Lessons Learned from the Massive Shift to Online Learning Due to COVID-19

In the People’s Republic of China, COVID-19 forced a rapid transition to online learning. Photo: Sergey Zolkin
In the People’s Republic of China, COVID-19 forced a rapid transition to online learning. Photo: Sergey Zolkin

By Jeffrey Jian Xu, Sungsup Ra, Brajesh Panth

The surge in online learning in the People’s Republic of China during the coronavirus outbreak highlights the importance of infrastructure, platforms and the preparedness of teachers, students and parents.

The COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly transformed learning and teaching around the world. According to UNESCO, around 1.5 billion students are out of school in over 165 countries affected by the pandemic. In the People’s Republic of China, the government is working at an unprecedented scale and speed with private platform providers to continue classes. At least 260 million students from elementary to high school have signed up for on-line platforms during the epidemic.

What can we learn from their experiences?

An essential requirement for shifting from physical classrooms to online learning is a good internet connection at home. Connectivity is much better in urban areas, but existing internet plans are stretched for households with a shared broadband connection, since parents and children are competing for video calls and live streaming.

Rural areas face different connectivity challenges. Many rely on wireless data connections from a mobile phone in the absence of a landline connection. However, the high cost of data plans makes online learning unavailable to most users.

In response, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a notice on 2 March urging domestic telecom companies to improve network coverage in rural areas and offer discounted data plans to students from low-income households. For rural areas with no Internet connection, measures have been taken to enhance TV networks with educational content.

Information and communication technology and network connectivity should solve the education inequality problem due to increased access. But there is heightened risk of exacerbating the gap between developed and underdeveloped regions. Technological solutions effective in developed regions are gradually making their way to rural regions, but access to such solutions is still very limited.  Solutions need to be restructured to make them more cost-effective for lower-income regions with weak Internet connectivity.

When online learning is required for several hours per day, users prefer a desktop computer or laptop instead of mobile phones or mini-pads due to limited screen sizes and difficulty in simultaneously displaying teachers, content, and classmates.  Also, apps on mobile phones tend to have greater compatibility issues and are not as stable as PCs. Thus, it is not uncommon to find parents and kids "fighting" over the limited number of home computers.  This has led to a surge in online computer sales. 

In the People’s Republic of China, almost all the main platforms encountered system crashes at the initial stages of the outbreak because the number of concurrent online users on the platform increased 10-fold, resulting in system overloads. Thanks to cloud computing, most platforms were able to increase their capacity and stabilize their services after about a week.

  The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a rethink of online learning best practices

Most platforms support Massive Open Online Courses, including recorded class materials and live streaming classes. Initially, most schools uploaded class materials to the platforms. Some provinces applied this universally to schools to reduce the need and cost for each school to do it independently. Subsequently, schools began to move to live streaming their classes.

The combination of recorded and live streaming classes could enable a move towards student-centric learning. This shift has allowed students to preview and self-study recorded video and online materials. They can then join the live streaming classes better prepared with questions and interact with their teachers and classmates.

Digital literacy skills have become critical for teachers to move online and manage their virtual classes, especially through live streaming. Most young teachers learn quickly how to manage live streaming classes. Some older teachers face significant difficulties though, making their lack of digital literacy a major barrier to teaching effectively.

Most teachers, however, have enjoyed the experience of online teaching especially where there are comprehensive capabilities with online live streaming platforms that allow online interactions. The real-time interaction offered by streaming platforms encourages students to participate, ask questions, engage and share their opinions more comfortably. To help students stay engaged, some teachers keep online classes lively by including music, dance or physical education classes during class breaks.

But teachers also struggle with the technical limitations of online platforms, such as the inconvenience of blackboard writing with a computer mouse, and the difficulty replicating the student collaboration of a standard classroom. In response, some platforms are enhancing creative blackboard-writing capabilities and developing the group breakout functions in their online platforms.

Most students are more digitally prepared and comfortable with online learning than expected. One survey conducted in K12 schools in Zhejiang Province shows an 83% “satisfactory” rating of online learning (with 47% “very satisfied”). The survey also shows that students close to college or high school entrance exams want more lecture hours than the present 3-5 hours per day).

Many students have digital proficiencies far surpassing their teachers or parents. Nonetheless, most students expressed strong desires to go back to the old-fashioned classroom. The interactions among students, teachers and the facilities in a traditional classroom setting cannot be replaced by online learning.

The surge in online learning in the People’s Republic of China during the coronavirus outbreak highlights the importance of infrastructure (networks and devices), platforms (stability, interactions and ability to improve), and preparedness of teachers, students and parents. Without the mandatory shift to online learning particularly in public schools, such lessons would not have been learned so quickly.

But this does not make online learning a substitute for face-to-face schooling.  Blended schooling that utilizes online and offline learning through partnerships between public and private sectors could become the new norm—even after the pandemic.