COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to try out online HE

Several academic weeks have passed since the coronavirus epidemic first prevented college students from studying on campus across China and Tsinghua University, rather than wait for the epidemic to end, decided to shift all its courses online.

In what is the first time in history that an elite, traditional, campus-based university has moved classes totally online, the faculty members deliver their lectures or teaching through an online learning platform – the Rain Classroom – and video conference platforms and have tried out many different technologies to enable better interaction with students.

So far the entire online teaching programme has gone smoothly, thanks to the enormous efforts of every stakeholder, ie, the university leadership, faculty members, staff and students.

Such an unusual natural experiment gives education researchers a great opportunity to collect evidence and address important questions that have not been answered before. Can online education change the education paradigm?

The key feature of Tsinghua’s move is that it is taking place in China, where online education is not formalised. Now that online technology can support most education, why haven’t people in traditional universities tried to teach totally online before?

The authorities have had concerns about online technologies and education, such as the robustness of the technology and the potential negative impact on education quality. Although a lot of research has been done to address these concerns, people still prefer being taught in the traditional manner to which they are accustomed.

The recent unique online education shock provides a great opportunity for every member of faculty and every student to experience online teaching and learning in their formal courses. Whether online education can reform university education, and what it may mean for education in the future, will depend on people’s experience of it and their views on it.

The student experience

Students’ learning experiences and learning outcomes are among the most important factors in evaluating online education quality. According to several surveys conducted by different colleges in Tsinghua, students have reported very positive learning experiences.

Around 40% to 55% of students feel that online teaching and traditional face-to-face teaching are equivalent in terms of general teaching quality. Around 15% to 30% of students reported that synchronous online learning is better than traditional learning. Around 30% of students thought that traditional learning outperforms live online learning.

The most helpful component of synchronous online learning includes reviewing video or audio tapes recorded by online learning platforms together with slides and interactions with instructors through online tools such as quizzes, danmaku (real-time, horizontal, text-based display of commentary using subtitles) or virtual interactions in video conference rooms.

Students also report a positive online experience in terms of enjoying a better view of information on their laptop rather than watching a screen in the classroom, not being disturbed by other students around them, feeling more relaxed, etc.

Although some said that they felt it was easier to focus during live online learning, others reported that they experienced difficulty focusing. Internet speed and the robustness of software are the two key factors which affect enjoyable learning.

Nevertheless, it remains too early to determine the quality of learning outcomes. Students with learning difficulties might be missed because teachers are unable to see them, but this is always a challenging issue, even in face-to-face teaching.

The views of faculty

Many faculty found themselves very excited about participating in synchronous online teaching after becoming familiar with various online tools. Some senior faculty also found the online teaching experience was not as bad as they had imagined, even in highly interactive small classes.

Although it clearly takes a lot of work to adjust course design to suit the new context and a lot of time was spent exploring online technology, many faculty members have a strong motivation to update their course material to make it more accessible to both colleagues and the public.

Learning analytics-based course design should help to facilitate teaching and learning, but it seems like teachers have not yet made full use of it for many reasons. Course assessment, especially closed book tests, might be difficult to shift online. Courses which rely heavily on lab experiments are also difficult to deliver online, although some courses can use simulation systems.

The impact on university administration

University administration systems and governance structures may be the most obvious ones to benefit from online education and online office technologies. Taking advantage of the consensus about online education, the administration system, including routine meetings and administrative procedures, can all go online and may become more efficient and easier.

The university may need to provide more professional student support and continuous professional development support for teachers to help them adopt new administrative arrangements. Regarding education, there remains little quality assurance in online learning. University leaders should also be aware of the digital divide and education equity issues regarding disadvantaged students.

Social benefits

What is the benefit and cost for society when elite universities adopt a totally online education system? Breaking the boundary between elite universities and society might be the most significant benefit of online education. Tsinghua offered clone courses to Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) at Wuhan and students from HUST were able to enjoy the live courses from Tsinghua at home.

More quality education resources will be easier to produce, improving higher education equity for the entire society. Lifelong education of citizens will also benefit. However, a good online learning scheme is hugely expensive when it comes to installing online systems and the faculty work involved.

In summary, the crisis has given elite, traditional, campus-based universities a unique opportunity to experience a fully online education. If not for the crisis, such a trial would have been impossible. The generally positive experiences of stakeholders are very valuable if we are looking to draw up a new education paradigm, but a lot of effort is needed to address the potential concerns and issues that have emerged.

Yu Zhang is an associate professor in economics of education at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, China, appointed directly post-PhD in 2011.