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Planning for lockdown and how to emerge out of it

When the COVID-19 first broke out in China and more than half a million schools were closed indefinitely, the Ministry of Education in China faced unprecedented challenges in developing quality learning programmes, training its 16 million teachers to deliver teaching via remote models and sensitising very demanding parents and students to them, all within about one month between the Chinese New Year and the beginning of the school year.

Now more than two months later, 270 million Chinese students have been learning through online classes since February 2020 and many are planning to return to school and complete this semester on time.

How was this done? As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, the measures implemented in China may offer food for thought for other countries now struggling to control the virus and maintain learning continuity.

While the advanced internet and other infrastructure in China helped with rapid adoption of online teaching and learning (98% of China is covered with fibre optic and a 4G network), other factors including the availability of a national public cloud-based education platform, the dedication of teachers and the role of universities and local governments all contributed to the successful roll-out of the remote learning.

The rapid response measures taken by China align with its long-term development goals and its ongoing integration of technology in education campaign.

Actions by central government

One important factor was that central government responded swiftly to guarantee the provision of network service resources which entailed working with several telecommunication operators to ensure that there were fast and stable networks for online education.

The Chinese Ministry of Education issued an emergency policy initiative, “Suspending Classes without Stopping Learning”, to mitigate the negative impact on learning and to switch all teaching and learning to large-scale online platforms while schools remain closed.

The policy called for integrating all national and local quality teaching resources to provide four forms of online platforms: 1) a free national cloud online learning platform, 2) a free national TV channel broadcasting school lessons and related resources that covers remote areas, 3) online teaching and learning platforms developed by universities and local education authorities, which it encouraged to be open and free to the public, and 4) free electronic textbooks and teachers’ guides which were available to all.

In higher education, the government coordinated with several online platforms to open all 24,000 high quality online courses and virtual simulation experimental teaching resources for free to the 3,000 or so universities and tertiary colleges. All platforms became operational on 17 February, the day the new school term started.

In addition to its online learning arrangements, the ministry also emphasised developing and sharing materials and modules for epidemic prevention and control through national online and TV platforms and required local authorities to coordinate the adaptation of resources to their local context and coordinate their delivery without overburdening teachers who are in the frontline of online teaching and learning.

When the new term began online, students followed their regular school timetable. However, considering the nature of online learning, local governments issued detailed and contextualised guidelines to local schools and universities.

For example, the Department of Education of Zhejiang Province said each class should last for 20 minutes in primary school and 30 minutes in middle school and suggested the total time spent on teaching per day should not be longer than one hour for lower primary school, two hours for upper primary school, four hours for middle school and five hours for high school.

The ministry provided clear messaging and guidelines to the public, local governments, schools, parents and students on an ongoing basis to keep them up to date with the evolving situation. It facilitated regular surveys and feedback as well as dissemination of good practice.

The ministry is now actively preparing for the smooth transition back to normal offline education after the epidemic, working out a plan for school reopening after the epidemic, etc. Now that COVID-19 is mostly contained in China, most of the regional governments have announced dates for reopening schools, with priority given to students in the final year of senior and junior high schools.

Technology

Existing online platforms and resources provided a foundation to support teachers and students during COVID-19. Back in 2014, the Ministry of Education had initiated the ‘One Teacher One High-Quality Lesson, One Lesson One Excellent Teacher’ Project to promote ICT integration as well as developing and sharing of best teaching resources.

The project had crowdsourced from the best teachers in the nation, developed, validated and uploaded millions of high quality 20- to 30-minute ‘micro lessons’ that are aligned with the school curriculum and made available to all frontline teachers.

In higher education, the Higher Education Department in the ministry started a ‘National-level High Quality MOOCs’ project in 2017, with 1,291 courses selected and released, the majority of them developed by China’s top universities.

As regards teacher training, there are well-established distance learning resources and platforms created by the National Teacher Training Project, the Teachers’ Technology Application Ability Enhancement Project 2.0, teacher education colleges and the Open University etc. These online resources are extensively used by teachers to accomplish 360 credit hours training in every five years as required.

Before formally starting the online classes in February, 16 million Chinese teachers had been preparing for online teaching.

The ministry issued an action plan to improve teachers’ online teaching ability which required local authorities to support teachers and strengthen their online pedagogy and information technology skills as well as helping them with the psychological adjustment to online teaching and giving them the knowledge they needed about epidemic prevention and control, health education and home-school cooperation.

It also emphasised the need for more support to be given to provinces which were hardest hit by COVID-19. The Ministry of Education’s teacher education department worked with various institutions to help them to produce a teacher resource package which includes online teaching strategies, ICT applications and school epidemic prevention cases based on those provided by the existing national teacher training online network.

To ensure consistent and quality online teaching, ‘elite’ teachers in different subjects were mobilised by central and local education authorities to record their lessons, ensuring they aligned with the school curriculum. These were uploaded online on open national or local online platforms.

School teachers were advised to make full use of the ‘National Elite Online Open Courses’ and to teach in an independent way while drawing on online teaching resources such as those on MOOCs. This helped not only to ensure the consistency and quality of teaching in all schools, but also relieved the workload of classroom teachers so that they could focus on discussions, homework and morale building of students during this difficult time.

Regular teaching and research activities moved online and teachers prepared online teaching together and were able to discuss how to improve its effectiveness.

From access issues to research

Though 98% of China has fibre optic and 4G coverage, 2% of children have no access to the internet. To ensure no child was left out, especially those in remote areas and from poor families, the government used satellite TV in areas without internet coverage, even using loudspeakers in some villages and using village committees’ offices which had internet access.

Changshan County in Zhejiang province provided TV sets to poor families; Jiangsu province equipped some areas with tablets, Guangdong province provided a data package to 300,000 poor students to ensure online learning and Anhui province paired 806 teachers with 3,667 poor students to support their learning. Several provincial governments also launched a financial support policy for private schools.

During the outbreak, universities and research institutions have been working together to contain COVID-19.

In addition to vaccine research, the development of testing kits and intelligent epidemic prevention systems and equipment, various guidelines were developed by social scientists, for instance, the Handbook on Facilitating Flexible Learning During Educational Disruption by the Smart Learning Institute of Beijing Normal University and the UNESCO International Research and Training Centre for Rural Education; and the Psychological Adjustment Manual for Students under COVID-19 by Zhejiang Normal University.

Intensive online workshops and seminars on how to effectively design and deliver online teaching for schoolteachers were also conducted by universities, especially teacher education colleges. Forums reviewing and summarising the key take-aways from online teaching and learning in the past two months have been set up and universities are working with education authorities and schools to explore innovative ways to integrate online and offline teaching.

Developing a school return strategy

The Ministry of Education has also been following closely the guidelines issued by disease control and prevention experts to prepare a return to school strategy and guidelines and has adopted three basic principles for reopening: 1) COVID-19 is under control, 2) Prevention measures and resources are in place, and 3) Students’ and teachers’ health is guaranteed.

The ministry issued additional guidelines to its provincial departments of education that school reopening should be done in phases, with priority given to students in the final year of senior and junior high school who will soon sit regional and national examinations. It advises that schools must keep an eye on students’ learning from home, make a transition study plan for students and provide additional support if needed.

Each provincial government has issued detailed guidelines based on the above principles. For example, in Shanghai, local education authorities are required to carry out advance preparation before reopening, which includes a district-approved ‘Re-open Plan’ and a contingency plan, equipping teachers and staff with epidemic prevention and control knowledge, initiating back-to-school work processes, and ensuring the availability of enough masks, hand sanitisers, disinfectants and quarantine space etc.

Zhejiang province has mandated strict supervision before and after reopening through its school inspection system. For the reopened schools in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Xinjiang and Jiangsu province, strict preventive measures have been observed to ensure the safety of students and teachers and to prevent a possible resurfacing of the epidemic. This includes mask-wearing, measuring temperatures, disinfection and eating in small groups.

Qian Xu is a researcher on African education, Zhejiang Normal University, China.





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