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Higher Education in the Time of Coronavirus - Perspectives of Professors at Peking University

Interview/Text: Nora Wu

As China has battled the COVID-19 pandemic since early January, the higher education industry had to quickly adapt online learning to ensure public health and safety among thousands of students. “Ensuring learning undisrupted when classes are disrupted” has become the objective in the education sector across China. How would this affect higher education? What are the reactions from professors across disciplines? With these questions in mind, we interviewed three professors from Peking University, one of the most prestigious universities in China.

When classes were moving online, professors at Peking Universities were given a variety of choices in deciding which medium to use, such as live lecture, recorded lecture, app-based discussion groups, video channels or others. Three professors we interviewed have all adopted ClassIn as their teaching medium, despite different disciplines and perspectives towards technology and learning.

An Online-Merge-Offline (OMO) Class Using ClassIn at Peking University

Engagement is key, and keep connecting!

Professor Wang Xi teaches Numeric Methods, Financial Engineering and Data Analysis at Peking University. His class ranges from 70–90 students, and the majority of his students are in the master’s or PhD programs.

Q: How has it differed from your expectation after lecturing online?

A: My classes are often very technical, because it involves lots of math and statistics. Usually students can interrupt and arise questions anytime during my class, but with online learning, students tend to be more passive. Then I need to be more intentional on making the class more engaging, and sometimes perhaps even entertaining. I also tell students, “don’t take notes! I will send u the slides. Post something on the shared screen!” , so that I can keep them engaged. Unlike in a classroom, when I asked my students, “do you understand?”, you get a sense by looking at their reaction. With online learning, it is very difficult to tell. My trick is to make jokes when we are learning something very technical, and I sometimes refer back to the joke to make it memorable. It also requires more prep-time compared to lecturing in a physical classroom.

Q: What are the pros and cons of online learning?

A: For mathematical formulas and equations, certain software does not support a hand-writing board — ClassIn offers a great solution on this. With online learning, you are also concerned about how you appear and how knowledge can be delivered on the screen more. The benefits of online learning are that I don’t have to stand up when giving a lecture. It saves time and is flexible with locations.

Q: What would be your advice to other instructors who are adapting online learning in higher education?

A: Don’t lecture something that students can just google or Bing. Try to speak in their languages, educate them the way to think, where is the logic directed at, try to connect with them.

From resisting to embracing: technology in education is inevitable.

Dr. He Shu is an associate professor at the School of Journalism & Communication. In her English News Reading class, there are over 20 Chinese students and 16 foreign students from all over the world. Professor He has never taught a course online before. In fact, she was very reluctant and skeptical about it. “I feared that I wasn’t able to deliver content by using my PowerPoint as well as online newspapers and videos from home and abroad. I was worried about my technical competency to master different online educational tools within one week.”, said Professor He.

Now three weeks after lecturing classes using ClassIn, Professor He shared with us her journey.

Q: How has it differed from your expectation after lecturing online?

A: First of all, you save time on your commute. But also, you had to spend more time on class preparation. Think about it as a television program, you need to make sure every minute is well planned and executed. In a physical classroom, you could walk around or throw questions to let students answer. Now online, you need more preparation for the same quality delivery.

Q: How did you maintain the same quality?

A: Before my lecture, I paid attention to everything from the font of my PowerPoints to my physical appearance, and the online “classroom” design. During my lecture, I asked students to turn on the camera and incorporated class management tools such as answering questions by the timer and leaving comments in the chat room. After my lecture, I will review the classroom records, where I will be able to see how many educational tools I have used, such as blackboard, PowerPoint presentation, online reviews and giving out compliments. Furthermore, I will also check the class reviews provided by students and assign homework and its deadline.

Q: How has the perspective of online teaching changed for you?

A: Now I realize online education provides a platform for continuous learning when face-to-face interaction is impossible during summer/winter breaks, business and international trips or this pandemic. It can also invite diverse and international participation to a classroom discussion. However, a premise of online education is that the Internet speed is smooth.

More importantly, don’t resist the wave of technology. It’s inevitable. Embrace it and learn as much as you can.

Learning Tai Chi Online? Time to bring in your family!

Professor Wang Dongmin is an associate professor at the Department of Physical Education, who is also the director of the Chinese Martial Arts Research Center. She teaches Taiji Quan and Fencing to undergraduate students at Peking University. Both Tai Chi and Fencing are required courses for the undergraduate curriculum.

Q: How has it differed from your expectation after lecturing online?

A: When a physical education class has to be done online, it also implies the separation of physical space between students and the teacher. Lack of equipment, lack of space, limitation for interactions and other factors made teaching very difficult. I tried to solve this by merging online with offline learning. For instance, I shared videos of professional games and explained rules so that students will have a theoretical understanding and engagement online. Then I encouraged students to apply what they learned offline. We have initiated daily check-in, weekly office hours and one-on-one Q&A sessions. In addition, we also encouraged parents to be involved and practice with students if they will. It helps to solve the absence of a partner in a physical classroom and also promotes better welling and connections within the family.

Q: What are the pros and cons of online learning?

A: There are lots of resources available online. It makes learning more convenient and flexible. However, with physical education, online learning makes it difficult to monitor students’ progress and receive feedback. For some physical exercises, the absence of a practice partner would affect the overall experience.

Q: What would be your advice to other instructors who are adapting online learning in higher education?

A: From the perspective of physical education, it’s better to merge online with offline for effective outcomes. It’s also important to encourage students to be more proactive, software functions such as group discussion and one-on-one competition to stimulate actions in class.

Lastly, we asked all professors their final thoughts on this pandemic as a higher education professional. They talked about the importance of critical thinking when information is exploding; the transformative power of higher education that goes beyond knowledge and skills; the importance of human relationships and the family time they are spending together. While we know this fight is not over, we are in this together.

We thank Professor Dongmin Wang, Professor He Shu and Professor Xi Wang for their time.

(This piece is written by Nora Wu. For further inquiry, please contact )

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*ClassIn is a leading edtech company that provides a one-stop solution for digital learning.

ClassIn software enables interactive classrooms, in-school social app, lesson scheduling, homework management, and school management dashboard, which start free and scale up to meet our customers' needs at any stage of teaching. Today, thousands of schools and institutions around the world benefit from ClassIn's powerful and easy-to-use tools to teach online and offline.

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