As you’re no doubt aware, the world is currently in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic.
In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, China has instituted a lockdown which has delayed the start of the school semester.
It was due to have started in early February, after Chinese New Year.
In order to minimize the impact of the lockdown on students’ education, my university decided to start teaching online classes from February 24.
So, what has it been like teaching online to hundreds of postgraduate students in China?
This blog deals with some of the main issues I’ve encountered.
Usually, teachers teach in a bricks-and-mortar classroom.
When I’m teaching, I’d have to get changed and walk to my classroom. The walk alone would take at least 15 minutes.
Teaching online is much more convenient. All I have to do is to switch on my laptop.
This has resulted in my being able to spend more time in bed in the morning.
Teaching online is easy - just turn on your laptop!
Due to the size of my class (50+ students), using video-conferencing for teaching online hasn’t been very practical.
On the other hand, if the students can’t see me, that means I don’t have to dress up. I can teach in my pajamas if I want to!
Classroom management issues
When teaching online, classroom management presents a unique set of problems.
Since I can’t see all my students, I have no way of knowing whether they’re actually present.
They could log on to their computers and then go away and I’d never know.
Students learning English in China are known to do Chinese homework, play with their phones or even sleep in class.
Classroom management issues aren't confined to the physical classroom.
When teaching online, it’s difficult, if not impossible to know whether the students are paying attention.
The range of teaching methods available is limited
When I was a trainee teacher, I was told that there were three types of teaching methods – visual, audio and kinesthetic.
When teaching online, it’s not possible to bring realia into the classroom and neither is it possible to use any method which involves getting the students up and moving around.
Teaching online can be challenging with fewer teaching methods available.
Since my students have to complete a project as part of my course, I decided to use student-led learning as my main teaching method.
I divide my class into groups and give each group a topic to research and present to their classmates.
After each presentation, I give the students practice in answering sample exam questions.
Student enthusiasm and participation
In my experience, Chinese students tend to be quite shy and introverted.
Many of them are reluctant to answer questions in class for fear of making a mistake and losing face.
Very surprisingly, I’ve found that my students are far more enthusiastic when taught online than in a physical classroom.
Students may be more enthusiastic online than in the classroom.
Whenever I ask a question, I get so many responses that I’ve had to stop the students and remind them that listening is also important.
My guess is that the students may be thinking that making a mistake online is no big deal since nobody can physically see them so that’s why they’re more eager to speak up.
In a bricks-and-mortar classroom, students take their lessons for granted.
They may even resent having to attend the “poxy foreign teacher’s oral English class” when they already have more than enough lessons with Chinese teachers to keep them busy.
Very surprisingly, I’ve found that my students are much more appreciative when taught online.
When I dismiss the class, many students write or say “goodbye”, “see you” and even “thank you”. In a normal class, they would just walk out without saying anything.
The coronavirus outbreak has taught all of us who have been caught up in it never to take anything for granted again.
Those who have experienced the fear, worry and anxiety of this pandemic feel lucky to have got out of it alive when thousands of other people have become very sick or even died.
While many have argued that the virtual classroom is more convenient as lessons can take place anywhere and at any time, it does have one major drawback – a dependence on a reliable internet connection.
If there was an internet outage or a power failure, online classes would have to be cancelled.
My department director suggested that I use an app called 腾讯会议 or “Tencent Meeting” for my online classes.
I found this software impossible to use since everything was in Mandarin so I opted to use WeChat instead.
Luckily my China VPN is still working and I can keep using websites like Google and YouTube for lesson planning.
A VPN is needed to access Western websites, like Google, to help with lesson planning.
Departmental staff meetings
Whenever we used to have a teachers’ meeting, this would normally be held either in the university conference room or our department director’s office.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak and requirements of social distancing, we’re now having teachers’ meetings online via video-conferencing.
Teaching online is a lonely existence
When teaching in a bricks-and-mortar classroom, usually I would have other colleagues teaching in adjacent classrooms at the same time.
During the 10-minute break in between periods, we could congregate and have a chat.
Or if we preferred, we could also stay in the classroom and chat with the students.
You can chat with other teachers during breaks, but not online.
Working from our apartments, we’re all alone and have nobody to chat with.
When teaching online, I don’t have any fellow teachers to chat with during the break between periods.
I was lucky. I decided to stay put in China so I don’t have to worry about teaching online from another time zone.
One of my fellow foreign teachers decided to go to France for her winter break. Unable to return to China, she now has to work very unsocial hours.
France is six hours behind China so she needs to be up at 2am to teach an 8am class in China or 4am to teach the 10am class.
The coronavirus outbreak has presented the teaching profession with a unique set of challenges and opportunities, particularly in China.
It has certainly made 2020 a year to remember!
Have you had any experience teaching online? What has your experience been like?