Online education: how Hong Kong got ahead of the game

Even before coronavirus hit, Hong Kong was investing in new types of online education that challenge teaching conventions

June 26, 2020
Source: Responsive4U

When the Hong Kong government first funded Responsive4U, a blended learning experiment between four local universities, it couldn’t have known how prescient that investment would be in the Covid-19 era.

Since 2018, the project has allowed students to take for-credit courses taught by partner universities via a combination of online and in-person classes. The participating institutions – the University of Hong Kong (HKU), The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) – had to work together to find solutions to technological, scheduling and other logistic hurdles. Currently, the project has 11 courses taken by 2,000 students, but is looking to expand.

“Obviously, when we decided to fund this project, we had absolutely no idea how the spread of Covid-19 would disrupt the higher education sector to such an extent,” James Tang, secretary-general of the University Grants Committee, said during an e-symposium organised by HKU.

Professor Tang announced that the UGC was increasing funding for its Teaching Development and Language Enhancement Grant, a striking move when public education is facing cuts around the world. The budget for this grant will increase by 52 per cent in the 2019-2022 triennium, bringing the total over three years to HK$781.2 million (£81.4 million).

Ian Holliday, vice-president and pro vice-chancellor (teaching and learning) at HKU, said that Responsive4U set the scene for many of the changes that had been made due to campus closures and a quick shift to online learning. “Three years ago, we started to experiment with some of the issues we’re suddenly dealing with because of Covid,” he said.

Ricky Kwok, a HKU engineering professor and Response4U’s project leader, called the initiative “a stress test for genuine collaboration between institutions”. It is also a way to “push the envelope in terms of the systemic arrangements for courses”.

Even the project’s marketing, which uses anime-type characters depicting the different institutions, is different to traditional university promotion.

“We have some crazy ideas,” Professor Kwok said. “Conventional ways of organising teaching are being seriously challenged. We want to decouple content from time and space.” He also wanted to “transcend course, departmental or even institutional boundaries”.

For example, live taught sessions may no longer need to include didactic teaching. Those classes can be completed with pre-recorded videos, which frees up classroom time for active learning.

And with “compressed modes of teaching”, didactic learning could be limited to three or four intensive weeks of online instruction. “Students like to binge-watch videos,” Professor Kwok joked. That would leave the remaining 10 weeks of a semester for exchanges, experiential learning, or service in the community.

Chetwyn Chan, associate vice-president (learning and teaching) at PolyU, said that future plans could involve HyFlex, or hybrid-flexible, models, in which each class would have both online and face-to-face versions, which would run in parallel. “Students could jump back and forth between the virtual and the physical,” he said.

However, he added that these initiatives were more demanding on lecturers, and required additional resources and teacher training.

Several of the speakers at HKU’s online event said that Responsive4U’s intra-institutional exchanges, even between campuses within the same city, were valuable experiences for students.

“PolyU’s focus is on professional education, so our students don’t always have the opportunity to be exposed to people outside these professions,” Professor Chan said. “General education courses are quite new to us, and this project gives our students a wider choice.”

The most popular Responsive4U course so far is The Science of Crime Investigation, which uses an augmented reality app to recreate a CSI-type crime scene. Students can play a game to solve a crime based on evidence including weapons and autopsies. 

Wincy Chan, one of the course’s lecturers from the HKU pathology department, said that her experience with Responsive4U was helpful after Covid-19 hit and campuses were closed. “It made the unexpected transition to online learning much smoother,” she said.

She also used the opportunity to find a solution to a situation that vexes almost all teachers with large classes. “We got so tired of answering the same questions over and over, ­so we created a chatbot­­­,” she said. “They can ask 1,000 questions without exhausting the bot.”

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