in eLearning & Online Education

This week, CSOFT is here with Dr. CJ Li, Professor at Peking University and visiting scholar at Stanford University, to talk about remote learning. COVID-19 has caused work and education to shift to be online, and Dr. CJ as both a medical researcher in university settings, as well as critically acclaimed educator, has exciting insight on the direction of remote education. We’re grateful that he sat down with us to discuss.

CSOFT: Let’s start off with the hard stuff. Dr. CJ, what are some of the complications of remote classroom learning?

Dr. CJ: Obviously, human psychology and physiology make face-to-face contact irreplaceable. If you’re sitting next to me, like two feet away, it’s a different experience than video-chatting on Zoom. However, all class-based lectures can reach something like 80% of their potential through just video-chatting. You can share your screen, show movies and video. One caveat is, when I teach, I beg students to turn on their video, if their bandwidth allows. Many of them will just keep their screens black with their name on it, but I tell them, “look, it’s not great for me because I’m talking to a dark screen! I need to see you and you need to see me with facial expressions!” Whether I’m in doubt, or I disagree, these are intrinsically visible on Zoom with video.

CSOFT:Truth in words! And I’m glad I can see your facial expressions now. So helpful to the learning process. Beyond that, what are some of the benefits of remote-learning?

Dr. CJ: There are a quite a few things that remote video-chat classes actually do better. I’ll give you three examples. Firstly, as a teacher, you’re always reading your audience, seeing if students are tuning out, and trying to adapt your lecture style to keep things flowing nicely. It’s on you to make sure the class and all the little things that come with it are taken care of. But with Zoom, the students can respond to each other! They have this thumbs up-thumbs down gesture they can click. I was giving a lecture to a class at Washington University in St. Louis about global citizenship, and within a moment the entire class was giving thumbs up! It didn’t disturb my flow, but I knew, they got it.

Secondly, students can talk to each other and ask questions without disturbing the class. They can also communicate only with me, or with the whole class. One time we were talking about the great philosopher Immanuel Kant, and a student said, “Hey! I can’t find the paragraphs you guys are talking about.” While many of my students and I use this year’s edition of the book, some of them buy an older, used edition from the Columbia book store. He asked his question into the Zoom chat, where other students helped him to realize that he was using a different edition. They led him to quickly find the passage, and I was impressed by how efficiently the problem was solved.

A final example is that we can easily record and archive classes, helping our students in different time zones and countries. Our Columbia students for example, some of them have gone home to China, Japan, Korea, parts of Africa and Europe. They’re extremely good about getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning to make it to Zoom class, but if they miss it, they can easily find the video recording, click, and watch it! These are all good things coming out of it. I think people do realize that video-chatting is a supplement or an alternative, and this is going to be huge! Both for education and for business.

CSOFT: Wow, I had no idea that there were so many benefits to holding class via Zoom. Especially from the educator’s perspective, some management and administrative tasks can be a lot easier! In true CSOFT form, I love that you can conduct a simultaneous class at opposite ends of the world, while also recording it for future use, anywhere! For some final points, is there anything else you’d like to share?

Dr. CJ: As a matter of fact, yes. A Washington University friend and I just submitted a grant! It’s entitled, “Reimagining Education After COVID-19.” It’s a multi-institutional, multi-national collaboration, that talks about higher education and asks: “what do we do?” We have very practical questions, concerning trying to get students back, with big classes, to considering density in dining halls, dormitories, or bathrooms. It’s an enormous line of questioning! We also have academic questions – this is a very official, serious effort by 7 professors. We have professors from the United States, Ghana, China, Brazil, and from Europe. We knew each other, and the idea for the grant started from just chatting with each other about education after COVID-19. It got to the point where we held a Zoom webinar, and the attendance was very good. So, from there, we said, why don’t we think about this subject more deeply? One of the professors said, “Hey there’s this grant opportunity, do you all want to do it? And we said, yeah, why not!?”

CSOFT: Wonderful words, CJ. The collaborative efforts you’re working towards, with such enthusiasm, is inspiring! Your insight on the use of video-chatting platforms for remote education is as interesting as it is helpful to those who ponder the future of education, after COVID-19. I hope for the best in your team’s grant application for further study of the big questions confronting our world, and thank you for your time spent with us.