Students and Teachers Struggle in Virtual Classroom

COVID-19 has turned everyone’s life upside-down. Enduring the year-long pandemic situation, teachers, students and their parents have come under and find ways to adapt to this new normal. With the ‘fourth wave’ hitting Hong Kong at the end of the year, the government has announced new measures to combat the pandemic.

Due to the recent increasing confirmed cases, the government made the announcement to suspend all face-to-face classes of all kindergartens, primary schools and secondary schools on 29 November 2020, in which the suspension starts on 2 December 2020 until the beginning of school Christmas holidays.

Thanks to the pandemic situation, online classes have become the new normal. Started off in January, when the pandemic first hit, face-to-face classes have been suspended. Instead of attending classes in an actual classroom at school, teachers and students have made use of different online platforms, like Google Classroom, to resume classes.

After 4 months of suspension, the government announced the resumption of face-to-face classes in May. Divided into 3 stages, students of different years resumed classes starting at the end of the month. This “Back to School” phase ended after a month and resumed at the end of September.

Students switched from face-to-face classes to online learning after less than 3 months. Photo/

However, when the ‘fourth wave” hit, students are back to having classes virtually. ‘I don’t even remember when I started Zoom classes again’ said Alvis, a Primary 3 student. ‘It seemed like I was “Zooming” all the time.’

‘I usually feel tired after the first couple of lessons.’ said his sister, Acelynn who is a Primary 1 student, also doing online classes via Zoom. ‘Staring at the screen is tiring.’

‘I miss having classes at school sometimes.’ said Acelynn, a Primary 1 student having online classes at home.

Students in Hong Kong have been having online classes at home due to COVID-19 outbreak started at the beginning of the year. Photo/Shirley Yip

After nearly a year of ‘online school’, many students have got used to this form of learning. Still, they do miss going back to school. ‘I miss having classes like PE lessons.’ said Alvis. ‘I can’t run around and play ball games with my classmates’

‘When I finish my work for my Visual Arts class, the teacher can’t really see my drawing.’ said Acelynn. ‘I also miss talking to my friends.’ 

Instead of handing in the actual homework, students usually upload their work to online platforms. ‘We have to print out the worksheets, finish them, take a picture and upload them to Google Classroom.’ said Alvis.

Yet, these operations often require the assistance of an adult. ‘It’s really troublesome because my kids are too young to deal with these.’ said the two children’s mother, Shirley Yip, who is not at home during the day because of work.

‘It is very hard to keep up with all these.’ said Yip, as her children are too young to deal with the operation of the online systems and printing procedures.

‘I have to buy a printer because of this situation which is really a waste of resources.’ she added. ‘The school usually has already printed out copies of the worksheets, so us printing at home again is just a waste.’

When asked whether or not students can study effectively in this virtual classroom, as a parent, Yip said, ‘I think they can still learn overall because they still have to do their homework, but I worry the content would be too shallow.’ Because of the limitation of online teaching, such as the internet and connection problems, teachers cannot teach content that is too difficult. Everything has to be broken down, so students, especially younger ones, can fully grasp the concepts.

In fact, not only do students and parents need to get used to using online resources, teachers also need to adapt. ‘It’s hard. The time I spent preparing teaching materials for my classes has increased tremendously’ said Yip, who is teaching Visual Arts at a secondary school. Teachers have to take on more responsibility than they already have, to make sure the delivery of knowledge is effective.

‘Preparation aside, I have to put a lot of extra work in advance, which I normally don’t have to. I even have to learn to edit videos myself.’ said Yip, who often pulls all-nighters to prepare these extra teaching materials for her students.

Yip has to prepare colour mixtures in advance, so as to save time when conducting the classes. Photo/Tim Arterbury on Unsplashed

‘PE lessons are very different in a virtual classroom.’ said Alton Choi, a PE teacher at a secondary school. ‘Students cannot do much practical exercises.’

Without proper supervision by teachers and the appropriate setting for the class, students may injure themselves. So, most PE lessons only require students to do simple stretching and fitness exercises. However, not everyone has the area at home to perform these physical activities.

‘There is nothing I can do really, all I can do is just to ask them to try their best to follow along.’ said Alton Choi, a PE teacher at a secondary school in Ho Man Tin.

Instead of going to the school playground, teachers play videos related sports and fitness for them. Photo/Anais Tam

Instead of going to the playground, the teachers will play videos related to sports and fitness for the students. Choi said, ‘I usually introduce sports that the students seldom do, especially those that are not available at the school.’

‘After each class, I usually ask the students to complete a Google Form as an assessment.’ He added.

‘We need to think of many interactive activities, so as to make sure the students are engaging in class and listening to us.’ said Yip. Since teachers have to constantly make time for these activities every lesson, the actual teaching time is usually reduced.

‘I really wish the “Zooming” days are over.’ repeated over and over again by Yip , who teaches at a secondary school in Sham Shui Po as a Visual Arts teacher.

‘Before the COVID-19 situation worsened, I had to attend extra training sessions to learn how to operate the online system for conducting online classes.’ said Cheryl Wong, an. English tutor at an education centre in Olympic, teaching kindergarten to Primary school kids. ‘It takes a lot of time to learn and adapt to this.

Suspension rules also apply to private education centres, where teachers and students also switched to online classes. Photo/Anais Tam

When it comes to the actual teaching, Wong said it is very stressful. As education is very dependent on the Internet this year, many complain about the technicality of it. Similar to the problems faced by school teachers, there are a lot of unnecessary technical problems that will not happen during a face-to-face class.

‘Things that used to be simple becomes much more complicated.’ She added. ‘Normally, taking out the teaching materials from bookshelves takes seconds, and now it takes minutes to retrieve the materials from the computer, show it to the students, and make sure they can see it on the screen.’ This can be really stressful for teachers who only have a limited timeslot to teach students each lesson.

‘The uncertainty of this is a nightmare when teaching.’ said Wong, the English tutor at an education centre, who teaches K2 to S2 students.

‘I have to work out whether the students understand my delivery from the blurry visuals on the screen, or even solely from the voice of those who will not turn on the camera, so it takes a lot of extra time and effort to make sure they understand the concept.’ She added.

With the suspension of schools, education centres have taken measures to make sure students are safe to have face-to-face classes after the suspension period. Photo/Anais Tam

So… How does online learning affect children’s learning?

Amid the worsening COVID-19 outbreak, the education sector has definitely taken a hit. As we can imagine, online learning has posed quite a challenge for students. At a young age, we start to learn to listen, to talk, to write, and to read. However, with limited access to the full learning experience at school, can students actually learn effectively? Will online learning affect the language development of younger children?

In fact, studies have shown that reading development in the digital era has no doubt been affected. The increasing use of keyboard input nowadays may affect learners differently. For instance, English is an alphabetic language. Typewriting on a keyboard does not hurt alphabetic learner’s reading performance because we can directly type out a word alphabet by alphabet. In fact, studies have shown the use of keyboard may even help to reinforce children’s spelling ability. So, we can say good keyboard skills infer good vocabulary. This is crucial as studies have shown vocabulary acquisition is essential for successful reading development.

Yet, this does not apply to all languages. Chinese, on the other hand, relies heavily on our visual skills. Started at a young age, students are required to complete many Chinese handwriting exercises, ranging from copying Chinese characters to passages, in order to help children recognize the shape and structure of the characters.

Reading and writing Chinese characters require visual skills, and handwriting characters have proven to be effective for Chinese learners. Photo/Anais Tam

With online learning, one way of writing Chinese characters with a keyboard would be using the Pinyin method, where Pinyin users type alphabetic letters instead of characters’ strokes, components or radicals. However, the increasing use of Pinyin input method has shown to affect both children and adults’ reading skills, because this alphabetic typing process never involves the visuospatial skill needed to read and write Chinese characters.

Though this pronunciation-based inputting method is harmful to our reading skills, studies have found form-based methods, like Cangjie input method where users type out the component of the Chinese character, may help reinforce our visual memory of the characters. Still, more research on this topic is yet to be done.

Cangjie input may be good for Chinese learners as typing out the component reinforces their visual memory. Photo/Anais Tam

Not only does online learning affect children’s reading and writing development, without the proper education from schools, some also worry about children’s learning attitude. ‘I am more concerned about this actually.’ Yip added, the mother to a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. ‘Started back in January, when they switched to online classes, they are way too free at home, with no teachers actually there to deal with their discipline.’

‘I miss going back to school.’ said Alvis, as he finds online learning dull and boring at times.

True, motivation to learn is key to successful learning. Only staring at the computer screen at home, with a teacher’s voiceover, can be hard for children to concentrate. ‘It can be very boring sometimes.’ said Alvis.

Interaction in class is crucial to effective learning. Photo/CDC on Unsplashed

‘Online teaching is so not effective.’ said Wong, as she complains about this new mode of teaching.

Education relies heavily on the interaction between teachers and students, as well as the feedback and response from students. Wong added, ‘You can’t do that with all the technical problems and when everyone is stuck in front of a computer screen.’

(Feature Photo/Anais Tam)

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