Yībù yīgè jiǎoyìn: Delivering online teaching in China

The Chinese proverb Yībù yīgè jiǎoyìn means ‘Every step makes a footprint’. In the second of our blog posts on delivery of online teaching to Shandong Agriculture University (SDAU) we will start to look at how our steady work started to make good progress, and some of the curve balls that were thrown at us. We will cover how the pre-recorded video content was created, our initial interactive session plans using WeChat and then pass the baton on to our new Learning Technologist support.

At the base of Taishan Mountain

At the base of Taishan Mountain, Shandong

As explained in the previous post SDAU teaching was to commence in China in June and would last for three weeks. This three weeks would become (to some extent) our pilot project.

In discussions with SDAU it was agreed that the format for a day of module teaching would consist of 3 pre-recorded lectures (approximately 40-45 minutes each) and 1 interactive session. These teaching sessions would follow the existing timetable. At this point it was not know if the students would be back on site or still at home, we also didn’t know if Panopto would work completely…so there were plans and contingency plans, and then further contingency plans! They looked a little like this:

If Panopto works in China:

  1. Setting up an account for the SDAU Sinocampus staff and allowing them to deliver the content from Gateway during lessons
  2. Making the Panopto videos open and sharing the links so the SDAU Sinocampus staff could share in lessons

If Panopto does not work in China:

  1. Delivering the videos through an alternate video service like Stream, or another Webinar service
  2. Downloading the videos and sharing either through Gateway or some other online service (depending on which service works in China)
  3. Downloading the videos and sharing through a file transfer service
  4. Downloading the videos and sharing using old school methods such as CDs, memory sticks etc.

If the students fail to return to campus:

  1. Allowing the students to access the Panopto content themselves using open links
  2. Passing all video content over (either using Panopto or a download service) to the SDAU Sinocampus staff so they could pass on to the students

Sinocampus is an education provider that helps broker our relationship with SDAU.

We weren’t very keen on giving access to our VLE so number 2 looked the favourite at this stage.

Pre-recorded content

As explained in the previous post some of the SDAU lecturers were externals so we began by setting up RAU accounts for them giving them access to our VLE. Our VLE (Moodle) is integrated with our video management system (Panopto). A page was set on Moodle for the SDAU delivery and Panopto folders were created for every module to be delivered. The academics were trained in creating Panopto videos and given advice on content creation e.g. use of language, structure of lectures, folder usage and naming conventions.

  • Day X – Lecture X – Title of lecture – Initials e.g.
    Day 1 – Lecture 1 – Food supply chain – MG

For the first three weeks of teaching there were approximately 200 videos required so managing this process involved some very big spreadsheets!

Examples of pre-recorded content in Panopto

Examples of pre-recorded content in Panopto

Interactive sessions and WeChat

Once we had started the ball rolling on content creation the focus began to move to how these interactive sessions would work. Ideally they would be led by the academics and offer opportunities for students to work together as a class and in groups. Chinese class sizes are large and the small-group element was important in ensuring all students would get their turn to discuss topics. Initial investigations and trawls of mailing lists suggested that while there were many webinar solutions that might fit the bill (for example Zoom was working well and had been used for some of our meetings with China) there was only one service that could be guaranteed to work in China – WeChat. Other services such as Zoom were currently working but there was no guarantee long term.

WeChat is (according to Wikipedia) a “Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app developed by Tencent. It was first released in 2011, and became one of the world’s largest standalone mobile apps in 2018, with over 1 billion monthly active users”.  It has video and chat features and has been used by SDAU and RAU to organise groups and to engage with students. I used it while out in China to communicate with classroom monitors and other people. However while it is well-used and loved in China there are some security concerns predominantly about around its use of data. Many of our academics have used WeChat while out in China but in late 2019 our ITS department sent out an email setting out some concerns:

  • There is no end-to-end encryption making traffic vulnerable to being intercepted and viewed
  • The Chinese Government actively monitor WeChat traffic to gather information
  • Once WeChat is installed on a device, it can be used as a remote listening device
  • WeChat can also be used to gather other data stored on devices, such as emails, documents, photos and videos
  • WeChat Pay is frequently used as a means for attempting credit card fraud

Clearly in an ideal world we would not recommend WeChat but on occasions it is the only practical method for communications with China. ITS were taking a number of steps to help mitigate the risks of using WeChat which included only using temporary RAU-supplied mobile phone to access it and insisting that academics must not use this phone to access RAU emails. These suggestions had not really been put into action before but meant in practice that if we were going to recommend WeChat for the interactive sessions we would need to provide SDAU lecturers with an RAU phone each with WeChat on it. These might be regarded by some as ‘burner phones’ in that they would serve one purpose and would be separated from user data. Our Service Desk purchased 15 android phones for us to use. Due to Covid-19 getting hold of the phones and the sim cards wasn’t easy and it took a few weeks for their delivery – which left us with very little set up and testing time. Once they arrived each phone was given a Gmail account and set up with nothing but the WeChat app on. The plan was to start testing how the interactive sessions would work once we had a couple of phones up and running.

However setting up the accounts proved to be more difficult than initially anticipated. In order to set up a new WeChat account it needs to be verified by an existing user. The criteria here was for someone who had registered over 6 months ago, uses WeChat pay and hadn’t registered another user in the last month. There was also a very short time period after the account was ready to go (with a numeric code and QR code) that the registered user could verify in. Numerous attempts by many of our SDAU colleagues resulted in failure and with only a couple of weeks till the first delivery date we decided to abandon our WeChat plans.

Discussions with SDAU Sinocampus staff also highlighted a few issues that may have caused problems later down the line. WeChat can be used for sending text and voice messages, files and pictures. Hundreds of people can chat in a Wechat group by text messages but it only supports nine people at most for voice and video calls, and the function of polling is not available.

Getting the band together

By now we had appointed our new Learning Technologist support person – Pip McDonald. Pip has done an amazing job of taking this project forward and will be writing the next posts in this series.

Our first Zoom call with Bonnie and Lola

Our first Zoom call with Bonnie and Lola

Not long after Pip’s appointment we had a Zoom call with the SDAU Sinocampus staff on the ground – Bonnie Wang and Lola Huo. Bonnie and Lola have also been incredible throughout this project.

At RAU the academic leads on the project are Xianmin Chang and Steve Finch.

SDAU Systems

During this time we began to understand the SDAU systems that were being used a little better.

These include:

  • VooV meeting – A webinar system similar to Zoom
  • Rain class – A teaching tool that is available as a WeChat app

In our next post Pip will take the baton and look at our new approach to interactive sessions, assessment plans, attendance monitoring, teacher observation and the lead up to the first week of teaching.

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