Education After Covid-19 – Let’s Start Thinking

Author: Prof Ng Tai Kai, Executive Director, the HKAGE

As pointed out by many experts in different domains, the human world after the Covid-19 pandemic will be much different from before and we are all part of these changes. In the education sector, regular classes have been cancelled or replaced by on-line, ‘Zoom-Type’ classes. Students no longer learn in school where they can gain support from each other but are now learning alone and remotely at home. Although we are not able to foresee everything that will happen in the future, we could draw on the experiences in the past few months to prepare ourselves for the world of education after Covid-19.

Most experts in medicine and health science agree that a future world where Covid-19 coexists with human beings for a prolonged period is very likely to come, while social-distancing and face masks will accompany us for an extended period. Even after Covid-19 ceases to exist, to avoid a similar pandemic to attack again in the future we should change our daily practices to avoid unnecessary human-contact as much as possible. For example, the home-office arrangement will become a rather constant practice in the future.

The education sector will be hit strongly by this requirement as classes of students seated in a crowded classroom is the normal practice in Hong Kong schools (and universities) nowadays. This kind of arrangement should be minimised as much as possible in the future. Public examinations may also be affected as it can be observed in Hong Kong (re-arrangement of Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination, HKDSE) and worldwide (cancellation of examinations, such as General Certificate of Education Advanced Level, GCE AL and The International Baccalaureate, IB).

The learning practices of students were forced to change suddenly in the last few months. The replacement of regular classrooms with online, web classes means that direct teacher supervision and peer support from classmates are missing and students must learn to learn alone by themselves. Some of the immediate questions that follow from these observations are:

  1. How to prepare our students and teachers for a future education model where a considerable portion (approximately 30%) of classroom learning is replaced by on-line learning or other kinds of classes/activities with minimum human contact?
  2. If this is the case, are there corresponding IT hardware/ software that should be developed?
  3. Apart from on-line teaching/ learning mode, are there other effective modes of teaching/ learning that can avoid a mass gathering of students?
  4. Can we develop alternative assessment tools to replace conventional large-group in-class examinations (For example, by Artificial Intelligence (AI) monitored examination in front of a computer or similarly by asking open-ended questions in the examinations)?

Besides changes in the education ‘hardware’, our students and teachers have to be mentally prepared for these changes.

- Students Should be Motivated and Prepared to Learn by Themselves, so as Teachers.

The Hong Kong education system is used to a teaching model where student learning is equivalent to classroom teaching. In this model, student learning (including what to learn, how to learn) is mainly driven by what teachers teach/say in the class. A sizable reduction of classroom teaching means that students have to learn (partly) by themselves without the detailed, step-by-step instruction from teachers. The need for students’ self-regulated learning (or decisions on what to learn, how to learn) will increase.

The previous few months of online teaching experience showed that a not-too-small percentage of students did not really participate in web classes where teachers cannot monitor students’ learning behaviour directly as in regular classrooms. This brings us to the issue of students’ motivation in learning – or whether students are willing to learn by themselves when there are no formidable external forces.

The students’ motivation in learning is obviously the more fundamental issue. A student would not be interested in learning how to learn by themselves if he/ she is not motivated to learn in the first place. Interestingly, it has been shown and discussed by many scholars that students can learn much better if they are motivated to learn by themselves (For example, Carol S. Dweck’s book on Mindset. It should be cautioned that learning better is not the same as scoring better in examinations).

The situation is quite the opposite in Hong Kong where teachers often drive students to learn what the teachers believe they should learn (for better examination performance). Students are often discouraged from learning what they are interested in and as a result, students lose interest in learning after going through secondary schools. They entered university with low learning motivation, and they do not know how to plan their learning even if they want to start learning by themselves. The lack of learning motivation and self-learning technique is one of the most serious problems Hong Kong education is facing nowadays – especially if you think about the need for lifelong learning.

The Covid-19 is providing a chance for us to rectify this behaviour. Schools should begin to provide a supportive environment for self-motivated learning, and should provide some training for students about how to learn by themselves, for example, on how to build and carry out a self-regulated learning plan, how to practice with definite goals in mind (deliberate practices), etc.

Teachers should also prepare to face the situation which happens often in self-learning classes – the pace of learning, the understanding of the course materials, are different for different students, i.e. increased learner diversity. Teachers should learn how to get used to and make use of learner diversity in classes, for example, by asking students to explain and compare with the rest of the class what they have learnt. We need to be innovative and develop new learning strategies and practices as we move into the world after Covid-19.

- Digital Strategy and Beyond?

Let us compare ‘Zoom’, or online classes with what we have heard about the many possibilities Information Technology (IT) can bring to education, such as virtual classroom, augmented reality in learning monitored by AI, etc. Is the ‘Zoom’ classrooms we are witnessing the beginning of a new, AI-assisted education era? Covid-19 may have just advanced the coming of the IT education era for a few years.

To address this issue, maybe it is time to start a holistic study of what IT and AI can bring to education (in Hong Kong), and what the advantages and disadvantages of various possibilities are. The study should be led by the Education Bureau with the IT sector involved to build a digital strategy for education in Hong Kong.

The study should go beyond how to use online classes or online resources more efficiently, but should study and project how the advance in IT may impact education in the next 10-20 years, and how we shall take advantage of these developments to build a better education environment in Hong Kong. The study should also address the problem of Excellence Gap – the disparity between students from families with different economic backgrounds. It is expected that the use of IT will further the disparity between rich and poor, and this is a problem the government must address in the IT era.

[To be fair Hong Kong is doing quite well in this aspect in the sense that the Excellence Gap between rich- and poor- families in Hong Kong is weaker than most countries. However, the Gap definitely exists in Hong Kong (see Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA2018)!]

- A Different Public Examination or University Admission System?

As is well known, the learning behaviour of students is driven most strongly by public examination (HKDSE, IB, GCEAL, etc.). Without changes in the examination system, the students’ behaviour can hardly change. Covid-19 forced the re-arrangement of HKDSE (which is extremely close to being cancelled) and cancellation of GCE AL and IB in 2020. A similar situation may occur in the future, where a whole examination or part of the examination could be cancelled.

Do students have a choice of not taking HKDSE or other public examinations but still being considered for university admission? Covid-19 is forcing the education sector to rethink not only how to teach, but also to rethink how to assess students. We do not know yet how HKDSE and/or universities will respond to these challenges brought by Covid-19. Students, teachers, and parents should keep an open-mind and observe closely how the situation evolves.

- What Can We Do? The HKAGE Case

Since February 2020, the HKAGE has replaced most of its regular face-to-face classes by ‘Zoom’-classes, including classes on affective education and some student-organised activities. To prepare for the world after Covid-19, the HKAGE is going to

  1. set up a special task force to develop our own long-term digital strategy. At the same time, we shall try to be innovative in turning many of our events/classes into IT-aided events/classes.
  2. launch a series of activities/classes on self-learning, including the Annual Hotung Lecture 2021 with the theme set on ‘Self-regulated Learning’.
  3. work closely with universities to offer support to HKAGE student members entering university through non-HKDSE or non-public examination channels.

Many of our alumni have now spread over major universities in the world. We shall continue to communicate closely with them to offer up-to-date worldwide education information to our existing student members, parents and schools.