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China's Tsinghua University turns pandemic into opportunity

GUANGZHOU – Tsinghua University, one of China's most prestigious academic institutions, acted quickly to turn the crown crisis into opportunity to promote reforms to change its future.

It was one of the first universities in the world to face the colossal challenge of how to respond to the virus. In January 2020, when what would become known as SARS-CoV-2 began to spread rapidly in China, the university wondered if it would have to delay the start of classes in February. He managed to avoid this prospect by moving all classes online, accomplishing the feat in half a month.

This year, when it celebrates its 110th anniversary, the university is looking for a future driven by information technology.

In the mornings and afternoons from Monday to Friday, legions of students cycle between buildings on the sprawling Tsinghua campus near Wudaokou, a neighborhood in the Haidian district of the northwestern areas of Beijing. Masks are worn by most students and are the only notable sign that the pandemic is still looming.

But there has been a sea change in the way classes are taught. In the fall semester that began last September, so-called hybrid classes were introduced. These classes combine traditional face-to-face teaching with online learning activities. To introduce the new system, ceiling monitors have been installed in most classrooms.

Many students have already returned and are receiving face-to-face instruction. But the university has a history of accepting large numbers of foreign students, and the pandemic has made it nearly impossible for many of the worst-affected countries to return. Therefore, the classes are also offered online. A smartphone application has been developed to allow students to access video recordings of classes.

The system has proven popular. "It's very convenient," said one graduate student, noting that study materials can also be accessed through the app.

Tsinghua was founded in 1911 as "Tsing Hua Imperial College", a preparatory school for a scholarship program. for Chinese students to be educated in the US, funded by some of China's repairs to the US after the Boxer Rebellion.

Tsing Hua Imperial College, the forerunner of Tsinghua University, was founded in Beijing in 1911.

Tsinghua University is widely recognized as one of China's leading academic institutions, one that rivals the University of Beijing. His students include Chinese President Xi Jinping and his predecessor Hu Jintao. Tsinghua has been named the number one Asian university in various rankings.

When the first wave of COVID-19 infections swept through China, the school considered postponing the semester that was supposed to start in February 2020. "The novel coronavirus outbreak turned serious, we thought we had no choice but to postpone the semester." said Yang Bin, vice president of the university. "But three teachers proposed to use the crisis as an opportunity to change the approach of teaching classes by [incorporating] TI. We responded to their proposal by deciding a total change to remote learning".

Yang and Tsinghua University President Qiu Yong, in January of that year, had attended the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. When he returned home, China was experiencing a national health crisis. On January 23, Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, was locked down. But it was too late; the virus had already traveled to other parts of China and the world.

Canceling all face-to-face classes and moving all courses online seemed the only way to start the spring semester on schedule. But was that possible?

Students cycle around campus in April.

The university turned to Yu Xinjie, a professor in the department of electrical engineering and a researcher in magnetoelectric materials, intelligent optimization and other areas. Yu is known as a pioneer in China in the use of MOOCs, massive open online courses, which are available to anyone.

He was appointed to lead a 15-person team charged with moving all classes online.

Yu emphasizes that online classes must be of the same quality and effectiveness as face-to-face instruction. Tsinghua University already had online classes, but they were complementary. The system was not ready for prime time.

Tsinghua University began offering a hybrid program of in-person and remote instruction in September 2020 (Photo courtesy of Tsinghua University).

Another obstacle was that only about 400 instructors, a little more than 10% of all faculty members, had online teaching experience. On February 3, the university tested a platform with the participation of its more than 50,000 students. The trial was plagued with interruptions and other problems.

Yu's team worked overnight to improve the system while spending two weeks training all faculty members who were to teach online.

A list of issues that needed to be addressed was created, including actions that would need to be taken if students lost their connections during class or if a teacher's home was affected by a power outage. in a smooth unfolding. The spring semester began on February 17 and more than 4,000 online courses were taught.

The university returned to face-to-face teaching in the fall, but many students – the school has 3,000 foreign students – were unable to return to campus. In response to the problem, Tsinghua began offering hybrid instruction. It was an attempt to ensure that students who cannot travel to campus do not have to withdraw from classes or leave school altogether.

Vice President Yang is confident in the effectiveness of this approach and the financial health of the institution. "We have absolutely no financial problems," he said. "Most of the students have already returned and everything is back to normal."

The university also plans to offer more campus experiences online.

Tsinghua University President Qiu Yong speaks at a ceremony to mark the university's 110th anniversary in April. (Photo courtesy of Tsinghua University)

At a ceremony on April 25 to celebrate the 110 Tsinghua anniversary, President Qiu spoke about the university's success in responding to the pandemic. The institution "led the reform of online education amid the challenge of dealing with the new coronavirus and showed how universities should act in the face of such a crisis," he said. "We will break down the wall of physical space to make our university even more open."

Tsinghua is receiving many inquiries from other universities about its online program for all classes and plans to expand cooperation with other academic institutions at home and abroad.

The world-renowned education and research entity is demonstrating its dedication to its motto of "self-discipline and social commitment" through its efforts to forge its future powered by information technology.

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