We are living through one of the rarest times of history, as families grapple to keep loved ones safe, retain their jobs and maintain any sense of normalcy. This is a particularly strange time to be a student. I feel bad for school students, who have to deal with mounting pressures of homework and an impending college entrance exam, or gaokao; a situation that is weighty enough without the added stress of a global pandemic. Fortunately for these students, we live in a world that is incredibly connected, allowing for education to continue and even flourish during these otherwise challenging times.
Since the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) emerged, I have been offering teaching help whenever possible. It started with tutoring students in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province in central China, without access to school in order to help them with pronunciation, oral English and listening practice. One evening, feeling rather helpless to join the cheering up efforts for Wuhan from my home in London, I put out a message on WeChat offering free lessons to any student who was unable to attend school in Wuhan. After my phone flooded with messages from parents and friends from my contact list, I started offering one-to-one classes for these students, helping them through any challenges they were experiencing in their language learning journey.
My grandparents, born in late 1920s England and growing up through the horrors of world wars and rationing, were in total disbelief at my phone constantly pinging. "Who's that?!" they'd ask, and a look of total disbelief would envelop their faces when I would tell them it was my students from Hubei. The technology required for this exchange was jaw-dropping not just to my grandparents; I am constantly awed by the good fortune we have to be able to live in a world where we can stay connected via technology and attain the above-mentioned experiences—something rather unthinkable to my grandmother growing up in recession-ridden 1930s Liverpool.
This experience with technology has been invaluable for my own learning. I was a quarter of a way through my two-year master's program in China Studies at the Yenching Academy of Peking University when news broke that it was unlikely we could resume the semester in China and instead lessons would be shifted online. Whilst I was profoundly grateful for the efficiency and delivery of the shift to online classes, I was also at first rather inquisitive at how the online classes would compare with my usual classes at Peking University. Physical classes are exciting and abundant in energy and involve constant debate among my incredibly articulate peers; I wondered if indeed the same spirit could be conveyed over a video call. To my surprise, and to my absolute delight, video online classes have exceeded all expectations. Features such as a virtual hand raise on Zoom and screen shares actually allow for fast-paced classes and smooth delivery.
That leaves me wondering: will this tragic event in history mark an exciting future for the evolution of technology and education? With over 260 million students, China made the decision to launch all classes—from primary schools to university graduate level courses—online. This was the biggest educational experiment in modern history and has been adopted by countries all over the world. The barriers to contemporary education access—location, unaffordable school fees and clashes with a work schedule—could be alleviated by free online courses, recorded lectures and webinars. Perhaps this epidemic will shift global thinking on what education should look like; shifting from physical classrooms limited in space and capacity to 30 students to interactive, wide-reaching and inclusive learning. The post-COVID-19 world has fostered speculative discussions of a shift in world order, a revived respect for key-service workers and a rethink of globalization. Whilst we cannot foresee the post-pandemic predicament, there is a high chance it will lead us to rethink our education arrangements.
The author is a Yenching Academy scholar of Peking University from the UK
(Print Edition Title: Technology, Teaching and COVID-19)
Copyedited by Madhusudan Chaubey
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