Although community crises pose a challenge to society, it also offers opportunities for development. Back in 2003, the outbreak of SARS that killed 299 people in Hong Kong not only changed the city’s hygiene practices but also led to the mass adoption of video conferencing as a communication tool.
Today, 17 years later, the deadly novel coronavirus is proving to be a burgeoning opportunity for online education.
Faced with a continuously delayed date for class resumption, “suspend classes but not learning” has become a popular slogan.
Several online learning platforms in the mainland, such as Youdao Quality Course owned by Netease, offer free courses to all primary and secondary students in Wuhan, the locked-down epicenter of the virus.
Tsinghua University, often known as China’s MIT, has launched the world’s first large-scale Chinese language massive open online course, XuetangX, offering 1,600 courses for all to attend. Non-Tsinghua students can also take part in classes and work on problems with Tsinghua students through an online platform called yu ke tang, or rain classroom.
Hong Kong students have suffered more, as classes have been suspended for nearly a third of the school year in total, due to both the social unrest and the virus that hit the city this academic year.
The Education Bureau in January announced that all schools would resume classes on March 2 at the earliest, pending further assessment.
e-Learning was not as common when the bureau announced class suspension due to “road and traffic conditions” caused by the anti-government protests last November. The suspension was mostly just an extra holiday for the students.
However, times have changed. Rather than just an inconvenience, the outbreak of the coronavirus has filled face-to-face teaching with unknown dangers as the unseen virus could linger in corners of the classroom, and the period of suspension could be rather lengthy, as people have learned from SARS.
To cope with that, Microsoft Hong Kong is offering its Future Ready Limitless Learning program to enable remote teaching and learning across the SAR immediately.
The program allows nearly 50,000 teachers and 800,000 students from all primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong to use Office 365 Education on a complimentary basis for e-Learning and collaborative learning.
The Christian & Missionary Alliance Sun Kei Primary School was among the first institutions in Hong Kong to pilot the program. On February 5, interactive online classes began for all Primary 4 to 6 students, with three to four 30-minute lessons scheduled per day.
The program is not about teachers talking to rows of empty seats. Students from all locations will be required to learn, interact and respond to the lesson.
Collaborative tools such as Microsoft Teams, a part of Office 365 Education, allows each online meeting to accommodate up to 250 people at a time.
Teachers can also record their lessons as a video and share it through the platform, together with other class materials and homework.
At SKPS, teachers also use Microsoft Teams’ OneNote to arrange assignments and quizzes that can replicate a regular physical class interaction, fully monitoring students’ learning progress at all times.
“Modern learning cannot be confined to the classroom and it is more important than ever to empower our teachers to continuously guide and nurture students during this difficult time,” said Kenneth Cheng, principal of SKPS.
“We have been using technologies to teach in the classroom, but this is our first time implementing remote learning,” he added. “It is reassuring and encouraging to see how technology can transform and elevate education with greater agility and flexibility.”
Meanwhile, a series of training to empower local educators to conduct lessons online has also been introduced.
Included are weekly webinar training sessions for teachers cohosted with the Education Bureau, experience-sharing sessions delivered by Microsoft innovative educator experts, as well as training for IT practitioners to efficiently set up the remote learning platforms.
“As Hong Kong battles the coronavirus outbreak, ensuring the safety and health of our future generation is of utmost importance,” said Fred Sheu, technology officer of Microsoft Hong Kong.
“By harnessing the power of our collaborative tools and next-generation e-Learning practices, Microsoft is committed to helping Hong Kong schools create experiences that inspire learning, stimulate the development of essential skills and empower students to achieve more anywhere, anytime,” said Sheu.
Part of the Partners in Learning initiative, the Future Ready Limitless Learning program launched in collaboration with the bureau has prepared teachers and students for success in an increasingly digital global economy.
(This article was published at The Standard on February 11, 2020: Education: Teaching an empty classroom )