Volume 6: Coronavirus Crisis and Digital Education Preparedness

The news magazine Inside Higher Ed published on January 16, 2020, an article titled “Takedown of Online Education”. It featured a US-based research report titled “Does Online Education Live up to Its Promise?” The report was rather negative on online education, especially on fully online courses, apparently aiming to discourage US federal policymakers from discounting students’ academic and financial interests in the name of educational innovation. The debate that began in the 1990s in the US on the pros and cons of online or digital education regained momentum: in terms of the effectiveness as well as the equality of students’ education and employability, which fares more and better: traditional campus learning, fully online, or hybrid learning?

As the debate in the US continues, the now global coronavirus epidemic started spreading in China. On January 23, 2020, the Chinese government shut down Wuhan, the populous city at the epidemic center; and by early February, the government effectuated mobility restrictions within the whole country. University campuses and classrooms, like any other school, closed completely. Many countries, including the US, also adopted travel restrictions for passengers from/to China. As a result, international faculty and students cannot return to campuses in China after the winter recess as scheduled, neither can Chinese students who were scheduled to return to their host campuses in the US, UK, and Australia and others.

To date during the national coronavirus crisis in China, technology and fully online courses quickly have taken center stage as the other alternative of teaching and learning. The Ministry of Education in China declared “stop classes without stopping learning.” A national online learning platform launched within a matter of weeks, including more than 20 online curriculum platforms and over 20,000 courses for universities. China presented, sadly, a different case than that in the US: digital education has become an undeniable necessity, not a debatable choice.

As an example: New York University (NYU) Shanghai, with an international faculty and an even more diverse international body of students from over 80 countries, swiftly transitioned to fully online courses on Feb. 17, 2020. Digital tools such as Zoom, VoiceThread, NYU Stream, and NYU Classes replaced campus classrooms. It was expected that even when in-classroom instruction resumed eventually, the university might still proceed in a hybrid mode, for not all students and faculty would be able to return to campus at the same time.

As the coronavirus began spreading from China to more countries including the US, important questions have surfaced for leaders, faculty, and administrators of universities with an international operation. What to expect and how to prepare in terms of opportunities and challenges as associated with digital education, and how best to support faculty and students in such a crisis situation? I offer a number of considerations:

  1. Has the university established an online platform that incorporated recent, if not the latest, ICT infrastructure including a sufficient and steady data center and speedy and scalable connectivity across borders (such as firewalls, switches, and routers)? Has the platform been tested and maintained regularly for reliability?
  2. Has the university designed and provided technological as well as pedagogical training to its faculty in advance as part of regular training, at least annually? Are faculty prepared to deal with the stress of online teaching, such as the lack of face-to-face interaction with students and sometimes unreliable technology?
  3. Does the university have an academic technology unit that is sufficiently staffed and funded for crisis situation preparedness and delivery? Is it possible to create a one-stop online education support platform for faculty and students alike? By one-stop, I refer to the ready availability of technical information for ICT tools and platforms, a general guideline for online teaching, practical education resources, and other support such as psychological counseling.
  4. Is the online platform capable of providing multiple options for meeting practical teaching needs, such as synchronous video and voice for group learning and classroom interactions and also asynchronous if needed by some students?
  5. How to ensure digital education is effective for students’ overall cognitive and non-cognitive development? Can faculty take students’ feelings and interests into account?
  6. How to prepare students to engage in person with their immediate family (parents, spouses, partners, siblings) and peers and friends in their digital learning endeavours and effectively initiate stimulating conversations to make up, at least in part, the face-to-face active discussions, dialogues, and debates as in the classroom? It is certainly easier for students who are shy to ask questions in a webinar, yet it is still necessary to cultivate students’ ability to listen, voice, present, and question face-to-face.
  7. How to utilize social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc. to provide additional and integrated venues to encourage online classroom interaction and engagement between faculty and students and among the students?
  8. What to do in poorer or more rural areas where technological facilities or even electricity cannot be guaranteed for students and faculty if they happen to be there?
  9. How to support faculty and students in the areas of laboratories for sciences and engineering, especially for graduate students with research projects? How to support faculty and students with regard to studios for fine or performing arts, sports teams, student clubs and other extracurricular activities? All of these cannot be easily transformed into online platforms yet they are important components of teaching and learning, especially for undergraduate students.

Forward-looking, I believe that the epidemic in China and its emergency response with digital education may help to identify the weaknesses and strengths of online infrastructure for the US and other developed countries. Those countries traditionally have served as hosts for international students, especially those from China. I also believe that the valuable experience gained in China in its rapid and complete transition to fully online education during this crisis situation, including in a global network university such as New York University with one of its campuses in Shanghai, may also help to inform in a unique and tremendous way future research in China, the US, and other countries.

In short, the debate must continue and advance across international borders with this same focus: can, and how, digital learning contribute with quality to the optimal effectiveness as well as equality of students’ education and employability?

About the Author

A seasoned entrepreneur with over 20 years of executive experience, Ms. Hongxia Liu was the Associate Vice Chancellor for Government and Community Relations at New York University (NYU) Shanghai for three years and also served as the Associate Vice-Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer of NYU Shanghai during its first two academic years. Hongxia joined NYU Shanghai from the Beijing office of the global leadership consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles as its Partner-in-Charge.

Hongxia is the Director (Non-Executive) at Sannam S4 and She currently serves as NYU Shanghai’s Representative to international organisations and as an Advisory Board member to the Dean of NYU Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.