Online education during COVID-19: 10 perspectives from educators in China

Michael Epstein, vice president of Education at ClassIn, shares his experiences of transitioning to online education in China during the COVID-19 pandemic

In a recent Edsurge’s panel discussion, Professor Guo Wenge, Principal Aaron Lennon and I shared our experiences and learnings on the shift to online education in China that was triggered by COVID-19. It became apparent that there are a variety of issues which need addressing during this time such as fostering a sense of community online, strategies for strengthening the home-school connection and creating educational experiences which maximise participation and results.

I would like to share 10 key suggestions for UK educators which can help with the transition to online teaching and learning. The following points have been offered by educators from numerous universities, secondary schools and elementary schools. 

1. Something is always better than nothing

The online transition may be overwhelming and unfamiliar, but it’s crucial that education continues. Long-term school closures and a sudden lack of teaching and learning will have a significant impact on society and the education system for years. We therefore must do everything we can to prioritise education by utilising the resources we have during this time.

Missed months of schooling will need to be compensated for. Given the amount of time needed to get back to where schools were before closures, it may be extremely difficult for students to advance to the next grade. This will result in a lost year of education for a generation of students. If online classes can avoid this, they will have been worth it.

2. You can’t afford not to 

If the entire school system were to shut down, no one would graduate or advance. We are then left with unanswered questions regarding the four-year-olds who will be five the following year and how the system will deal with these students, as well as the six-year-olds who are repeating the year. If classes are twice the size of normal, how will the school support students and will they have enough resources, teachers and space? Furthermore, there is social and economic risk for the education system to overcome if this only applies to certain schools. What would happen if a secondary school decides to close but none or only some of junior schools do not?

3. You have more tools than you think 

There are several digital tools available to support online learning which are important for students to advance at the end of the school term. An example is online platforms which help maintain communication such as email and instant messaging, keeping us connected. Other organisations such as Learning Keeps Going and Global Online Academy also curate archives of free online resources to support schools and communities making the transition to online learning. Thinking comprehensively about the resources available and making strategic decisions on how to use them will ensure teachers and students thrive.

4. Be prepared for the long haul

When COVID-19 developed in China, schools had no choice but to rely on online processes. It’s important for educators to look at this transition as long-term, which may require reassessing the current curriculum so it can be easily accessed online. Of course, there will be choices to make, such as whether learning outcomes will be scaled back or cut completely due to the school’s time and resources. They will also have to determine whether these learning outcomes can be exceeded in an online environment.

The possibilities and limitations in an online environment will inevitably differ from offline. Teachers may find that they’re relying more on performance tasks and portfolios than traditional pencil-and-paper exams. Teachers may have to examine how they construct student assessments as this will provide an indispensable window on learning, as well as a valuable insight on the adjustments which need to be made to teaching.

5. Plan for hearts, plan for mind

The online experience may be completely new to some teachers, meaning they’ll likely need to plan lessons with much more detail than they are used to. This planning may resemble their first year of teaching again.

A key part of this is clearly communicating to students what’s expected of them through tools such as checklists. Teachers will also find it useful developing learning activities which are hands-on and offer engagement, representation and expression. To this end, CAST’s UDL framework is an indispensable resource. Lesson preparation should clearly communicate the legitimacy of the learning students are doing at home. If students believe their teachers are invested in the online experience, they are far more likely to take it seriously and get more out of it.

A classroom environment and synchronous learning is preferable. Those moments of connection that come naturally in a classroom environment may be more challenging to achieve online. As part of lesson preparation, teachers should consider activities that support student-to-student interaction, as well as focusing on emotional wellbeing. Additionally, teachers should also plan informal interactions with students such as weekly video check-ins, class chat groups, or a social forum. The learning students do at school is more than subject knowledge; it’s also about learning to live together – especially in these difficult times.

Online education China

6. Continuously assess results

Once lesson plans are in place and the online system has launched, regular checks should be made to ensure the school is delivering what they have promised. Students and parents will be making demands that teachers may not have encountered before.

User experience is paramount for engaging teaching online. It’s important to ask students, parents and teachers how they feel about the whole online experience and whether they find the platform easy to use and beneficial for learning.

7. Do not neglect your network and hardware

Software is as important as hardware, meaning teachers will need to have the necessary computers or tablets which can run the required software for online teaching, as well as a decent network infrastructure. Without these, the school is at risk of classes being disrupted by network errors or poor access to learning resources.

The benefits of having the right hardware and network are twofold. The time teachers and students spend in an online learning environment should be focused on the education rather than having to deal with any technical issues. Second, it will engender goodwill and confidence from teachers, students and parents alike. They will recognise that the school is committed to the continuation of learning, which will in turn encourage their own commitment to making online learning a success.

8. Strengthen your IT

IT needs can easily be overlooked in the move online. For many education institutions, the technical demands of online learning are far greater than those of offline learning. There’s not only the initial task of getting the system active, but also any demands once classes have launched. It’s helpful to have an honest assessment of the school’s current IT staff to determine whether they’re capable of the technical demands the school will face. It’s important to make sure IT and teaching staff work collaboratively both before and during the launch, so teachers have access to the support they may need.

Testing the stability of a network on a regular basis enables schools to address potential risks before they become problems. Regular analysis and evaluation of network security is critical. Previously, schools have been negatively impacted by unauthorised users accessing networks or software, resulting in the exposure of inappropriate content or hijacking of computers or devices.

9. Train your teachers

Although some teachers may have online teaching experience, others will not feel as comfortable with the transition. Teacher training before and after the launch will ensure that all staff are able to deliver quality education. Online tools enable access to training which will help with how to manage an online classroom and how to construct activities for online use. Teachers will need opportunities to create activities and resources that will be used in the classroom, as well as conducting mock classes to receive feedback. Coming out of this initial training, teachers should have all the materials they need to successfully teach.

10. Put people at the core

Although great technology can help create the nurturing and supportive environment for student growth and online learning, it’s the people that will make this happen. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a global monumental challenge. We may not be healthcare professionals on the frontline, but as educators, we have our part to play and our task is vital. Our efforts can help bring stability and normality to the lives of children and parents and hopefully make this crisis easier to endure. We hope that the experiences of Chinese educators, who have already been dealing with the challenges you are facing, offer you support in any way possible.

ClassIn is an online teaching and learning platform that has been built to support academic development. During the COVID-19 crisis, ClassIn is available for free to any academic institution until at least the end of June 2020.

Image source: Freepik

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