Managing the Switch to Online Learning

 – Dr. Elizabeth LaCouture, Director, Gender Studies Programme –

One thing we have learned at HKU is that offline classes do not automatically translate to online classes. When classes were cancelled in November, we focused on helping students finish out the semester. The second semester, as it became increasingly apparent that we might not return to in-person classes, we tried to adjust our in person classes to the online environment.

1. Managing the Online Environment

The first step is to select appropriate technology, learn how to use it and figure out how to make it work for your class. This is no small task, and instructors spent at least twice as much time preparing to offer their classes online as they did on offline classes. Our teachers are using programmes recommended and/or supplied by the university, as well as technology that students are already using. Technology includes – Email, attachments like PPTs, Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook, Panopto, Moodle and Youtube. They are holding seminars with breakout rooms, group chats, recording lectures, writing multiple choice quizzes to the lectures… Instructors have felt constraints of limited technical support. For example, the university provides desktops for offices, but not laptops for working from home. Some departments have purchased microphones for teaching staff.

2. Managing the Offline Environments

When classes go online during a public health crisis, the learning environments becomes multiplied to include the student’s home, the instructor’s home or office, and campus. Our students are 80% locals, 20 % non-locals: non-locals include Mainland China and international. Non-local students were requested to upload a VPN, which the University provides, still technology used in Hong Kong has not always worked in the mainland. Students who are local to Hong Kong mostly live with their families. We are a publicly funded university and our students are socio-economically diverse. Many students and teaching assistants live in small flats with extended family. Most students don’t have their own bedroom. Thus, some students and TAs prefer to converse through written chat as opposed to video conference, or a student might “join” a video class but keep their camera and mic on mute. Instructors have been keeping the offline environment of students in mind and have been flexible. Likewise, many instructors also live in small flats, and some have children and/or partners also working at home. Instructors have had to negotiate recording lectures and holding seminars with their family member’s schedules. Although classes have been cancelled, campus is still open. Some instructors have elected to work on campus, and some staff have been coming in on a partial schedule. The Gender Studies Programme has not required any staff member, academic or non-academic to work on campus, and we have encouraged people to work from home. We have also distributed masks and sanitizing wipes to all members of our staff whether or not they choose to work on campus.

During our second switch to online classes, the offline environment has been particularly challenged by the public health crisis. Student mobility is restricted. Gender Studies assignments that require self-reflection can easily be completed at home, but many assignments involve observation in or engagement with the broader community. Our instructors have had to tailor their assignments accordingly. We have also been acutely aware of the toll that the current public health crisis is having on mental health in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers share the collective memory of having experienced similar fear and isolations during the SARS crisis of 2003. Moreover, recent protests have put mental health stress on the city’s inhabitants, especially students. According, to a recent article in the Lancet, by January 2020, one on five Hong Kong adults over 18 years was experiencing symptoms of PTSD. We are aware that online learning, administrative work, and research is occurring under very stressful conditions.

3. Managing Assessment

The university has allowed flexibility for students. When we were not sure whether we would return to in person classes, the add/drop period was extended. Once we were certain that we would be staying online, the University extended the drop option to the last week of classes. Moreover, students are allowed until the last week to declare a course pass/fail. Typically, most courses at HKU do not offer the pass/fail option. Instructors have had to strike a balance between keeping to the syllabus and adapting assignments to fit with what students can complete given the restricted learning environment.

4. Measuring Outcomes and Challenges

What will this mean for teaching and learning in the Gender Studies Programme? All our programmes undergo review from an external examiner annually. We will have the opportunity to evaluate student work from this academic year and compare it to the year before. Anecdotal evidence from last semester suggests that students still produced good work and most got it in on time. But students will miss out on forming relationships and the sense of community that is built through the Gender Studies classroom. Moreover, in person learning might better help “level the playing field” between students of higher and lower resource backgrounds. Finally, we must consider the toll that this has taken on academic and non-academic staff. With the cancellation of Hong Kong schools, parents have been managing their classes and/or administrative work alongside their child’s learning. This will especially impact faculty research productivity that institutions value so highly.

The Gender Studies Programme is fortunate to have such dedicated and talented faculty teaching in our programme and in affiliated courses. The transition to online learning has only been realized through their efforts and commitment to high quality teaching and learning.