"Tsinghua University was the first one in China, and also very likely in the world I think, that strictly followed the syllabus, and put all its courses except for a few experiential lessons online during the pandemic," Peng Gang, vice president of Tsinghua University, told CGTN in his office on Wednesday.
After the pandemic began and classrooms closed, Tsinghua University put all its courses online. Most students studied online throughout the entire spring semester. Now as the pandemic has eased in China, there are still students who can't return to campus, most of them living abroad. But they can watch and communicate with their teachers in real-time.
CGTN talked to one of them. Celine Jiang lives in the United States and has to get up very early because of the time difference. But she said she still prefers to follow her courses in real time. "Personally, I like to get engaged in class, to know what is going on at that time. So this semester, even though two of my classes are at 1:30 p.m. in the afternoon in China, that's like 12:30 or 1:30 a.m. here in the U.S., I'll just sleep earlier and wake up and still go to class," said Jiang.
It is a challenge for teachers as well. As vice president Peng put it, out of some 2,600 teachers at Tsinghua, only about 300 had experience with online teaching. "The coronavirus really caught us off guard, and we did all the arrangements and preparation in a hasty way. But luckily for Tsinghua, we managed to put almost every course online for the spring semester."
Qian Jing is one teacher who had experience creating Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. These are online teaching and learning networks that are open to anyone, free of charge. She has combined MOOCs with her online teaching.
"The advantage of online teaching is that it can be played back, and there are more channels for teacher-student interaction. In the past, due to time constraints, many students did not get the opportunity to ask questions. Online teaching provides multiple channels, such as live commenting and chat rooms. There are more channels for students to participate in teaching than in the past," said Qian.
Jiang is one of her students, and she agreed it was easier for her to follow up if she had access to playbacks of all her courses. It is also useful for students on campus who can go online to preview and review her lessons.
In the control room in Tsinghua, a huge screen shows live feeds of ongoing classes, many of them with more than 10 students studying online. The priority for people working in the control room is to keep the internet connection stable. New technology is also being tested, such as smart cameras that can follow the teacher's movement in real time. With such a high investment, the university hopes to build a permanent platform that will last after the pandemic is over.
"I think in general, online teaching is getting easier and more accessible and it provides equal opportunities to give people access to quality education," said Peng. "Many of my colleagues told me that our teaching will not go back to the old way when teachers and students become used to the new tools of online teaching, especially with its abundant means of communication and interaction."
Peng however also believes that face-to-face teaching and learning will still be key to universities such as Tsinghua, as "the message exchange between teachers and students beyond verbal language is essential and irreplaceable."