School's out, but it's not a holiday for at-home pupils

Lu Feiran
From exercising bodies to exercising minds, public education has resorted to online lessons to reach out to students confined indoors.
Lu Feiran

A string of screenshots showing schoolchildren on extended winter break doing burpee jumps at home went viral during the coronavirus epidemic. It was captioned: “Looks like what happens on Mount Huaguo” — a reference to the legendary mountain where the Monkey King trained his followers.

From exercising bodies to exercising minds, public education has resorted to online lessons to reach out to students confined indoors. The start of the new school semester has been delayed until at least next month. Live-streamed lessons are connecting teachers and pupils.

The makeshift “schools” are forcing many teachers to transform themselves in something akin to YouTubers. That is especially hard for teachers not familiar with new technologies.

“For the first few days, it felt like going onto a battlefield without full preparation,” says Deng Qing, a Chinese language teacher at a primary school in Hubei, the coronavirus epicenter province. “I had to fumble around with the camera, the microphone and other things while doing a teaching session.”

On Weibo, one of China’s biggest social-networking services, the topic “awkwardness of online classes” attracted more than 37 million clicks and nearly 100,000 discussion posts.

Students and teachers have been sharing the trials and tribulations of live-streamed classes.

For their part, teachers say they may receive hundreds of thousands of “likes” during a 40-minute class, and they worry that students are more focused on the “like” button than on the lesson content.

Students talk about lots of awkward gaffes during online classes, like teachers forgetting to turn on microphones and giving silent lessons. They also note that some classes, like biology, are automatically rejected by online platforms because of “inappropriate content.”

One instructor became an Internet celebrity because of a snafu.

Su Sishui, a 50-year-old mathematics teacher in Shandong Province, was trying to live stream a lesson from home when he fumbled with the camera buttons and somehow turned on the “beauty” function to extreme.

Su didn’t realize what he had done, but his students and wife saw him appear with super-rosy cheeks and shining eyes. Then the class watched as his wife tried to stop the lesson and, not understanding the situation, Su fought her to stay online.

Students uploaded the live-stream video, which quickly went viral.

“This live streaming is a brand-new thing for me,” Su later explained. “It is a special teaching method we have to endure during this period of hard times, but I believe that everything will be back to normal eventually.”

Apart from academic courses, schools are also uploading exercise videos for students so they don’t gain weight during this period of indoor confinement.

However, with live-stream teaching proving it may not be as efficient as hoped, China’s education authorities are calling for simpler ways — like TV broadcasts — to conduct education from a distance.

Shanghai plans to begin TV schools on March 2. Video courses for students from grades 1-12 are being filmed by about 1,000 local teachers. They will be available on Internet Protocol TV.

To date, students have been required only to tune in to online reading clubs or do some optional homework. That makes children happy but worries their parents.

Sylvia Zhang has an 11-year-old son due to enter middle school this year. The boy’s school issued a PDF worksheet that spans Chinese language, mathematics and English — a much abbreviated curriculum.

“My son is happy as a clam,” she said, “but I am anxious that he wouldn’t be ready to deal with middle school entry interviews.”

To prepare for online and TV courses, Zhang was forced to buy a home printer for the first time.

“Many lesson materials, including the PDF worksheet, are in files that cannot be edited online,” she said, “so my son’s teacher said that we either have to print out the lessons or hand-copy all the assignments. E-commerce is not as convenient as it was before the epidemic, so I had to rush out to a store to buy a printer.”

Apparently Zhang is not the only parent choosing to save time over money. According to Suning.com, one of the largest online retailers in China, its printer sales increased by 200 percent in the past month. Other study-related gadgets, such as TV sets and tablets, also showed big sales increases.

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