China's e-learning revolution in the time of coronavirus
By Suvam Pal

With China leaving no stone unturned to combat COVID-19, the country's vast and dynamic school education system has gone online. China's nationwide coronavirus quarantine measurements saw millions of school children being confined to their respective homes for over a month as schools embrace e-learning to cater to their needs.

While praising the massive e-learning exercise being carried in the world's most populous country, Kamal Dhuper, China head of Indian IT giant NIIT, said, "It's been really commendable."

"I must say that China has quite effectively showcased the real use of technology and infrastructure to cope with the adverse situation. I must applaud the way they have used SMAC (an acronym for social, mobile, analytics and cloud) integration to bolster e-learning," Dhuper said.

Innovative ways to bolster e-learning

Incidentally, China also boasts of the world's largest online population, with around 840 million using the internet. 

"In normal times, people don't look at these things in their way of life, and people prefer face to face. But given all that is happening, you are seeing a sea change, and in the past few weeks, our users on online platforms increased manifold, at least six times. I think it's a good thing, as it's a resource that can be used as an important mode of learning using online platforms," Shanghai-based Dhuper added.

He has been at the helm of his company's decade-old operations in China and has stitched together numerous educational partnerships with a large number of Chinese academic institutions.

However, to break the monotony and overcome the challenges of long-distance teaching, different school authorities have adopted various alternative and innovative forms of education.

"The coronavirus has forced us to be more innovative and resilient teachers," said Tanushankar Chakraborty, an educator at the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB). "In a blended or on online learning platform, we offer the students the opportunity to challenge the status quo, which forces them to be more disciplined and self-managed individuals, preparing them for the uncertain world of the 21st century."

China's burgeoning start-up ecosystem, too, joined the e-learning revolution and has been playing a pivotal role. Beijing-based Axius Software has jumped onto this bandwagon and has already contacted a slew of educational institutions to devise effective e-learning strategies and develop interactive platforms. The company's co-founder Jayanta Nandy said they are digitally transforming the communication ecosystem for a leading international school in Shunyi District of Beijing. 

"This will help different stakeholders of the school, be it teachers or parents or anyone else associated with the school, to stay closely connected with each other and will serve as a one-stop platform for effective connectivity anytime, anywhere," Nandy said.

Evolution of alternative educational approaches

China's education sector wasn't prepared for the disruptions and repercussions of Covid-19, but when push came to shove, they immediately reworked the syllabus to adapt to e-learning for every course.

"In the first few weeks, our focus was on how to offer our curriculum online and then on learning about the best technological tools to utilize. Once we settled in, we shifted our focus to maintaining strong student-teacher connections in an online environment. During that period, teachers experimented with different ways to incorporate more face-to-face interactions both academically and socially," Melanie Vrba, high school principal of the WAB said.

"After six weeks of online learning, we are turning our focus to how best to assess student skills, knowledge and achievement while working online. In all, our community has shown amazing dedication, creativity and ingenuity, caring and a 'work hard, work together spirit'. I know whatever happens next, we will make it work for our students.”

However, it was an equally tough task for the schools to keep the age-old proverb  "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" in mind while conceiving their e-learning strategies.

"Our P.E. staff are doing an excellent job of encouraging active engagement and lifelong physical activity through an effective online learning platform that includes a variety of interesting activities. Our students have responded very positively, showing their desire to improve their personal health and well-being during these challenging days that require a high level of resilience by all," Douglas K. Prescott, head of school and superintendent of the Canadian International School of Beijing (CISB) told CGTN.

The CISB physical and health education (PHE) team has been treating the prolonged campus lockdown like an obstacle course from one of their classes. 

"Despite their location, our students have continued to remain active over the last few weeks through their online learning tasks in the Middle Years Programme (MYP) PHE. Students from grades six to 10 have been tasked with activities, such as following assigned workouts, creating workouts that are specific to their units, creating personal fitness programs and creating dances," said Larissa Young, head of the PHE department.

Prioritizing mental health through e-learning

It has been a major challenge for the authorities to compensate for the lost time due to the delay in reopening their respective schools following the coronavirus outbreak, but they are also looking for ways to keep the virus-confined students in good humor.

The Learning Frontier (LF) is a multidisciplinary therapy center in Beijing that provides support services to children, families and international schools in the Chinese capital with the help of specialists, who are primarily from the areas of occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, applied behavior analysis, mental health counseling, and educational psychology.

"During this COVID-19 epidemic situation, the health and safety of our clients and staff are our priority, and therefore, we have suspended our center-based and school-based services for the time being. To maintain consistency, we have tried out different creative skills to move some of our consultation and therapy services to the online platform. Therapists are proactively reaching out to their respective clients by checking on their progress, concerns and share activities and strategies with parents to practice with their children at home," said Dr Shu Peng, director of the LF.

Like most of the international schools and educational institutions across China, the LF also works almost round the clock in different time zones, as their staff, educators and students' families all over the world due to travel restrictions and quarantine procedures. But they too have pulled out all stops to ensure a smooth communication channel.

"The most effective way to connect with kids is through their parents. During this time, online activities become more fun and meaningful if both parents and students can try to explore and enjoy them together. We encourage them to practice interactive activities to facilitate essential social skills while still working on their targeted goals. Therapists will also continue to share strategies to support clients and parents through online communication until the center reopens," Shu said.

Cover image: A file photo from VCG.