Chinese higher education institutions are ahead of the rest of the world in adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic, testing new approaches and technologies to identify the best ways to help their students. AdvanceHE welcomed staff and students to a live webinar earlier this week to share these experiences and lessons learned. This “Lessons from China” webinar was broadcast to over 400 hundred global participants using the Zoom platform.
The conversation started with some tips on motivation: helping others and sharing how to succeed can be a source of encouragement; along with staying patient and focused on the work.
The range of technologies employed was next on the agenda. The experience was described as “a technology experiment” that employs a broad swathe of learning resources and digital tools. Social media is a useful backup facility if core teaching systems are having difficulty. Each platform has its own strengths, but students can become confused when switching between platforms. So it’s best to stick to one or two core platforms. At Bristol, we may consider how this advice plays out within Schools and especially within programmes that run across Schools, such as our Innovation degrees.
The experts highlighted the need to ensure that students understand how to use the selected online platforms by providing dedicated tutorials. This extends to individual support that falls outside normal timetabled hours. It was not clear how these additional hours were balanced against academics’ overall workload, so this is something that should be highlighted with one’s line manager and School for review.
The panel noted that getting continuous feedback from students ensured that this new way of learning was effective, and any issues could be remedied quickly.
Students were observed to communicate together effectively on social media platforms. They also used these platforms to collaborate on social good projects, such as a celebration video in support of those in Wuhan. While outside the formal curriculum, this activity gave them a sense of belonging within the cohort.
Learning materials are accessed differently in different regions of the world. In China, there was a need to open up access to online learning resources, using VPNs (virtual private networks), direct provision of e-text books and PowerPoints, and additional source materials. Some academics even mailed books to students’ homes, especially when those students had limited internet.
Teacher-student relationships changed as a result of this situation. Student panellists noted that when the academic’s camera was turned off, they felt more disconnected. However, this was typically done to reduce bandwidth issues for those with limited internet. Students also noted that they were aware of the stress the academics were under and were reticent to ask questions or make additional demands on their teachers. One reflected how he felt the experience made him a better, more independent learner, more able to study by himself. However, students also noted that at the start of a new term two areas were negatively affected: (1) they were unable to make new friends easily and (2) newly-assigned teachers were unable to forge a bond with their students. While making friends became more challenging, the change in the way students interacted also led some to develop more intimate relationships.
For subjects that require practical labs, a number of new techniques were employed. At one institution, a pre-existing three-year VR platform project allowed basic experiments to be completed online covering almost every discipline that uses practical labs. These labs are not recordable however, and difficult to include in student reports. Another approach required students to use their mobile phones to take photos and video. The panellists recommended conducting a survey in the first instance to see what tools students have ready access to, what physical space they have (such as a garden), and that can help inform what tasks they can complete. For some subjects, such as Chemistry, those students may need to return to campus earlier than others and complete more paper reading and writing assessments in the meantime.
The question of how to track or understand engagement on online platforms was addressed by using interactive activities, such as yes/no questions during live sessions. Most platforms also provide analytical tools that can help inform participation queries.
Patience was identified as “our most powerful weapon” wherein both staff and students should aim to do their best to participate, and use this as an opportunity to explore existing online learning opportunities like free online courses. At Bristol, several such courses are available via the FutureLearn platform, see https://www.bristol.ac.uk/bristol-futures/open-online-courses/.
The panellists spoke of their hopes and expectations for the future. In China, the focus is on employment, distribution channels, and how the government can provide more opportunities. The student panellists reflected that they cherish the opportunity to study even more and look ahead to when they graduate and can better serve the community. Career planning sessions and counselling services were expanded by their institutions and were gratefully received by students.
Finally, the session looked to assessment. The biggest challenge is how to conduct exams. For some disciplines this was considered straightforward, such as live face to face oral exams for language programmes. However, for physics, medicine and other subjects, decisions are still in flux as to how to assess. A major concern is about equality. When staff and students do not have reliable fast internet, and not every home has a laptop, the panelists reflected that a “no detriment” approach should be taken, and no student should feel left behind. Assessment regulations were freed up to allow a greater degree of assessment flexibility. For example, exams could be cancelled, assessments based on weekly assignments and quizzes could be used for grading, and individual professors would decide what is best for their cohort. Bristol has taken a similar approach by introducing a “no detriment” policy to our students, creating a safety net that will ensure no student is disadvantaged by the current crisis.
Staff can find further support on assessment here: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/digital-education/guides/coronavirus/assessment/.
Further guidance on online teaching is available here: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/digital-education/guides/coronavirus/.
As always, we welcome questions and requests for support, and we encourage you to share any good practice with us!
Dr. Ash Tierney, BILT Lecturer.