Online Education during COVID-19: 10 Perspectives from Educators in China

By Michael Epstein, Vice President Education, ClassIn

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 learning in China that was triggered by Covid-19. This prompted a number of issues, including how to foster a sense of community online, strategies for strengthening the home-school connection and designing learning experiences to maximise impact and interactivity.

To keep this conversation going and offer further support to schools making the transition to online learning, I would like to share ten suggestions for dealing with the transition offered by educators from numerous universities, secondary schools, and elementary schools.

Something is always better than nothing

Although schooling online may feel unfamiliar or overwhelming, it is essential that education continues. The impact of school closures will be felt for years to come and once schools eventually reopen, missed months will need to be compensated for. Given the lengthy closure and time needed to get back to where we were before schools closed, it may be impossible for students to advance to the next grade. The result of this will be a lost year of education for a generation of students. If online classes can avoid this, they will have been worth it.

You can’t afford not to

Imagine the scenario: the entire school system shuts down, no one graduates, no one advances. What about the four-year-old’s who will be five the following year? How will the system deal with these young students as well as the six-year-olds who are repeating the year? How will the school support students if they are in a class twice the size of an average one? Is there enough teachers, resources, and space?

An equally frightening scenario is that some schools shut down while others do not. What happens if a secondary school decides to shut down, but none or only some of junior schools do not? The social and economic risk will be far too great for the education system to overcome.

You have more tools than you think

There are a number of tools that can be used to support online learning and keep schools on track so that students will be ready to advance at the end of the school year. A couple of examples being familiar online platforms which help maintain communication such as email and instant messaging. Organisations such as Learning Keeps Going and Global Online Academy are also curating archives of free online resources to support schools and communities as they make the transition to online. Thinking comprehensively about the available resources and making strategic decisions on how to utilise them will ensure teachers and students thrive.

Be prepared for the long haul

While the Covid-19 situation developed in China, the length of time schools needed to rely on online education increased drastically. Schools must think long-term.  The current curriculum may require reassessing so it can be easily accessed online. There will be tough choices to make such as to whether learning outcomes will be scaled back or cut completely due to the school’s time and resources. Equally, they will have to determine whether learning outcomes can be exceeded in an online environment.

The possibilities and limitations in an online environment differ from offline. Teachers may find that they are relying more on performance tasks and portfolios than traditional pencil-and-paper exams. It may be worth examining how they make student assessments, as this will provide an indispensable window on student learning and invaluable insight on what adjustments need to be made to teaching.

Plan for hearts, plan for mind

If teachers are new to the online experience, they will likely need to plan lessons with more detail than they have been accustomed to for some time. It may feel like their first year of teaching again.

Part of this planning is clearly communicating to students what is expected of them through tools such as checklists. Developing learning activities that are hands on and minds on, offering multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression is key. To this end, CAST’s UDL framework is an indispensable resource. Teachers’ lesson preparation will communicate the legitimacy of the learning students are doing at home. If they see their teachers invested in the online experience, they are far more likely to invest themselves in the experience, and in doing so, get more out of it.

A classroom environment and synchronous learning is preferable.  Those moments for connection that come so naturally in the classroom may be more challenging in online classrooms. As part of lesson planning, teachers will want to consider activities that support student to student interaction as well as activities that focus on emotional wellness. Beyond this, teachers also need to plan for informal interactions with students, whether through weekly video check-ins, class chat groups, or social forum. The learning students do at school is more than subject knowledge; it is also about learning to live together, especially in these difficult times.  

Do not neglect your network and hardware

Think about both software and hardware. Teachers will need to have computers or tablets which can run software and apps for online teaching, combined with a decent network infrastructure. Without it, the school may risk classes being disrupted by network slowdowns, or poor access to learning materials and resources.

The benefits of having the right hardware and network are twofold. First the time teachers and students spend in the online learning environment will be focused on learning rather than dealing with technical issues, keeping them on track. 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.

  • Continuously assess results

Once learning plans are in place and an online learning system is launched, regular checks will need to be made to ensure the school is delivering what has been promised. Teachers, students, and parents will be making demands that teachers may not have envisioned. Regularly testing the stability of a network enables them to spot and address risks before they become problems, such as network crashing during periods of high traffic.

Regular analysis and evaluation of network security is also critical. We have seen schools negatively impacted by unauthorised users accessing networks or software, which has resulted in the exposure of inappropriate content to students or the hijacking of teachers’ and students’ computers or devices.

User experience is also important for engaging teaching online. How do students, parents, and teachers feel about the online experience? Do they find the platform easy to use? What problems do they encounter? What concerns do they have? Do students feel like they are learning?

Strengthen your IT

In the scramble to get the school online, it is easy to overlook IT needs. For many schools, the technical demands of online learning are far greater than those of offline learning; not only the initial task of getting the system up and running, but also the ongoing demands once classes have been launched. It is helpful to have an honest assessment of the current IT staff’s capabilities to determine whether they are capable of the technical demands the school will face. Make sure that IT and teaching staff are working together both before and after launch, so teachers get the support they need as they teach.

Train your teachers

Some teachers may have online teaching experience, others will not. Time spent on teacher training before and after the launch will ensure that all staff are able to deliver quality education. Key areas are online tools training, how to manage a classroom online, and how to develop and curate activities for online use. Teachers need opportunities to create actual activities and resources that they will use in the classroom as well the chance to conduct mock classes and receive feedback. Coming out of this initial training, teachers should have all the materials they need to teach.

Put people at the core

The foundation for success is not the technology. Great technology can help create the nurturing and supportive environment for student growth and learning online, but it is the people that will make this happen.

The Covid-19 pandemic confronts the world with a monumental challenge. As educators, we have our part to play. We may not be health care professionals on the frontline, but our task is vital. Our efforts can help bring stability and normality to the lives of children and parents and make this crisis easier to endure. We hope that the experiences and insights of Chinese educators who have already been dealing with the challenges you are facing offer you support in your endeavors.

“To help with the continuation of teaching and learning during Covid-19, ClassIn is currently offering free access to its platform to any educational establishment until at least the end of June.  Click here for more information