My Turn: Online learning lessons from a teacher in China

For the Monitor
Published: 3/24/2020 6:30:11 AM

I faced a barrage of questions when my school first moved to online lessons due to the coronavirus. I am the academic director of Shenyang Transformation International School in Shenyang, China, and helped to craft the online program that we have used since the government ordered schools closed to prevent the spread of the virus.

This process was completely new to the school’s administration, teachers and students, and we were all nervous about how it would work. During that first week, questions continued to come as problems arose that we had not anticipated.

In our second week, however, there were far fewer questions. We have now finished week five and the program is running relatively smoothly and efficiently. An elementary school teacher put it best: “To be honest, this has actually been quite an eye opener. There’s so much one can do online! My kids are loving it, but miss their friends of course.”

That last sentence reveals our biggest unsolved challenge – figuring out the social component of online school. Online classes alone are insufficient for a student’s social needs and development, no matter how great they are. This is unlikely to change in the near future, and we are still figuring it out.

As schools across the globe, from Korea to Italy to New Hampshire, are moving online, they will also need to include more social interactions. They will likely meet many of the other issues we have seen.

One of the most serious concerns is overworked parents. We did not foresee the extent to which parents would be challenged. My school has a teaching staff that is excellent and engaged, but they face severe limits on their ability to guide students’ time and focus students on completing tasks in a virtual environment. Parents have been forced to assume some aspects of that supervisory role, especially for our younger learners. This has been difficult, and we have had to make revisions to how our online program works. New Hampshire schools will also have to work to alleviate this.

Coupled with this, schools will be forced to decide how much of the planned curriculum they should cover.

It seems strange, but Shenyang Transformation International School learned that less is more for online courses. We were, of course, eager to ensure our students kept up with where they ought to be. We initially assigned too much work, adding stress to an already anxious situation. As we have progressed, we have become more flexible with due dates, begun to emphasize the most important concepts, and combined similar standards when possible.

We worked out a general framework for classes that includes pre-recorded downloadable lessons, broken into chunks of 5 to 10 minutes, message boards in which students could interact with each other to engage in class discussions, and set times for teachers to talk to individual students or small groups scheduled at the convenience of parents and students.

(One hundred and eighty million other students in China are also receiving education online. For public schools, this means classes broadcast on public television, educational materials such as textbooks freely made available in digital form, and live-streaming through a special platform capable of hosting 50 million users at a time. My school is a small, private institution teaching expatriate students an international curriculum. As such, these great tools would not help us.)

This process, while it has had many challenges, ultimately has been very positive.

As more schools and districts race to adopt platforms and structures for corona-caused closings, they will hopefully discover exciting new platforms and programs that can augment traditional classes when they return to school. We are already discussing using some of these tools in new ways, such as mitigating unexpected school closings for events like snow days.

There are many lessons that will surely come out of the spread of the coronavirus – I hope one is that online learning can be deployed to enhance and strengthen in-school instruction, and that all stakeholders will recognize, “There’s so much one can do online!”

(Christopher J. Dawe is a New Hampshire native and the academic director of teachers at Shenyang Transformation International School in Shenyang, China. He has spent his career teaching in Asia.)

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