, many teachers are working day and night to adapt to this new form of teaching online. Regardless of whether they are teaching in a classroom or sitting in front of a screen, teachers remain the core of education; they are the true unsung heroes on another front in this battle.
About the author: Haogen Yao, Ph.D. is Senior Education Specialist at International Centre for Higher Education Innovation under the auspices of UNESCO (UNESCO-ICHEI).
其他地区也有类似的安排。在本人生活的城市深圳，2月3日首批6400名中小学教师在线接受了网络授课培训；2月10日，十余万高中生准时网上开学；2月13日，打开有线电视便能随点随播本市数百门中小学录播课程；2月17日的小学及初中网上开学也在紧锣密鼓的筹备中。大儿子就读的小学已在“钉钉” APP上建了一个 “三年级直播测试” 群，邀请了所有家长加入测试。我们已通过钉钉收到了线上课程表，列出周一至五从早上8:20到晚上7:30的学习活动，除了每节课课时缩短外与一般课程表无异。
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