Featured photo by Lu via Unsplash
China’s systems have faced incredible challenges since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, that emerged around the country in late January. Factories have been closed for extended periods of time, office staff are working from home, many restaurants and small businesses are taking a hiatus, and whole towns in Hubei province are in lock-down mode. And while the impact on the economy is being widely talked about globally, a colossal part of China’s systems – students and schools – has also been strongly affected.
As an organization focused on education and experiential learning, we were curious about how schools were faring. With 180 million students and 15 million teachers, the education sector in China is massive. Using the internet and experiences from their emergency education plans at the time of SARS, Chinese schools have now taken online learning to a globally unprecedented scale.
Schools across the country have postponed physical opening dates as the country battles to control the spread of the virus. By February, many schools had ‘reopened’, albeit with all classes hosted online. To aid this new way of learning, schools across China are using different online-learning platforms, from cloud-based collaboration programs to pre-recorded lessons on dedicated TV channels.
Teachers and students alike are experiencing both the pros and cons of the situation. To better understand how this new learning structure has affected teachers and students across China, we talked to our educators and partners* around the country to give you an in-depth, from-the-source look at what English-language local and international schools are doing to keep learning on track.
* To protect the privacy of individuals and institutions, we have anonymized responses.
A Similar Situation
There’s no getting away from the comparisons between COVID-19 and SARS. Both coronaviruses have had a major impact on life in China. When the SARS outbreak lasted for six months in 2003, some schools shut their doors completely until the virus was contained. Others stayed open, making the fight against infection part of the daily routine.
“Several years ago, we experienced the SARS outbreak,” one teacher from a local school in Hangzhou tells us. “In order to ensure the health and safety of all our staff and students, we suspended all classes until we felt the epidemic was under control and the virus would not put our school at risk. Then, however, our communication networks were not as robust as today; we relied on text messages and phone calls for updates.”
As a precursor to the monumental online learning happening now, schools during SARS learned to make the most of mass communication: “We went through the SARS outbreak in 2003. In order to continue student learning, we hosted remote ‘Sky Classes’ that could be streamed through students’ TVs back home,” explained a teacher from a local school in Beijing. “Adopting a similar approach today, we now offer online classes where students and teachers can interact on an online platform.”
Photo by TechNode/Shi Jiayi
Into the Unknown
The COVID-19 outbreak has undoubtedly challenged the day-to-day operations of institutions throughout the Middle Kingdom, not to mention the way that educators interact with and present information to students. For many schools, this outbreak has forced administrators to become more strategic and innovative in the ways that they handle classroom management.
As teachers and students remain spread across China and the world, schools have needed to create classrooms and conducive learning environments online. As an educational travel company, we know how important the physical classroom can be. And, as our partners around the country tell us, going ‘digital’ isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds. “Our school has started using Microsoft teams,” a teacher from Hangzhou says. “Unfortunately, it isn’t very user friendly for lower ed.”
For teachers not accustomed to running digital classrooms, this has also challenged the way they teach material to their students. “Teachers are choosing different units that don’t even follow what’s in our textbooks, in the event that the students didn’t bring them home,” says one teacher in Beijing. “No new concepts or notions are being taught remotely as this requires the direct presence of teachers to assess and assist the students. This is just further compounded by the fact that teachers are spread out across the world in different time zones, due to most of them returning home or traveling for the Chinese New Year holiday, and then being stuck outside of China.”
“We are still waiting for word from the government on when we should reopen,” says another teacher based at a local school in Beijing. “We have resorted to online teaching, but even that poses a challenge as there is limited capacities for what we, as teachers, can actually do.” As an international school teacher in Beijing describes, “the lack of formal structure and formative assessment on student performance [is a concern]. As a result, we find it challenging to determine where our students may need more support and whether we’re able to offer that through virtual learning. We can’t offer the homework assistance that we normally would provide in a school setting. This can be particularly challenging for households that do not speak much English.”
This lack of support structure and direct contact with students appears to be a concern at many different schools. “Online learning does not offer the structure, support, and accountability students may need to ensure they’re on track,” mentions a teacher from Hangzhou. A teacher from a local school in Beijing explains: “With a lack of structure, teachers find it difficult to monitor and control students’ studies. This is exacerbated by the learning platform being hosted online, where students can easily be distracted by the internet. In addition, interactions between students and teachers are not as accessible, making it more difficult for teachers to provide the emotional support and growth for their students when they may need it.”
Challenging the Classroom Crisis
As the situation remains uncertain for now, and people await further directions from the authorities, innovation has become the name of the game. “Under the traditional education methods, teachers’ use of new information tools has remained limited,” a Beijing teacher points out. “This time is a good opportunity for teachers to learn new self-media software.”
Schools have been forced to think of creative ways to run their academic programs digitally. Clear expectations are set by school administrators to make sure that students are utilizing software to their full potential. Some schools have spent weeks preparing online materials so that students always have access to bank of resources, even while “class” is underway.
One teacher in Hangzhou tells us about the various methods her school uses for online teaching: “We use DingDing software for video conferences, notifications, and assignments. Teachers either use live broadcast or a recorded broadcast.”
While primary schools nationally use broadcast TV to keep students engaged, secondary schools, and especially those preparing students for life after high school, are forced to create robust lessons and class-like environments. From pre-recording lessons and hosting live classes, to creating online tests and instant feedback systems, teachers are doing what they can to keep their students on track for the semester.
While this new way of teaching and learning has come with its fair share of bumps and hiccups, it’s also been a boon for independent learning.
Physics teacher Zhao Chuanliang records his classes for students at a high school in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. Photo by Xinhua
A New Way Forward
While so much of China is online these days, digital learning is new for a lot of teachers, students, administrators, and parents. The challenges of time zones, time management, focus, motivation, feedback, and accurate assessment were themes that came up again and again in our conversations with teachers from all over the country.
But, as our contact at an international school in Beijing explains: “These types of circumstances teach students about independence and self-discipline, while honing skills like time management and creativity. All of these are important skillsets we hope our students adopt.”
And it’s not just students who are learning a new way of education: parents, who are probably stuck at home alongside their children, are also finding ways to contribute. “In these types of circumstances, parents are at home more and can provide more learning support for their children,” a teacher from a bilingual school in Beijing tells us. From down in Hangzhou, we learn that “for students who enjoy more independent learning, this is a great opportunity to cultivate their ability to learn and explore actively, while also helping around their home.” Another teacher at a bilingual school, this time in Shanghai, tells us that they’ve seen “parents be more involved in their children’s learning and in turn, understanding their strengths and weaknesses. It’s a great chance to foster their learning and relationship.”
A teacher from a local school in Beijing summarized the situation nicely:
“From our experience over the past several weeks, we have found many benefits for students in virtual learning that we believe are critical in fostering proper learning. These include:
- Independence. Students must learn to manage their time to ensure the completion of their assignments without someone always overseeing them.
- Discovery. Students can explore ways they like to work and study that best suit their learning styles.
- Problem-solving. Students can interact with other students on the platform when they have questions or need more support, helping to improve peer-to-peer exchange and communication.”
As China and the world do what they can to stop the spread of COVID-19, teachers around the country, and scattered throughout the world, are doing everything they can to keep their students’ studies moving forwards.
How this online-learning environment affects learning and outcomes down the line may depend on how long this outbreak lasts for. Here at WildChina, we’re confident in the strength and resilience of our schools, our students, and our community.
As facilitators of learning outside of the classroom, WildChina Education is rescheduling our journeys in the Middle Kingdom to later in the year, when we’re sure that travel within China has returned to normal. Until then, we’re dedicating our time to rigorously reviewing the safety, sustainability, and educational values of our existing programs in preparation for all the schools and students that will be joining us this summer, fall, and next spring. This means developing our homestay experiences as well as our STEM–based itineraries. If you have any questions about how we’re dealing with COVID-19, please get in touch.