How has the coronavirus impacted the classroom? On the frontlines with Dr. Jin Chi of Beijing Normal University

ZHENGZHOU, CHINA.- Physics teacher Zhao Chuanliang gives an online tuition for students at a local high school in Zhengzhou, capital of central China's Henan Province, Feb. 2, 2020. As schools across the country are required to postpone the opening of the spring semester, online tuition has been promoted as an effective method.

The spread of a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) has been on the forefront of everyone’s minds since its appearance in Wuhan, China in December 2019. In the weeks following, individuals worldwide have watched anxiously as the number of those affected has steadily increased by the day, with more than 70,000 infections and more than 2,000 dead. Despite nearly hourly media coverage of this public health crisis, one area hasn’t received as much attention as it should: the outbreak’s impact on education. 

In China, schools have closed indefinitely, putting the education of the country’s youth into question for the immediate future. Despite the evident difficulties in resuming studies given the government-mandated quarantine, technology and online learning have taken on new importance for student learning. National response has been rapid: A national online learning platform launched, with the goal of reaching the over 180 million primary and secondary-aged students suddenly unable to attend school. Additionally, more than 20 online curriculum platforms and 24,000 courses for higher education institutions became available within weeks of the initial cases.

I recently spoke with Jin Chi, 2018 Echidna Global Scholar and professor at Beijing Normal University specializing in education and child development, about how the virus has impacted her research and education in China as a whole. As of today, it has been four weeks since Jin has left her apartment.

Q: The coronavirus has disrupted education across much of the country. Can you describe the situation around you?

A huge challenge is that COVID-19 is highly contagious, so teachers cannot meet with students, and parents are caring for kids at home. In Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Guangdong, it is estimated that classrooms will be formally closed for the next few weeks, and all private after-school tutoring has been banned. Libraries, universities, schools, and education companies in China have begun using digital resources, and most can be accessed for free during this unique time. But the popular use of these information communication technologies (ICTs) and the available open digital resources do not necessarily make learning happen.

Q: Currently, the country is fully engaged with battling the coronavirus.  Can you tell us how that has impacted you and your work to date?

So far, I have stayed in my apartment in Beijing for four weeks. To get our food, either my husband or I go out and buy enough for two weeks for my family and my parents’ family, and drop the food at their door. We understand that staying at home is critical not only for our own sake, but for those around us, as well as the medical workers jeopardizing their lives in this battle against COVID-19.

My regular work has been affected, as I have an ongoing international comparative research project in Wuhan, which I was last able to visit in November. The project involves collecting data in rural and urban schools onsite, and one of the research sites is nearby where early cases of the virus were identified. Luckily, the research team members and participants working on my team are safe. As most team members live in the cities near Wuhan, they haven’t left their homes at all for more than a month. In the hopes of resuming research, I’m going to apply for an extension of my contract, though I can’t be sure about the timeline for the next stage.

I’ve been relying on ICTs for many purposes. Aside from getting messages about COVID-19 from my WeChat friend circles and official accounts, I use my cell phone to provide my on-time location for health reports to my university every morning and work in several WeChat working groups with my colleagues. At present, I’m busy exploring how to provide professional support for teachers to enhance ICT competency for quality teaching and learning to handle these kinds of risks in education.

Q: Can you tell us more about schools in China trying to restore education through online learning?

Recently, there’s been a boom of online education in the country, with big online education platforms becoming crowded with users. The ministry of education in China has promoted “stop classes without stopping learning.” Schools, universities, and local education departments are providing education resources and learning support for students, though online learning is considered a temporary alternative. Some teachers are growing stressed dealing with the challenges of online teaching, including the lack of face-to-face interaction and sometimes unreliable technology.

Q: It has just been a few weeks so far with online learning. Can you tell us what is working well and what are the main challenges?

Given that teachers and students cannot meet in person, the advantage of online learning is clear. Teachers have formed groups to learn best practices from each other, consult with technical staff, and master different kinds of online teaching platforms. In the future, there is a need to better prepare teachers with ICT competency in advance, to ensure online teaching and learning can continue in another emergency.

To help bolster teachers’ ICT competency, I’ve been working with my colleagues at the Center for Teacher Education Research at my university to provide a one-stop online teaching and learning support platform. It will provide teachers with the technical information for ICT tools and platforms, general guideline for online teaching, practical education resources, and other support, including feedback for teachers’ questions and psychological support.

During this short period of time, the challenges have been twofold. First, online platforms should include multiple options for meeting practical teaching needs, such as synchronized video and voice for group learning and classroom interactions. However, in poorer or more rural areas, this has been limited by the technological facilities or even the cost of electricity.

Second, we need to rethink how education can be effective for students’ overall cognitive and noncognitive development (the educational goal in China) with e-learning. There are challenges in teachers interacting with students through online education, as only a few teachers take students’ feelings and interests into account.