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Online Education in Public Health Emergency: A Note during the Coronavirus Outbreak 2020 By Haogen Yao

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.

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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).

公共卫生危机中的在线教育
——写于2020新冠肺炎

作者:尧浩根

主编按:这是一篇有关在新型冠状病毒肺炎疫情下中国在线教育最新进展的双语特别报道。编辑部向所有受新冠肺炎疫情影响的人致以最深切的慰问。

这本应是个平常的工作日,而我却躺在家中沙发打字。虽然天气很好,窗外却不见行人。我们一家四口和千千万万的中国家庭一样,窝在家里躲避病毒。2020年伊始的这场新冠肺炎疫情,虽然致命性不及非典、埃博拉、中东呼吸综合征等,却远比他们“聪明”,因为潜伏期长且超过半数患者因早期无发热症状而难以监控,继而随着春运迅速扩散。现在最有效的预防措施,是减少人与人的接触及少去场所。

同样是今天,两个儿子本应参加假期学习班,都改为线上授课了。九岁的大儿子试了一节素描之后决定放弃——老师讲得很好,也没有出现网络或技术问题,可没有手把手现场教学,效果的确打了折扣。六岁的小儿子正在上体能和英语两门网课,其中体能课是在抖音直播的,效果出奇的好,屏幕上显示家长们正疯狂地为老师点赞和发虚拟礼物。虽然我家孩子所接受的只是课外的非正式的在线教育,但对于另一些人,在线教育因为这次疫情而成为必需品,尤其是在疫情的起始地和重灾区武汉,那里无法确认何时才能回校。2月10日,武汉百万中小学生在线开学,当天共开设了426门公开课。 这次空中课堂由市教育局牵头,于春节假期期间筹备,四家互联网技术公司提供云服务和直播工具,支持互动答疑、布置作业等功能。

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。

在高等教育和继续教育方面,教育部组织22个在线课程平台免费开放在线课程及虚拟仿真实验教学资源2.4万余门,基本覆盖了本科、专科、高职的主要学科和专业。值得注意的是,教育部在2月12的新闻发布会上进一步明确“特别不提倡、不鼓励、不希望、不建议各高校在疫情期间要求每一位老师都要制作直播课”,以鼓励高校利用已开放的优质资源,减轻教师仓促准备网课的压力,和避免低质量授课。对于更广大的劳动者群体,许多教育或互联网企业在春节期间就已宣布免费开放课程资源及教学系统,成为在无法正常复工或出行的日子里的充电选择——我自己就每天一边听“慕课”,一边完成10000步目标。

这次公共卫生危机之于在线教育最大的影响,是让配角当上主角。多年来,教育工作者已经对在线教育进行了很多讨论,其优缺点无需赘述,而达成的共识是:线上线下相结合的混合教学方式将越来越普及。在这个共识中,在线教育之于传统线下教育其实是作为辅助存在的,如果不是新冠肺炎疫情,其参与者的数量不会像现在这样短时间获得爆炸性增长。另外,之前的共识也不一定就全对,比如:主流的混合式学习是学生自学网络资源后到实体课上讨论(翻转课堂),现在是否可以先让学生自学录播的网课,然后再线上视频与教师及同学讨论?只要平台成熟、网络通畅,我认为并无不妥。

除了受众数量的几何级增长,“爆炸性增长”还体现在三方面。

首先是软硬件。在全国多地复工复学的2月10日,苹果AppStore中国区下载的第1、2名分别为钉钉(属于阿里巴巴)和微信(属于腾讯),它们主要服务远程办公但也具备在线直播功能,第3、4名为腾讯课堂和学而思网校,专门用于在线教育。2月3日春节假期后的第一天,主流的在线会议/直播软件都不同程度地遭遇系统崩溃。为了应对,阿里巴巴在2小时内部署1万台云主机,腾讯则在2月的第一周扩容10万台云主机。疫情过后,人们对这类平台的依赖可能会回落,但为应对突发增长需求而强化的硬件和优化的软件很可能维持。

其次是经验积累。如此短时间的密集投入和实践,为在线教育的提供方和需求方都带来大量试错机会。虽然在社交媒体上可以看到各种吐槽,诸如时间安排不合理、系统崩溃、视屏卡顿、操作繁杂、拍照上传或打印要求过多、教师直播教学表现欠佳、学生在家中学习注意力分散、教师备课压力大、父母陪课压力也大等等,但换个角度看,提早把各种弊病缺陷暴露在本来可有可无的在线教育环境下,恰恰有助于辨别成功和失败的经验,给今后在线教育的成熟发展热身。此外,得益于数以千万计的学习者的背景信息及学习行为所产生的大数据,很多在线学习平台的设计合理度和智能程度即将获得质的飞跃。

爆炸性的最后一方面是在2020年2月的开头,特斯拉无疑是全世界最耀眼的股票,一度在两个交易日涨了近40%,但同样在美国上市的“网易有道”凭借在线教育业务两个交易日便上涨了80%,其他在美国上市的中国在线教育相关企业也大都疯狂上涨。中国股市方面,因为规定每日涨幅不得超过10%,于是多家在线教育相关股票节后复盘连续多天涨停。有上市公司连续涨停7天,相当于市值翻了一倍。新冠肺炎疫情是场灾难,但也给中国23万家在线教育相关企业带来机遇——投资者对这个产业表现出前所未有的兴趣。

但我还要再次强调,以往我们讨论的在线教育的问题依然会存在。不是所有课程都适合放到网上,不是所有教师都适合教网课,不是所有学习者都适合上网课,也不是所有地方或家庭都有网络或经济条件落实在线教育。在一场公共卫生危机中还会有额外的难题,比如如何支持一线危机应对人员子女、被隔离人员子女、以及农村留守儿童的教育?或者另一个极端,如何解决在家办公家长既要办公还要把通讯设备乃至工作位置让给小孩上课的尴尬?还有就是如何规范市场,防止在线教育商家利用家长焦虑情绪过度牟利?此次危机暴露了问题,也催生了相应的举措,像错峰开课、偏远农村电视开课,乃至给平板电脑套上保鲜膜直接用笔答题拍照上传作业这样的小技巧,为中国也为世界各国以后类似危机中的教育应对贡献了知识和经验。

最后,请允许我借这篇文章,以一名家长的身份感谢每位在任何公共卫生危机中恪尽职守的老师,无论中外,也无论其来自学校还是企业。一名教师,可能同时是一个家长,跟我们一样需要操心自己小孩的学业;也可能家人里就有患者,内心饱受煎熬。此时,他们许多人都在加班加点适应非常时期的非常要求。无论是站在讲台上还是坐在屏幕前,教师依然是教育的核心,另一条战线上的抗疫主力。

作者简介尧浩根,博士,联合国教科文组织高等教育创新中心高级教育专家。

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