Real-time video teaching can improve classroom teaching

The continued spread of COVID-19 has disrupted all sectors as well as the daily work and lives of people. Disruption includes the suspension of classes and homeworking or home study. To safeguard the health of teachers and students, the suspension of face-to-face classes in most higher education institutions worldwide was inevitable. Many institutions may have temporarily closed down their classes before, but never on such a large scale and it is truly unprecedented globally.

Since early February 2020, apart from implementing many urgent precautionary measures on campus, classes at the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong (HSUHK) in the spring semester were mainly replaced by online teaching to ensure continuous quality learning. Proactively responding to the challenge of the times, many other academic activities, such as conferences, seminars, laboratory work, internships, examinations and assessment, oral defence of theses, graduate job interviews, etc, were also held online.

In fact, distance e-learning is not new as a teaching aid. Apart from emails, websites, massive open online courses (MOOCs) and specific education software, for more than a decade institutions have been using learning management system software such as Moodle or Blackboard to enable teachers to upload materials and videos for sharing, to allow students to upload assignments, and to make possible the management of student records. The e-platform therefore allows them to conduct online asynchronous teaching.

With the advance and increasing use of information technology, online teaching has evolved gradually into a concept of real-time, synchronous virtual classrooms. Since on-campus class suspensions in early February 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, institutions have been working day and night to enable real-time video teaching.

Simulating ‘humanised’ classes

Conducting real-time video teaching does not require everyone to be in the same location and universities are encouraging teachers to follow original class schedules as much as possible. The conferencing software, such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Hangouts Meet, allows real-time video interactions and polling activities and, at the same time, interactions by text or voice through live ‘chat rooms’, thus enhancing students’ engagement.

The system is also equipped with a built-in video recording function, allowing teachers a choice to upload lecture videos and other teaching materials after class, for students to review at any time. Teachers can also set up online tutoring groups.

To adapt to these changes and to maintain the quality of teaching and learning, teachers and support staff made much more of an effort in their preparation work.

For instance, within a limited time frame in early February, HSUHK conducted many on-site and online training workshops for its staff members and students, while at the same time it upgraded the server system, purchased additional software licences, added accessories, compiled user guidelines, established additional e-learning laboratories and set up inquiry hotlines, so teachers and students were able to use online teaching and learning resources smoothly wherever they were.

We must also commend teachers for their hard work – as online teaching requires more preparation than normal classes.

Teachers have to revise their subject teaching plans, assessment details and teaching materials and adopt new ways to interact with students. Video teaching and classroom teaching differ in terms of methods and skills. Teachers have to adapt to video teaching and in time can more fully integrate technology, contents and pedagogies. As much as possible, simulating human interactions in a classroom is one of the factors that makes video teaching successful.

In addition, teachers should also handle new issues and challenges carefully, such as students’ privacy, their home environment, whether they lack good quality Wi-Fi connections at home, their network speed and stability, cybersecurity and the time differences for students who are in different regions. If teachers wish to conduct video recordings that involve students being present for real-time teaching, then they have to consider the student’s home environment and need for privacy.

In the face of new teaching and learning modes, and given the limited time, resources and experience available, some operations are obviously going to be less than desirable. I find that our teachers and students at HSUHK generally understand this and I encourage them to find solutions together to deal with any remaining difficulties.

Although students cannot return to campus for normal classes for the time being, they can still make the most of online learning if they persist in learning with self-discipline and participate in real-time class discussions at home, according to class schedules. Students can also make use of this period to strengthen self-learning, such as doing more reading, writing and conducting project studies and taking the initiative to learn. During this period, they can also keep in close contact with their teachers by phone or e-messaging.

Innovation, teaching concepts and methods

As the saying goes: “When there is risk, there should be opportunity.” The late Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter introduced the ‘creative destruction theory’. The COVID-19 epidemic has been destructive, but it has also produced creative destruction in some sense. I hope our teachers and students will have enjoyed some excitement and benefits from online teaching, which will equip them for future learning and communication.

For instance, teachers should think about such issues as how to motivate students and encourage them to be proactive when participating in real-time video class discussions, how to implement some innovative teaching concepts more effectively, how to maintain care and guidance for individual students, and how to share and integrate online teaching experiences with other colleagues.

Teachers’ creativity with online teaching can be a vital factor for stimulating students’ autonomous learning, turning the epidemic ‘crisis’ into an ‘opportunity’ for reforming teaching and learning concepts.

Throughout history, education has rarely been reformed or benefited from technological advances. At present, with video teaching and learning allowing real-time interaction, many innovative teaching and learning methods can be tried out and implemented. The most powerful part of this new generation of real-time interactive teaching and learning is that it can simultaneously accommodate scale and personalised learning – which traditional classrooms cannot.

In traditional large classes, it is generally difficult for teachers to know how many students understand or master the contents of a class. However, if the teaching and learning activities are carried out online in real time, this may be different. For example, teachers can know the distribution of answers to some instant multiple-choice questions and the number of students who have answered incorrectly (and where they went wrong) through the interactive polling function.

Based on real-time data, teachers can better understand students’ immediate responses and provide suitable assistance as quickly as possible in order to improve learning efficacy. The system can also guide students to review the more difficult class content they encounter. With the benefit of this experience, teachers can use similar functions in their traditional classroom teaching in the future to better attend to students’ personal progress and needs.

The ‘flipped classroom’ teaching method that has emerged in recent years is particularly applicable in a real-time video teaching environment. Students can watch in advance the relevant teaching materials and videos before the live online class so that the teacher can make better use of live class hours to focus on interactive discussions, reducing the proportion of unidirectional lecturing.

During online teaching and learning, we can try to reduce some of the limitations of traditional classrooms, which gives us room to rethink how teachers can turn ‘classes’ into better ‘learning’ experiences and enhance teachers’ mentoring and coaching roles.

The next best thing

In any case, remote online teaching and learning cannot fully replace face-to-face teaching and learning, or an environment where teachers and students discuss things with each other. Unless it is inevitable, universities generally only use online teaching to supplement real classroom activities, the so-called ‘blended learning’.

After all, no matter how advanced technology is, it should not widen the distance between teachers and students, nor reduce the inspiration gained through mutual learning among students. New technology can assist and enhance teaching effectiveness, but it will not replace ‘humanised’ classroom education.

In fact, education is a process of interpersonal interactions. A teacher helps to ignite students’ dreams. He or she helps students shape their personal values and unleash their potential, and nurtures critical thinking, communication skills, teamwork and human caring. Undergraduate education should not only focus on hard knowledge, but also promote the full and free development of the ‘human’ element of learning. This process cannot be replaced by technology.

Though good progress has been made in the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic, there are still uncertainties. We should be alert, face them with a rational, calm, cautious and optimistic attitude, but not panic. The outbreak is yet another reminder that we are part of a global community that shares an uncertain future and that no one can meet common challenges alone. Viruses have no national boundaries.

Facing this common challenge for humanity, we should unite and collaborate instead of dividing against each other. At this critical moment to make a better world, universities should help promote resilience, confidence, trust, connectedness and unity among people.

As we understand more about the characteristics and transmission channels of COVID-19, it will become clear that it will take a longer time before the epidemic will be under full control. Nevertheless, we will have to resume normal work or school gradually as it is difficult to work or study from home for a long time. Even if the epidemic has not completely run its course, we should be prepared to gradually return to our normal lives, as long as adequate precautionary measures and attentive arrangements are made to reduce the risk of transmission.

When the epidemic is over, we shall have a new vista on education and life.

Simon SM Ho is president of the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong.