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Tsinghua University pioneers total shift online amid coronavirus epidemic

By Zhang Yu (People's Daily Online)    15:12, March 06, 2020

The coronavirus outbreak has left college students across China unable to go back to campus. But instead of waiting for the epidemic to end, Tsinghua University has decided to move all its courses online and start lessons as scheduled.


Faculty deliver their lectures live through an online learning platform - The Rain Classroom - and video conference platforms, and are testing a number of technologies to interact with students.

It is the first time in history that an elite traditional campus-based university has gone totally online.

Two weeks in, and all online teaching has gone smoothly, thanks to the enormous efforts from everyone involved: the university leadership, faculty, staff and students.

This unusual experiment gives education researchers a great opportunity to collect evidence and address important questions that could not be answered before. Can online education bring about reform in the education paradigm?

The online technology that we have today can support most education methods, so why haven’t traditional universities tried to teach completely online? Authorities have had their concerns regarding technology and online education, such as the stability and convenience offered by the technology and the potential negative impact on quality of education. Although a great deal of research has been done to address these concerns, people still prefer the methods that they are used to. This unique online education shock provides a great opportunity for all faculty and students to experience online teaching and learning in their formal courses. Whether online education can bring about reform in university education, and what a future education paradigm might look like, depends on people’s real experiences and foresight.

This essay reviews the experiences of different stakeholders and discusses the potential for reform in the education paradigm.

Students: generally positive experience with mixed evidence

Student’s learning experiences and results are among the most important factors in evaluating the quality of online education. According to several surveys conducted by different colleges in Tsinghua, students have reported generally positive learning experiences. Around 40% to 55% students felt that online and traditional face-to-face teaching are equivalent in terms of general quality. Around 15% to 30% of students reported that synchronous online learning is better than traditional learning. Around 30% of students thought that traditional learning outperforms live online learning.

The most helpful aspects of synchronous online learning includes the ability to review video or audio tapes recorded on online learning platforms together with slides, and interactions with instructors through online tools such as quizzes, danmaku, or virtual interactions in video conference rooms.

Students also seem to prefer the fact that they get a better view looking at their own laptop as opposed to a screen in the classroom, not being disturbed by other students around them, and feeling relaxed at home.

While some said that they felt it was easier to focus during live online learning, others reported that they found it difficult to focus. Internet speed and the stability of software are two key factors that affect online learning.

Nevertheless, it is still too early to determine the quality of learning outcomes. Students with learning difficulties might also be ignored because teachers may not notice them, but this is a challenge that exists even in face-to-face teaching.

Faculty: better experience than imagined, but need more teaching strategy design

Many faculty were very excited to take part in synchronous online teaching after becoming familiar with various online tools. Some senior faculty also found that the online teaching experience was not as bad as they had imagined, even in highly interactive small classes.

Although there is obviously a lot of work to be done in adjusting course designs to suit the new context, and a lot of time was spent exploring online technology, many faculty staff are still strongly motivated to update their courses, as it makes them more accessible to both colleagues and the public. Learning-analytics-based course design should be more effective in facilitating teaching and learning, but it seems like teachers have not yet made full use of that, for a variety of reasons. Course assessment, especially closed book tests, might be difficult to shift online. Courses that rely heavily on lab experiments are also difficult to deliver online, although some courses can use simulation systems.

University administration: more efficient but better quality assurance needed

University administration systems and governance structures may be the ones that benefit most from online education and online office technologies. Taking advantage of the current move, the administration system, including routine meetings and administrative procedures, can all go online, becoming more efficient and easier. The university may have to provide more professional student support and professional development support for teachers to adopt to new administrative arrangements. As for education, there is still little assurance of quality in online learning. The leadership should also be cautious of digital divides and education equality issues when it comes to disadvantaged students.

Society: enjoy the positive externality of elite university resources

What are the costs and benefits to society if elite universities go fully online? Breaking the boundaries between elite universities and the rest of society might be the most significant plus. Tsinghua now offers clone courses to Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) at Wuhan, and students there can now enjoy live courses from Tsinghua in their own homes. It will also be easier to produce more quality education resources, increasing education equality for all of society. Citizens will also be able to benefit from life-long education. However, a well-produced online learning scheme is hugely expensive, considering the online systems and huge amount of faculty work involved.

In summary, the coronavirus crisis has given elite traditional campus-based universities a unique opportunity to experience total online education, which would have otherwise been impossible. The generally positive experiences from stakeholders are very valuable for imagining a new education paradigm, but a great deal of creative effort is needed to address the potential concerns and issues that have already emerged.

The author is an associate professor in Economics of Education at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education. The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of People’s Daily Online. 

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