It is definitely not a piece of cake to teach online! I know. This is because I had taught for over thirty months online.
I was (until the end of July 2022) engaged as a full time teaching staff of Zhaoqing University, Guangdong Province, China (ZQU). I came home for a short winter break in January 2020, well “Mr. COVID-19” messed up a lot of lives and things, including my return from Malaysia to teach in China! In this rather long post I try to share my own experiences and learning in conducting delivery of classes online (and supervision of students’ graduation thesis work remotely in Part 2).
Prelude to the online teaching stint 网络教学的序幕
With the new semester fast approaching, in late January 2020 I received instructions from the International Office of ZQU to NOT return to campus. I guess we were luckier than most as I was able to cancel my wife’s and my AirAsia tickets on time to get a refund. By late February 2020, all my Taiwanese colleagues who had gone home (Taiwan) for the winter break and yours truly were getting anxious. One of our China colleagues, Mr. Yan Dan Feng was even stuck at his home town near Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. We all really did pray from his (and his family’s) safety!
Finally, in early March 2020, with students and many staff not being allowed to return to the campus the leadership of ZQU finally received the green light from the power that be to allow all classes of the new semester (Spring 2020) to be delivered online. The scrambles for gears and internet bandwidth began at every academic’s and student’s household.
A shaky start to my online teaching class 我的在线教学课程的一个不稳定的开始
It happened that both Mr. Yan Dan Feng and I were assigned to teach the same course (管理学概论 – Introduction to Management Science) to two different classes. To make life easier for both of us, Mr. Yan and I had decided to merge the two classes (luckily the two classes’ respective timetables did not clash). I would be doing the lecturing while Mr. Yan would be working behind the “scene” to trouble shoot and observe students’ performance. Prior to this, with the help of the class leaders (yes we did have class monitors班长; class learning committee members学委; and class discipline committee members纪委) we had sorted out the online chat groups for classes in the platforms described below. So communicating with our students was more or less settled, so we thought!
Imagine this scene 想象一下这样的场景:
- Locations of lecturers —- one in Subang Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia; one in his hometown close to Wuhan in China.
- Locations of students —- in their respective homes, scattered throughout Guangdong Province. Some would be in cities or towns with good internet connections while a good number would be at their home villages remotely located (internet connection and bandwidth were issues).
- Online teaching platforms —- DingTalk (for live broadcast), Rain Classroom (a PowerPoint add-on from Qinghua University, as the in-class interaction engine), and QQ Group Chat (as the backup live broadcast platform). While WeChat remained the only direct link between the class leaders and the lecturers (we did not want the rest of the students onto this WeChat group to complicate matters), the rest of the class had to communicate with the teaching staff using DingTalk (backed up by QQ Group Chat). We did have another option: Tencent Meeting (腾讯会议) but this platform was a bit more complicated for me to use. So we ruled it out.
The first class was chaotic to say the least. The first 30 minutes of class was “eventless”. We started a few minutes late as my teaching partner and I had to do a headcount of the number of students who signed in on our two classes. Luckily DingTalk allowed the “merging” of the two class groups into one for direct broadcast of my lecture. Hence we saved a lot of work in this merging so that my teaching partner could “supervise” the students and monitor them while I concentrated on the delivery.
Then our trouble started: some of the students reported that they were unable to get a good connection to DingTalk and on my end, with my own monitoring, I was informed by DingTalk that the connection I had was shaky. Thus collectively, Mr. Yan and I (with the help of the leaders of the two classes) had to inform our lot to “switch to QQ Chat Group”.
So we continued on QQ Group Chat direct broadcast (it was more like video group chat). The thing was, on QQ unlike DingTalk, I could not mute the microphones of the students. Despite Mr. Yan’s urging at the “back” of the online class for everyone to “mute your mic”, during the 90 minutes class, we had many instances of interfering sounds: door slamming, people talking, traffic noise. It was to be expected as our students were all stuck at home, some would have to share facilities with siblings etc. Compound this issue with the fact that not all students were having access to stable and good internet connections and most had to use their mobile phones to attend classes.
Nevertheless, we were still able to carry on with our class. Then our next major trouble started!
One of the female students decided to read her Chinese literature lesson out loud in my online class. Reading out loud is one way of learning Chinese literature but one would be well advised to do it when one is in solitude! So we had 80 students in the online class, 79 of whom was tuned in to my class with one blabbing away and “fighting” with me for the attention of her course mates! Despite my repeated requests to my students to “check your mic and mute your mic NOW“, the blabbing female student was not listening and she continued! It took the combined efforts of Mr. Yan and our class leaders a good 15 minutes to locate this “blabbing” person! So my “reserve” platform was not a viable alternative after all!
At that time (March 2020) Rain Classroom did not have a working live broadcast function, and I should have used Tencent Meeting (腾讯会议) as the backup. Lesson learned!
In addition, March 2020 was the time when all educational institutions in China (from primary all the way to tertiary institutions) were teaching their students online. Bandwidth and other internet resources were stretched to the limits. Hiccups were to be expected. But true to the efficiency in which China technology companies were operating, most obliged to contribute during the nation’s critical needs and solved most technical glitches effectively. Hence within a few days most of these hiccups were more or less ironed out.
August 2020 – the return of staff & students on campus, but NOT ME! 2020年8月-教职员工和学生重返校园，但不包括我!
It was August 2020. All my Taiwanese colleagues received the order to return campus (subject to quarantine measures — this was a nightmare for many at the start, being “caged up” for weeks etc.). By then, my Zhaoqing City resident permit had expired. I needed a special letter of invitation from the provincial authority to get an entry visa. That took over 10 weeks to obtain. When this letter finally arrived, my rush to the Kuala Lumpur China Embassy’s visa centre proved to be fruitless – the nice manager at the visa centre advised us that the China authority were closing the boarder and even if we could get our visa, there were few flights (that cost at least ¥9,000 or around MYR5,625, but mostly in the ¥35,000 range for chartered flights) available. So I had to break the bad news to my colleague at the International Office of ZQU taking care of my case, Ms Zeng. All her great efforts in rushing around and chasing the special invitation letter for me was wasted!
I was fortunate to have very accommodating and kind leaders at my School of Life Sciences. The leadership took up my case to the power that be at ZQU and convinced them to grant me the privilege of being the only academic staff (one out of 2000) to be allowed to continue to teach online. Of course there were many rules /arrangements that I had to adhere to. Some of these were:
- All my online classes must be delivered at the assigned classroom on campus and students must attend in person (that is, students must gather at the assigned time and venue as per ‘normal’ classes)
- My School must arrange for another staff to be in attendance who would supervise my students during class (监督老师）. I was delegated the task of find volunteers to fill up this role. Luckily the four Taiwanese colleagues at my School volunteered to help out and they enlisted other staff to back them up too. 我院必须安排另一位教学人员来监督我的学生上课（监督老师）。我被委托寻找志愿者来执行这个责任。幸运的是，我院的四位台湾同事自愿帮忙，他们还代我招募了其他教学人员来支持他们。
- I must provide an online delivery plan to my School for endorsement and to seek final approval from the Academic Affairs Office (教务处).
- At the end of the semester, I must submit a report on each of the classes I taught online to the Academic Affairs Office via my School.
- For practical/laboratory classes, I must find a suitably qualified colleague to run these classes on my behalf.
- For any classes with final examinations, the students must sit for the examination physically and thus I must find a colleague to grade the examination scripts on my behalf.
I fully agreed and endorsed the Academic Affairs Office’s views on the conduct of my online classes. My students’ learning experience must not differ too much from “truly” face-to-face delivered classes. In shorts, they must not be disadvantaged on my account.
With the mandate from my School and ZQU, I then set about re-adapting my lectures to ensure that I had a fair chance of fulfilling (surpassing) the basic requirements laid down for me to deliver my classes online.
Adapting face-to-face presentation for online classes 调整面对面演示为在线课程
One major flaw of online delivery compared to face-to-face classes is the lack of a “feedback” from your students. If you cannot “see” and “hear” them, it is very hard to gauge your students’ engagement and attentiveness. The presence of my colleague as class supervisor (监督老师）would just ensure that there were discipline in the class. I would need to find ways to engage my students. If not it would be easier for them just to watch a pre-recorded video of my lectures!
The inventors of Rain Classroom from Tsinghua University must have heard the collective prayers of many teaching staff like yours truly. They invented an add-on to foster in-class engagement for presentation slides that can also be adapted for online delivered classes. This add-on, Rain Classroom was easily installed (on PowerPoint as well as WPS) and more importantly was very user-friendly.
I therefore set out to add at least four but mostly 5 – 6 in-class quiz questions in every lecture. I made all these quiz questions carry marks towards the “class participation and usual grade” (班上互动和平时成绩）segment of the final result. To excite the students a bit more I even, for some of my classes, put up “hong bao – 红包” – a small red-packet of e-money for the top scorers for every session. Rain Classroom would generate these data at the end of each class with a chart showing who were the top three scorers of a session. I would post this data to our DingTalk chat group at the end of each lecture.
This “leaderboard” gave an element of competition and thus help to gamify my lectures a little. The most important thing was, with these set up, I ensured some sort of engagement from my students. In addition, these in-class quiz question and the scoring also helped in making sure students were learning progressively and we were not relying on one final examination to verify the learning attained by students (a practice that I, as an educator would try to avoid if possible). Rain Classroom also has a very effective way to log in students’ activity. Hence I would require all students to log into system using a link that I would provide at the start of each class. If you are not signed in, you will be considered as “absent”. Of course in a few odd cases (students forgot to bring their mobile phone to class; mobile phone missing / damaged) I would take note of the class leader’s verification and marked this lot as “present”. However, this lot would not be able to take part in the in-class quiz (and was destined to lose the marks for these too).
The “randomness” in the appearance of the in-class quiz questions also served one good purpose: students would have to pay attention as they would not be forewarned when my question would spring up. As the duration for answering these questions was 2 -3 minutes on average, looking up the answers on the internet would not be facilitated. With these in-class quizzes I achieved one thing that mattered most – keeping students on their toes, well most of the times!
So within a couple of lessons all my students taking my classes online learned the drill 所以在几节课之内，所有上我网课的学生都学会了以下几点 : –>
- Charge up your mobile before class; 上课前给手机充好电；
- Make sure you have your mobile phone with you when attending my class; 上课的时候一定要带着手机；
- Log into Rain Classroom before the start of each class; 在每节课开始前登录雨课堂；
- Pay attention as the in-class quiz question could come out at any moment! 上课时必须注意，课堂提问随时都有可能出现！
Although we only needed the class leader to log into DingTalk on the classroom PC to ensure that my live broadcast was projected to the large screen for everyone’s viewing, other students could also log into DingTalk during class to communicate with me (and the rest of the people who had signed in) .
One of the best features of DingTalk is its ability to record and archive all online classes (if one chooses to do so). I would not mind letting my students re-watch the recorded broadcast as some of the points I raised might need a student to look at it a few times to grasp. The recorded classes would also ensure that students who took leave had a chance to learn what they missed out (of course they would not score marks on the in-class quiz). So at the end of each lecture, I would publish my recorded lecture and post the relevant link to the class’s DingTalk group.
Unlike some of my fellow educators, I have no issue for my students having a copy of my PowerPoint presentation used in class. Rain Classroom has a function that I could “enable” to ensure that my students could review the lecture presentation slides. This feature coupled with the recorded class lecture would help student in their revision immensely (how I wish I had these during my student days!). These same features also enabled students who were unable to attend my class, to view the re-play along with the presentation slides so as to catch up with the course.
Tools and Gears for online delivery of classes 在线授课的工具和设备
I knew back in May 2020 that the most important gear that I had to procure was a semi-professional microphone. The interferences picked up by the cheap old mic were just too much to bear. But at the height of the Movement Control Order in Malaysia (where there was almost a blanket restriction on movement of people nationwide for weeks), getting geared up even with online purchasing was a bit challenging. But I did mange to get a reasonably good microphone that has done a good job in filtering out background noises.
早在2020年5月，我就知道我要买的最重要的设备是一个半专业性的麦克风。廉价的旧麦克风所带来的干扰实在太大了。但当时马来西亚是处于“行动管制令 – Movement Control Order” (几周来几乎对全国范围内的人员流动实行了全面性的限制)，即便是在网上购物，也是相当困难的。但在“行动管制令”放宽后我确实得到了一个相当好的麦克风，它在滤除背景噪音方面做得很好。
The camera that came with the laptop was another issue. It was not versatile enough to give a good view of me for my lectures. Luckily my son’s ‘hand-me-down” Logitech webcam came in handy.
As I had to “see” and ‘hear” what my students were seeing and hearing at their classroom in China, I knew that I would have to set up another DingTalk account on my old laptop. I would run DingTalk simultaneously but to avoid the “echo and feedback” effects I had to use a headphone to listen to my own live broadcast. The time lag was around 10 seconds for my live broadcast to reach my students in China. This served me fine in my monitoring of my own online classes in a “live” manner.
For communication with the class monitor (班长） and/or class learning committee representative （学委), I would have a direct chat line opened with one of these class leaders so that they would be able to alert me of any issues while the live broadcast was going on. Thus I would have to monitor WeChat too during class.
As all the classroom’s computer, projector and sound systems were kept in lock and key, to make life easier for my class leaders, I had, at the start of each semester, sent out an “SOS” message to all my teaching colleagues, alerting them of the locations of my classes. I sought out their help to, if they were having classes nearby, unlock these teaching gears for my class leader(s) for them to set up the PC, projector and sound systems before the start of each class. The “show” would commence as soon as I receive a “all ok” signal (in this case just a “2”) from one of the students.
Needless to say, not every class could proceed smoothly, technology and people had a way in messing up plans. One of my classes was late in the evening, and in one of the sessions my class monitor could not find a staff member to unlock the teaching gears (and that was the day when the “supervising staff” was not at the class early). It took my “SOS” call to my School’s academic administrative colleague to send someone to the rescue! There were also times when either the PC or the projector (or the sound system) or the internet access was not behaving properly. But credits to my different class leaders in different classes, they somehow managed to get these systems working again in good time.
不用说，并不是每一节课都能顺利进行，技术和人们都有办法把计划搞砸。记得我有一堂课是排到傍晚，在其中一节课上，班长找不到任何教工人员打开教学装置 (恰好当天的监督老师还没到课室 – 监督老师不必全程在课室，有时会选择“突击”检查）。接到班长的通知我赶紧联络我学院的学术行政同事派人去“救援“！也有一些时候，无论是课室电脑，投影仪(或声音系统)或互联网连接都有机会不操作。我很幸运，因为我各个不同班的班长/学委们在面临困难时都设法去解决问题，使得我大部分的网课都顺利进行。
So in every live broadcast lecture I would be: 所以在每一次直播讲座中，我都会：
- Hooking up the PowerPoint software with Rain Classroom to ensure that the class interaction will be presented and students’ responses were captured (and graded).
- Looking at my PowerPoint presentation, which was often set to “presenter mode”.
- Ensuring that the PowerPoint presentation screen was captured by DingTalk so that it could be projected in my classroom in China.
- Checking and ensuring that my sound and video streams were reaching my classroom in China on my “old” laptop.
- Communicating via WeChat on my mobile phone with my class leader, he/she would use this channel to alert me privately of any issues during class.
- Looking at the Rain Classroom screen to monitor the signing in of my students to ensure everyone who was supposed to attend had signed in (because if they were not signed in to Rain Classroom, they could not participate in any of the in-class quiz questions, and so would score no marks for this class!)
- Periodically checking DingTalk’s group messaging section to monitor messages sent to me in-class by my students (and to respond accordingly).
So there you are, I had to monitor at least six different screens for sound and video! Most were things that a person delivering face-to-face lectures would not have to worry about! All these constant (and at times simultaneous) monitoring and keeping alert were very taxing on my energy to say the least.
On top of that, I had to be aware of my own internet connection and bandwidth (and power supply) which to the credit of these utility suppliers in Malaysia, I did not face any cut in services during any of my classes over the 30 months period. I did had a couple of incidences when my “better half” accidentally dropped a metal mug cover and the lid to a cooking pot very near the closed door of the room where I had my live broadcast. My students nevertheless did not complain, a consolation perhaps?
Even before the online teaching stint, I had already put almost all of my assignments and coursework on the “online submission” mode. This was because I had a fall while pushing my electric bicycle up a ramp on campus on April 25, 2019, this had resulted in a broken right wrist and I could not even hold up a single piece of paper for days.
At that time my application of online submission initially was a bit crude (students emailed their lab reports shot on mobile cameras to me for grading). But I soon learned, to my great advantage later on, to use wen-juan-wang问卷网 （an online survey platform that could handle marking/collecting/compilation of data/upload of documents etc.) coupled with QQ documents to lay out readings and other assignment content/questions to run my online assessment system rather efficiently and effectively.
Students could attempt quizzes online that would often be graded by the system immediately so that they could re-attempt (I usually set a maximum of 3 attempts) to improve their grades. For some assignments, students would upload their papers onto the platform where I would download these papers, grade them (with comments) and return these papers to students (via a selection of online storage platforms in China such as Tencent Drive, Baidu Cloud, Aliyun Drive) with my feedback, comments and manual grading. For group assignments, I would just post the graded papers on DingTalk chat group for students to download.
The beauty of online submission /online quizzes is that there would be a paper trail. The lecturer could easily assign deadlines and for quizzes the number of attempts as well as the duration of each attempt could be customized. I even set up a link for students to make use of Wen-Juan-Wang’s feature of letting students check the status of their own submissions (thereby nullify the work needed on my part to respond to such requests!).
With the online submission framework, I was able to monitor the status of submission as the deadline came closer to remind and “chase” those who were still lagging behind. Putting this status up in DingTalk chat group had one great advantage: I could use peer pressure to “force” the “usual suspects” (yes, in each class there would be at least one such individual) to comply. As almost everything of this framework was “transparent”, I minimized the chances of students giving lame excuses for their not submitting their work on time. Unlike hardcopies of assignment papers, I always had a copy of each students graded work. This made reviewing of students’ performance for the end-of-semester final grading a lot more efficient.
The video above was captured by my kind colleague, Associate Professor Xing Zhi-Hang (郉志航副教授）when he was supervising my “Professional English” class. Apart from the fact that my physical self was not at the podium, everything else “looked” and “sounded” not much different from a truly Face-to-Face class. Personally I only realized this fact after Dr. Xing sent me this clip. I knew then at least in this aspect, my students were not disadvantaged much!
In the 2021 spring semester (Mar – Jul 2021) I was assigned to teach “Biostatistics 生物统计学” along with Professor Su Jun-Kui (苏俊魁教授）who taught his class in the Face-to-Face mode. As the subject had a compulsory final examination element and the two classes were to take the same paper, it gave a very good opportunity for me to compare if the teaching-learning processes of the online class differed much from the Face-to-Face version. In our case, the composition of students of the two classes were very similar. They signed up based on the time table slots available (as such the academic background of the students for both classes were very similar and “semi-randomly” assigned). In late July 2021 I was very happy to learn from Professor Su that the final results of both his and my students were very similar (my students’ examination scripts were graded by Associate Professor Hung Shuo-Ting 洪硕廷副教授 ) . This showed that my students, despite having me as a lecturer (I was not that good in biostatistics and had to rely on and learn a lot from Professor Su during the course of my delivery，to whom I am greatly indebted) who delivered my classes online, did not appear to be disadvantaged at all!
2021年春季学期（2021年3月至2021年7月）我被排到教“生物统计学”这门课。当时另一班学生是由苏俊魁教授以面对面授课方式授课的。由于这门课有一个强制性的期末考试，而且两个班要考同样的试卷，这给了我一个很好的机会来比较在线课程的教学过程是否与面对面课程有很大的不同。在我们的例子中，两个班的学生组成非常相似。他们根据时间表上的空档报名（两个班的学生的学术背景非常相似，进入哪个”生物统计学”班是“半随机”分配的）。2021年7月下旬，我很高兴地从苏教授那里得知，他的学生和我的学生的最终成绩非常相似。（我学生的试卷由洪硕庭副教授批改 ) . 这表明，我的学生虽然说是上网课，但他们并没有表现出一点劣势！（“生物统计学”这门课并不是我的强项，在我讲课的过程中不得不依靠苏教授指导，并从他那里学到了很多东西，非常感谢！）
I did a quick compilation of data about my three and a half year of serving as an Associate Professor at ZQU 我做了一个关于我在肇庆学院担任副教授三年半数据的快速汇编：
- The number of different classes taught = 24 [6 were Face-to-Face; 18 were online]
- The total number of students taught = 1066 [of these 786 were different individuals]
- The number of students taught online = 813 [of these 556 were different individuals]
The teaching evaluation exercises towards the end of each semester was taken very seriously at ZQU. While I was never the “top teacher”, nevertheless I was never in “danger” of being the lowest scorer. If you could read Chinese, you would notice that the bulk of my students in the July 2022 session who responded were giving my online teaching positive reviews. That was the most satisfying outcome for an academic, I could not have asked for more! I guess those students who like to learn would have found my online classes beneficial while those on the “muddle along” (得过且过）mode would have been very intimidated by my online delivery style.
In Part 2, “Remote supervision of students’ thesis work – a tall order” I will share my experience in remotely supervising students on their graduation thesis. Stay tuned!