How China’s Schools Are Getting Through COVID-19

Apr 21, 2020

The novel coronavirus swept across China around January 20, with the Chinese New Year celebration underway. By late March, as U.S. schools were just beginning to shut down, Chinese schools had already been closed for about 10 weeks—and some were beginning to reopen.

The education sector was squarely in the middle of China’s fight against COVID and the after effects continue to be felt: In early April, the government announced it would delay important exams, including the gaokao, the university entrance exam in China.

In a webinar recently hosted by EdSurge, with support from school networking platform ClassIn, Chinese school leaders shared their insights and lessons learned. Based on that dialogue, as well as other research (including this guide developed by Beijing Normal University and UNESCO), we’ve pulled together some early lessons learned from China’s experience.

Because of the very close relationship between the Chinese government and industry, China took some unique actions. Even so, here are some observations about what Chinese educators discovered as they tried to keep learning going remotely.

1. The Government’s Role: Decisive, Sweeping Policy Changes

Few countries have central governments that literally call the shots for the private sector. China does. Since January, officials made many big decisions about when schools and education companies would open or close, and what resources were available to support learning.

China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) issued school closure policies for the entire country between January 20 and February 8, affecting China’s 278 million students across primary and postsecondary grades. Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, was locked down on January 23. Tutoring centers and daycares closed. The central government suggested K-12 and higher-ed delay starting the new semester and postpone any regional and national exams.

But along with shutting down bricks and mortar schools, China also beefed up two existing virtual ones. One platform, Empower Learning, was built by the government, in collaboration with China’s seven largest edtech companies, offering digital K-12 curriculum. The platform provides live streaming courses that students can tap into from their phone or computer at home. The MOE also created its own site: Educloud. This site features videos, teaching plans and communities of the best teachers’ lessons recorded over the past eight years.

Although both platforms existed before the COVID crisis to provide free online learning resources to students, they added scheduling tools to help educators select and share materials with students and widely circulated them to the public once the schools closed.

After February 8, the MOE worked with provincial education departments to pick dates for reopening schools. Although not all schools opened at the same time, the government sent clear signals about changes. In addition, in late March, the MOE announced it would delay the university entrance exam, the gaokao, for a month.

2. Stop Teaching New Content

Not all students either can—or will—show up for online classes. And especially in remote China, where access to bandwidth and even to computing devices is uneven. Worried about students who are unable to access digital content, the MOE announced on Feb. 4 that educators were prohibited from introducing new curriculum until the new semester started.

The Ministry did encourage educators to use online content concerning personal well-being, such as mental health and entertainment resources. Xiaohong Yang, an elementary school administrator at Beijing, shared that only online mental health courses were mandatory for elementary school students in Chaoyang district in Beijing. In addition, in-home physical education courses were strongly promoted by schools and teachers. Students and parents had leeway to take classes in other subjects from their school or edtech providers.

Changes have been coming swiftly: On March 31, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education (a regional branch of MOE), announced that elementary and middle schools would start a new curriculum online on April 13. Most provinces are likely to reopen schools on April 27 for students in grades 9 and 12 who are taking entrance exams. And the MOE announced that college campuses will reopen in September.

3. Reduce Online Class Time

Research says that spending hours in front of screens is not helpful for students of any age. As a result, the MOE suggested cutting back on screen time. The Department of Education of Guangdong province went even further, releasing detailed guidance limiting each online class to 20 minutes. Smaller chunks of screen time, paired with “off-screen” activities, can improve students’ attention span and reduce screen-time fatigue.

Synchronous online classes require a lot of concentration and so can easily tire students, noted Dr. Wenge Guo, an associate professor of educational technology at Peking University. “We need to cut the content and arrange many interactive activities between the teacher and the student, and among students,” she said. Research shows that online sessions between 15 to 30 minutes are most effective, she added. Even graduate students need breaks, say, every 20 minutes during an online lecture.

4. Supporting Teachers

Key to getting programs online was incredible adaptability and creativity of educators, noted co-principal, Aaron Lennon, co-principal of Yew Wah International Education School of Guangzhou. His school took extra steps to support collaboration. Teachers worked in teams to open an online learning platform in about a week, Lennons said, during the EdSurge webinar. Non-academic staff and administrators created timetables, registered students, organized online class lists, developed manuals and trained the staff online. And as some staff emerged as “super users,” Yew Wah set up online chats through WeChat (which is like WhatsApp) so that teachers could help each other, sharing ideas, tips and answering questions.

Online learning can effectively demonstrate the principles of 21st century learning, said Michael Epstein, the principal of Nova Academy in Beijing and an executive with ClassIn. “Students see teachers employ collaborative thinking and habits of mind. There are authentic opportunities for demonstrating perseverance, grit and how to solve problems together.”

5. Communicate with Parents

Online learning gives parents a window into the classroom. And so letting them share their impressions is also important. “We surveyed all our parents after 10 days of elearning,” Lennon said, and staff followed up with weekly phone calls. “They feel isolated, too,” he added.

Some parents even offered helpful ideas. In response to their feedback, Yew Wah shortened screen time for younger students, sometimes offering only 10 minutes of online activities, followed by 20 minutes of offline work. Another parent suggested whether teachers could design homework that involved housework, as part of physical education. So the school invited parents to send videos of themselves doing PE exercises with their students. “The parents love this,” Lennon added.

6. Edtech Rising

Large technology companies have capitalized on the crisis by quickly developing new online educational tools to support teachers and students.

Dingding, an enterprise communication software developed by Alibaba, quickly launched “Future School,” an online learning platform for schools, which became widely used in schools for live streaming classes. Tencent launched the Tencent Meeting software, which also supports live streaming sessions. Because of their brand-name recognition and stability of their servers, such services launched saw quick adoption in schools.

Guoqing Wang, a middle school teacher in Beijing, said that his teachers tested multiple platforms and decided on Tencent Meeting because of the easy interface and stability. He also shared that Tencent moved servers normally reserved for its gaming business to support online classrooms.

The market is rewarding the first movers: On January 24, publicly traded Youdao provided free accounts for students in Wuhan. By February 10, its stock price had risen almost 40 percent to a 12-month high. (It has since settled in at a 20 percent premium over its January pricing). Similarly 51Talk, an English online tutoring platform listed on NYSE, predicted a 40 percent increase in revenue for the first quarter, and has seen its stock price more than double since the beginning of the year. Other edtech companies are also witnessing similar boosts.

7. Students Push Back

Chinese students have also pushed back against excessive online learning. In March, they began to turn against DingDing, the online learning and communication platform. For example, they wrote: “Thanks to Dingding’s efforts, I have homework everyday.” Many gave Dingding 1-star ratings on the app store, effectively knocking the application out of sight.

Online classes can model how to behave in an online pro-social community, creating “intentional communities” that give students real-life examples of how to get along online, noted Epstein, the principal of Nova Academy in Beijing. At the same time, paying close attention to the social and emotional needs of students, teachers and families is critical to building an environment that supports learning.

A final tip from researchers at Beijing Normal University: “Share your inner thoughts with your children. Although sharing can’t solve the problem, it can make them feel trust and love.”


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