For 18-year-old Huang Yiyang, school starts when she opens up her laptop.
Over the past two weeks, there have been no school bells, bustling corridors, busy canteens or uniforms. Instead of physically traveling to her public school in Shanghai, Huang sits at her laptop from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. often in her pajamas, watching livestreamed class after livestreamed class.
For physical education class, her teacher performs exercises for students to follow. For English, she sits silently through lectures to virtual classrooms of 20 to 30 students.
She puts stickers or tissues over her webcam, so her classmates can’t see her if a teacher calls on her to answer a question. “We’re at home, so we don’t look so good,” she says.
Huang barely leaves the house, and she hasn’t seen her friends for a month. But while she is isolated, she’s also part of what may be the world’s largest remote learning experiment.
China is battling a deadly coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 2,700 in the country alone. In a bid to stop the spread of the disease, schools across the country are closed, leaving about 180 million school-aged children in China stuck at home.
And mainland China is just the start. Millions of students in Hong Kong, Macao, Vietnam, Mongolia, Japan, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Italy have been affected by school closures. For some, that means missing class altogether, while others are trialing online learning. Authorities in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom have indicated that, if the outbreak gets worse, they could shut schools, too.
But while online learning is allowing children to keep up their education in the time of the coronavirus, it’s also come with a raft of other problems. For some students, the issues are minor – shaky internet connections or trouble staying motivated. For others, the remote learning experiment could come at a cost of their mental health – or even their academic future.
What it’s like doing school from home
The components are the same: a laptop, an internet connection, and a bit of focus. But the type of online study differs from school to school, and country to country.
For Huang, learning at home means spending hours in front of a computer with little social interaction. There’s no discussion in class, and she often can’t hear her teacher because of the poor internet connection. She feels her classmates – and their teachers – are struggling to stay motivated.
“We cannot give (the teachers) a response even though they want it. So they feel bad and we feel awkward as well,” she said.
Even after class, her work isn’t over. She usually stays up until about 10 p.m. each night, completing homework which she submits online. Although she doesn’t see her friends face-to-face, Huang says she actually feels closer to them – they talk more than they would usually on Chinese online messenger apps such as WeChat and QQ because they’re all hungry for contact.
“Because we can’t meet anyone our age in reality, so we have to go online.”
Across China, primary and middle school students are required to provide online learning, according to state media agency Xinhua. China has started broadcasting primary school classes on public television, and launched a cloud learning platform based on its national curriculum that 50 million students can use simultaneously.