Covid drives Chinese university to embrace digital transformation

‘HyFlex’ learning and cutting-edge virtual reality techniques set to help students and staff bridge physical and language barriers

September 10, 2020
Source: Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University
Plans for the XJTLU Entrepreneur College (Taicang)

Having already taken a rapid leap into online learning because of the Covid-19 pandemic, one institution in China is using the opportunity to integrate simultaneous learning and virtual reality into its very fabric.

When teaching restarted on 7 September, classrooms at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) had been revamped with facilities for hybrid-flexible (HyFlex) teaching, or simultaneous in-person and online instruction.

Like most institutions with a significant international student body, XJTLU will not be welcoming all students back to campus right away, as there are still travel bans and flight restrictions into China. About 20 per cent of its modules this semester will be taught both online and offline, while 30 per cent will be online-only.

“The university is committed to ensuring the highest quality of teaching for every student, whether they can return to campus or not,” said Chee Seong Chin, dean of learning and teaching.

The new equipment includes high-definition, light-sensitive webcams with moveable tripods and multiple microphones, so “professor-sitting-behind-the-desk” is no longer the default point of view. Another option is use of a camera that can render handwriting or 3D objects online.

“The technologies chosen make the online learning and teaching experience as close as possible to the on-site experience,” said Roland Sherwood, educational technology manager of the university’s Education Development Unit.

David Goodman, vice-president for academic affairs, said the management used a flexible approach to teaching: “We have allowed schools and departments to determine their own way of doing things, not only for modules, but also across the entire curriculum.”

The administration will get feedback from students, who will be surveyed weekly on their learning experiences.

Virtual reality will also play a major role in the institution’s forward planning.

Austin Pack, a PhD candidate and manager at XJTLU’s Virtual Reality Language Learning Lab, was part of a team that created programmes to teach academic writing in English and Chinese characters using immersive, interactive environments. The team also developed a presentation simulator, so students could practise speaking in front of an audience even if they were physically isolated.

Mr Pack told Times Higher Education that “certain VR experiences may afford students linguistic and cross-cultural experiences that might otherwise never be available to them. While many language students would like to study abroad and learn a foreign language by interacting with native speakers, they don’t always have this opportunity.”

“Research conducted on VR and language learning, including research done at XJTLU, suggests that the sense of being present in the virtual world can be highly motivating for students,” he said. “VR for learning languages is relatively new and not yet well studied. It is exciting to be on the leading edge of this research interest, which shows promise in connecting learners with far-away native speakers, as well as being a novel and fun way to learn.”

Similarly, virtual reality can bring together students of different cultural and language backgrounds, even when physical borders are closed.

“Chinese students want to rub shoulders with Western teachers and students and experience an internationalised learning environment that will help them become world citizens,” Mr Pack said. “Likewise, our international students from around the world join us to get a new perspective about themselves and those around them, learning Chinese and developing skills and knowledge prized in a global market.”

While XJTLU’s new technology has proved especially useful during the Covid-19 closures, it had already been in development for initiatives planned years ago. By 2022, some non-credit courses will be taught simultaneously at its main campus in Suzhou and a new base in the nearby city of Taicang.

A new physical space for the Entrepreneur College will include a 1 sq km Learning Mall dedicated to lifelong learning. XJTLU will also open a research-intensive VR lab in its School of Film and TV Arts at the end of this year to explore cutting-edge design, cinematography, spatial sound and interactive elements in moviemaking.

“We are laying the foundations and the groundwork for something quite big and quite bold,” Mr Sherwood said.

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