“The downstairs neighbor is banging on my classmate’s door, complaining about her jumping in the apartment and making the baby cry.”
“My mom is going crazy. She needs to make slippers for my little brother as they follow the livestreamed art class.”
Since Chinese authorities closed schools to control the spread of coronavirus, the Ministry of Education has called for students to learn at home. On Feb. 17, officials launched the National Public Service Platform for Educational Resources (also known as “national cloud classroom”), a collection of online resources compiled by education authorities across the country.
Over the past few weeks, educators, students and parents have taken to social media to share their experiences with this abrupt move to online learning. For the most part, lessons for subjects that have been traditionally taught via blackboards and Powerpoint presentations—like math and reading—could still be delivered effectively using online tools.
But what about hands-on subjects like art, music and PE that often require equipment, movement and interaction?
Improvising Art and Music Classes Online
A second grader’s drawing for online art class. (Source: Zeng)
On the evening of Feb. 19, Zeng, an art teacher at a primary school in the northeastern city of Qingdao, started a livestream art class via DingTalk, a communication app. The day’s lesson topic: What would you do if you were a giant?
“It’s my first time teaching online,” she says. “Facing over 200 students and parents from eight classes on the screen, I was a little bit nervous so I don’t think my teaching was very effective.”
Because schools and teachers are barred from asking students to submit assignments physically, Zeng instead received photos of drawings sent by parents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of them addressed the health situation. “My students have granted the medical workers the superpower to battle coronavirus. That’s so brilliant!”
During the class, she guided students to look for role models. “They saw the hospital staff who are fighting to stop the spread of the disease as heroes.” Proud of her students’ artistic creativity, Zeng shared their drawings everyday via her Weibo account.
Making hand-drawn posters has been a core part of art classes across the country. Xiong Fanyan, who oversees instructional affairs at a middle school in Beijing, has recorded a short tutorial video and uploaded it to Tencent Video for his students to watch. “They can then take a picture of their posters and upload them to our school’s online education platform, and normally we can receive almost ten pictures a day,” he says.
Other art classes can test parents as much as students, as is the case for Zoe, a college senior who lives in Luoyang, in central China. She has a younger brother in second grade, and says “my mom is going crazy. She needs to make slippers for my little brother as they follow the livestreamed art class.”
According to Zoe, the live courses that her brother is required to watch were developed by the provincial department of education and its radio and television office. But due to a lack of clear communication, many students and families felt unprepared. “We didn’t know in advance what tools and materials were needed, making us feel disorganized when the class began.”
For music classes, Xiong says teachers have assigned song lyrics for individual students to sing. They then record the video and send it back to the teachers, who edit the clips and upload the final video onto the school’s online education platform.
As a music teacher at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, Sun Xiaoxi has recorded videos for her students to watch remotely. “It’s hard to teach online through live-streaming,” she says. “Many teachers have been trapped outside Wuhan due to the sudden lockdown of the city, and they may not have instruments at home such as the piano, as well as access to stable internet connection.”
Sun has found materials online about music and cut them into 20-minute videos for her students. “We also select some simple songs around the theme of combating the virus, and appreciate them together with our students.”
Physical Education, Physical Toll
Despite classes being moved online, school officials still reiterated the importance of having students do one hour of exercise every day, a decree issued by the central government in 2016.
To comply, Xiong, the Beijing instructor, says his colleagues have “introduced a mini-program on WeChat which provides professional training videos for students to watch. The teachers also demonstrated exercises and advice for students doing them” on the platform, he adds. During the online class, students follow along with the videos, and record themselves doing the exercises and upload the clips to the school.
Screenshot from WeChat about complaint over disturbances from online PE class. (Source: Weibo)
Taking PE online has led to some odd—and disruptive—situations. The screenshot above has been shared widely across the internet, stirring heated debate over the effectiveness of “online physical education” during the countywide school lockdown.
Live-streamed videos of teachers climbing and doing push-ups have led to “extremely intense online PE class” becoming one of the most-searched keywords on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent to Twitter). By Feb. 27, the topic had amassed 170 million views and 24,000 discussions.
Huamu, a sophomore from a university in the northeastern city of Jinan, has been actively sharing her experiences online. “Another PE class tomorrow afternoon... my leg is still aching after jumping for just a few minutes last week,” she posted on her Weibo account.
Currently, her PE classes consist of exercises that focus on stretching and increasing lung capacity. Some activities can be bothersome to others. “The downstairs neighbor is banging on my classmate’s door, complaining about her jumping in the apartment and making the baby cry,” she says.
During the 90-minute class, Huamu says she and her classmates are required to send short videos every half an hour for an attendance check. “At the beginning, the teacher didn’t state his requirements clearly, so some of my classmates just lay in bed after sending two videos.” She added that they also usually just shoot one video, and cut it into three segments to send every 30 minutes to fulfill the check-in requirement.
Tang, a sophomore studying at a university in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, showed us the exercises of her PE class that was posted on DingTalk last week. She says her class is also required to do eye exercises as well, to protect against vision loss. Even more, they have to record and submit them. “My classmates are all feeling reluctant about this,” she shares.
Screenshot of exercises for online PE class. (Source: Tang)
Most students, teachers and parents we talked to said that online education posed challenges, especially since a core part of teaching and learning involves in-person interactions. The challenges are compounded in communities where there the internet connections are unstable, making it difficult for students to access online resources.
“In these aspects, teaching PE, art and music faces the same predicament as traditional subjects,” says Sun, the teacher in Wuhan. Online, teachers cannot monitor all their students; instead, that pressure is spread across parents.
“Participation from parents is a major factor in the effectiveness of teaching,” she notes. But “some students live with grandparents. It’s hard for the elders to help and guide students along.”
In Wuhan, Sun says that the families of some of her colleagues and students have been infected by the coronavirus. “Amid such a gloomy atmosphere, people are unwilling to cope with the arrangement of online education,” she points out. “But listening to music can exert a relaxing and soothing effect on our minds and bodies, especially at this moment.”
Some names in this article are pseudonyms at the request of the interviewees.