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How a top Chinese university is responding to coronavirus

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  • Chinese universities have shut campuses in response to the coronavirus outbreak;
  • Zhejiang University (ZJU), spanning seven sites in east China’s Zhejiang province, has moved its teaching online;
  • Thanks to its smart campus, teacher training in online delivery and digital learning platforms, more than 5,000 courses were on offer just two weeks into the transition.

The deadly coronavirus outbreak presents a host of challenges for different sectors of society. University campuses with their congregate settings are considered particularly susceptible to contagion. As China continues to battle the epidemic, universities across the country have followed public health guidance to shut campuses.

Responding to such disruption, many are shifting to online instruction so that students can keep up their studies. Zhejiang University (ZJU), a comprehensive research university, spanning seven sites in east China’s Zhejiang province, has proactively joined what might be the world’s largest remote learning experiment.

Move tuition online but mind the pitfalls

To minimize the impact of the outbreak, ZJU officially started online teaching on 24 February in line with the original term calendar. Contingency teaching covers all ZJU students, including international students, and many courses are open to learners worldwide.

Two weeks into the “experiment”, the university was offering more than 5,000 courses to both undergraduate and graduate students. The course hub “Learning at ZJU” attracted 570,000 visits, and “DingTalk ZJU”, a live streaming app co-developed by Alibaba, recorded a total audience of 300,000. Meanwhile, around 2,500 graduate students at the university are expected to defend their theses in spring. Now they can apply for an online oral defence in order to graduate as planned.

Alongside extensive offerings, the quality of and equality in education are the other critical issues that warrant our attention. Although online teaching is no longer a novelty, we are aware that not all faculty members are equally adept at harnessing related technology and managing virtual classrooms. As part of the quality assurance process, ZJU organized a series of training sessions in mid-February for 3,670 faculty members. An instructor of one of our most popular MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) courses was invited to demonstrate how he adapted pedagogy to online tuition and forged a strong sense of community.

Student success is what online teaching efforts are all about. It is, therefore, crucial to ensure no one is left out. Seeking to bridge the digital divide, since January ZJU has funded access to online learning for more than 1,000 disadvantaged students. The university has also negotiated deals with several network providers to subsidize the data plans of its faculty and students. For students without access to live streaming or grappling with shaky internet connections, ZJU provides them with lecture playbacks and courseware packages.

Enhance preparedness by embracing technology

ZJU sees Covid-19 as an intensive test of its organizational agility. It would be impossible to pull off any alternative teaching plan without concerted action by faculty and support staff. Furthermore, given a limited window of time, the success rate is also contingent on whether there has been adequate openness to new technology and investment in infrastructure.

Drawing on its traditional strength in ICT, ZJU started early in creating a smart campus. In 2017, the “ZJU Online” project was launched which encompassed five components: administrative services, online education, academic resources, information bulletins and personal profiles. After two years, an upgraded “Learning at ZJU” platform, a significant development of the project, was put into use in November 2019.

Image: World Economic Forum

In 2018, the university began to build a wide spectrum of smart classrooms, equipped with new functions such as audio recognition and simultaneous interpreting. In recent weeks, a total of 200 smart classrooms have been quickly put in place for teachers to shoot video courses or live stream their classes.

The crisis represents an unprecedented occasion for us and our peers in China to evaluate the technical preparedness for new changes. It has also galvanized us into reflection and action, for instance, regarding how we can tap into disruptive technologies such as mixed reality, data science and artificial intelligence to better serve the needs of education and address latent disruptors like Covid-19.

Rising to future challenges with an innovation mindset

Research universities are known for their contributions to human welfare through education, research and services. While bracing for unpredictable challenges, it is becoming a strategic imperative for research universities to transform themselves into innovation-driven institutions with a greater level of excellence.

The innovation-driven university transcends the conventional model of a comprehensive research university on many fronts. For example, it places a greater emphasis on systematic development, internal/external interaction and governance capacity. In the context of the coronavirus outbreak, we are impelled to think forward and look at some of the important steps universities can take.

In an era of scientific and industrial revolutions, education is undergoing rapid changes. Information technology and cognitive science are driving the transition from education 1.0 to learning 2.0. Meanwhile, the concept of “whole-person education” is gaining momentum worldwide and globalization is turning campuses into international crossroads.

Universities need to adapt to this new environment by advocating for human-machine symbiosis, teacher-student interaction, life-long learning and ubiquitous learning. A mix of online and face-to-face teaching is one example of how universities can diversify their provision beyond bricks and mortar. The priorities may include general education, which aims at well-rounded development of students; and open-loop education, featuring co-creation and resource convergence.

In the same vein, the global innovation landscape is reshaped at a faster speed. Open innovation is taking place online through synergies regardless of time constraints or geographical boundaries. In early March, ZJU announced the one-stop “Research at ZJU” platform allowing scientists and students to collaborate online despite the disruption caused by the epidemic.

The platform is part of our ongoing efforts to create an innovation system, which is instrumental in sustaining the vitality of research universities. Internally, this system consists of disciplines, faculty, teaching and research; externally, it engages multiple stakeholders including talent, industry, alumni and public institutions on a global scale. Through an open-loop, open-source and open-system approach, the internal elements and external stakeholders can be strongly connected.

Last but not least, research universities should develop strategic thinking to achieve constant innovation and become more resilient. It comes down to the following aspects: holistic thinking, practical thinking and bottom-line thinking, as well as an excellence-oriented and open approach to work. In times of crisis, keeping the big picture in mind and maintaining smooth coordination among different units will enable a university to respond quickly and achieve shared goals. As much as we prepare for the worst, we will try our best to turn a crisis into an opportunity too.

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