E-learning is challenging, but LU overcomes with concerted efforts

The coronavirus outbreak and social unrest in Hong Kong over the past months have led most universities and schools in Hong Kong to adopt — unprecedentedly and unavoidably — long-discussed e-learning education methods.


The impact is huge. Not only students, but parents, teachers, administrative staff and technical support officers all had to adapt to e-learning overnight.


United force makes e-learning happen promptly


At Lingnan, e-learning has meant more hard work in all departments and offices -- not only all faculty members, but also the Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC), the Information Technology Services Centre (ITSC), and Registry -- to ensure classes are not disrupted and, most importantly, that outstanding quality is never sacrificed.


“The TLC plays a facilitating and supporting role in assisting our faculty members to adopt online teaching and learning and their real-time mode, including but not limited to benchmarking with our sister universities, providing guides, offering on-site professional and technical support, and delivering training workshops,” said James Chong Chit-ming, Education Manager (Technology) of the Centre.


When online learning was first fully adopted in November 2019, the TLC immediately provided onsite professional support to faculty members, conducted two e-learning workshops for them, and worked with Registry to develop and circulate four comprehensive user guides for teaching staff and students.


 “We also identified the need to deliver video-based lectures and promote the use of the Panopto video management system acquired by ITSC a few years ago,” he added.


​​ITSC is responsible for IT and technical support for the whole university, and works in close association with the TLC. “At that time we realised that a lot of students are all over the world, and in particular we need to support students in mainland China so they can access e-learning materials quickly. We put the learning management system Moodle on a cloud so that students can access it directly,” said Dr Louisa Lam Mei-chun, Chief Information Officer and Librarian.


And this technology race continues. In February 2020, Lingnan decided to offer real-time online learning focusing on student engagement and teacher-student interaction during the coronavirus pandemic.


Therefore the ITSC has not only upgraded its Zoom online licence, providing user guides and tutorials online for teachers and students to master the programme, but also conducted workshops delivered by in-house ITSC staff, provided technical setups and on-site support to teachers, and monitored Zoom usage.


The ITSC has increased its bandwidth through the Joint University Computer Centre (JUCC) for a better, quicker, smoother connection.


In response to both students’ and teachers’ feedback, the ITSC has increased the storage capacity of the Panopto system to allow lecture playbacks.


 “We hope to reduce the technical limitations of recorded sessions and real-time teaching,” Dr Lam said.


Ever since November, technical support staff have worked quietly around the clock backstage, voluntarily offering assistance to both teachers and students in the evenings and weekends.


“It’s especially difficult when teachers are working from home, as problems are harder to diagnose virtually, and teachers may have different computer models, internet services, etc. So we email back and forth, and sometimes hold Zoom meetings to help them,” Dr Lam explained.


Prof Mark McGinley demonstrates his approach of online learning


Not really a challenge but a new experience


"There’s probably an 80 per cent similarity between the Powerpoint presentation I’d use when I’m lecturing compared to those I use for online lectures. But that other takes a lot of time,” said Prof Mark McGinley, Professor of Teaching and Head of the Science Unit and Director of Core Curriculum and General Education Office.


 “Almost all my focus is on organising these courses. So I’ll come in on Monday and upload everything; sometimes almost all Monday is spent preparing the feedback from last week’s assignments, and then I’ll start working on the next lessons.


 “Even classes I’m familiar with and have taught many times — it’s a seven-day-a-week process taking lessons that I taught face to face and turning them into good lessons and assignments online.”


Unlike the small classes which make a real-time Zoom class possible, Prof McGinley’s class of about 300 students for a common core subject makes live lecturing inefficient, if not impossible. Instead, he uses Moodle and uploads a PowerPoint presentation for each of the week’s lessons, then follows up with emails and other means of communication for close, almost real-time communication with students.


What concerns Prof McGinley is the quality of information, teaching and learning, and not the extra effort and time. “We have to make sure we’re providing the proper sequencing of information and activities so that students can progress step by step. From experience I have a good sense of how much information I can put in a lecture so that people understand, and when I get it wrong I can see the feedback immediately. So it’ll be interesting to find out if the students would rather work through one big, long presentation, or whether it is better to break it down into four or five smaller segments,” he said.


Therefore the whole practice is a learning process not only for students, but also teachers, in particular those are not experts in IT and remain understandably reluctant to change.


“So now we’re forced to do it. This is a fascinating experiment, and at the end there needs to be lots of reporting back and forth, and sharing. We can learn from my colleagues’ successes, and from our failures too, because it really is a grand experiment. You can’t fake it.”


Quality teaching and learning is top priority


A scientist himself, McGinley believes in data and evolution. “And we see evidence that some of the things we’re doing are effective, what we did in our old teaching that was effective. When we come back to face to face, we can start doing more of what they call blended learning. We may switch things that way. So it will be very interesting to see what Lingnan looks like, and all of Hong Kong, in two to three years.”


Dr Lam agrees. “Now that this has been implemented, it shows that even though online learning can be effective, you need some skills to use it, such as how to hold the students’ attention. Students may be less motivated outside the face-to-face classroom setting and interaction with the teachers. Now teachers need creativity to retain students’ attention.”


She stresses that ITSC support staff will continue to work with teachers on this and make the most of online learning, including games and interaction, to increase the students’ concentration. “Registry, TLC, ITSC — all these departments need to work closely together to improve online learning in the future,” Dr Lam said.


 “Many of our teaching staff are far better at online digital teaching than they initially thought,” said Prof Shalendra Sharma, Associate Vice-President (Academic Quality Assurance and Internationalisation) and Acting Director of the TLC.


“Overall we are satisfied, given these anxious and unpredictable times, that our teaching and learning are not unduly compromised. Teachers are trying their utmost to continue to deliver the highest quality instruction,” Prof Sharma said.


“It is very flexible as I can watch it again whenever I want… the only thing which is less convenient is we cannot approach our professors by marking their office hour time, but we can still send them emails so it is still fine,” said Margaret Yim Yan-yan, a year 4 Translation major.


“I like the recording function, I had it when I was in my exchange period and it is very good for my revision. Flexibility and the recording function are the best. Some professors even make a summary of what they taught, which is even better.” she added.

Prof Shalendra Sharma

It is certain that e-learning is making a significant short-term impact on traditional teaching and learning, and in the long term it can be further developed to supplement face-to-face teaching. Given Lingnan’s resources, the immediate, full implementation of e-learning has only been possible thanks to the concerted efforts of all LU members and students, and it shows the dedication and care of the University and its teachers to students.  As Prof Sharma said “We have been and are cooperating with our sister institutions to learn from each other and to provide a meaningful learning experience for our students.”