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China’s schools embrace online learning as coronavirus forces students to stay at home

China’s online education market grew 25.7% year-on-year in 2018 to RMB 251.76 billion.

Photo by Pocky Lee on Unsplash. Photo by Pocky Lee on Unsplash.

Like most senior high school students in China, 18-year-old Xu Yuting had planned to resume her studies earlier this year to prepare for upcoming college entrance exams. However, the spread of the coronavirus over the Lunar New Year holiday break has meant the postponement of school semesters, forcing students like Xu to stay at home.

Rather than fall behind, Xu and many others have already begun learning full time again—only from home—in what may become the largest online teaching trial the country has seen.

Brick-and-mortar schools in China are now exploring online education options as authorities postpone the new semester until the middle of this month or even early March .

“There’s no choice [except to teach online now],” said Jessie Xie, a 24-year-old high school teacher living in Chengdu city. As such, she needs to learn new skills such as speaking naturally in front of a camera, using a digital red pen during PowerPoint presentations, and engaging students via online written comments.

Last week, her school started coaching teachers on how to use Alibaba Group’s DingTalk to conduct live-streaming courses. “It’s not easy for some older teachers to learn how to do live-streaming courses. Yesterday, one of my colleagues told me she still didn’t know how to use it [even after the coaching session],” Xie said.

Chinese authorities are calling on people to stay at home to reduce the spread of the virus through human contact. Health authorities in China announced on Tuesday that coronavirus fatalities had risen to 425 nationwide and that total confirmed cases had reached 20,438 as of Monday.

The death toll in mainland China from the coronavirus has now exceeded that of the SARS epidemic in 2003.

China’s Ministry of Education issued a statement last Thursday encouraging schools to use internet platforms to teach students amid the suspension of the new semester.

The ministry also plans to launch a national internet cloud classroom on February 17, providing a full range of teaching materials and courses for students from the first grade in junior school to the third grade of high school.

The health crisis has put the spotlight on China’s online education market, which grew 25.7% year-on-year in 2018 to RMB 251.7 billion (USD 35.9 billion), according to iResearch Consulting Group. The previous forecast of annual growth of 16–24% in the subsequent three to five years may now need to be revised upwards.

For some students, the chance to study from home has other benefits. Xu, who lives in Zhejiang province, used to get up before 5:30 a.m. on school days, but since starting online courses she gets two more hours sleep each morning. “I like online teaching because I have more freedom at home,” said Xu, who began her all-day courses via DingTalk this week.

However, online teaching has its weaknesses compared to face-to-face learning. “My motivation to study is stronger when my classmates are around me and all working very hard,” she said. “Sometimes I zone out [when doing online courses].”

The same applies for teachers. “I can see students taking notes and give them immediate feedback when I am teaching [face to face] at school, but I can’t do this during online courses,” said Xie, who added that engagement between teacher and student online is “almost zero.”

Some online teaching companies are offering their services for free during the outbreak. TAL Education said on its official Weibo account that it is providing free live-streaming courses for all grades to “minimize the influence on study due to the outbreak,” while VIPKid, which specializes in teaching English online, said on Weibo it would offer 1.5 million free online courses to children aged four to 12.

“The influx of users will force online education institutions to polish their teaching content and technical capabilities, improving the experience and efficiency of online learning,” said a VIPKid spokeswoman.

As of Sunday, more than 220 education bureaus in 20 Chinese provinces had joined the free-of-charge DingTalk homeschool program, covering over 20,000 primary and secondary schools and 12 million students, according to state media Xinhua.

“Although my school tried online teaching a few years ago, we haven’t done it at this scale before. All of our teachers and students are now involved,” said Zheng Jinhong, a high school English teacher in her late thirties who lives in Zhejiang province.

Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post