Student Well-Being

Online Learning Fills Void in Nations Coping With SARS

By Rhea R. Borja — May 21, 2003 7 min read
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Over the past two months, schools throughout Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore looked like mini-ghost towns: empty, silent classrooms, deserted hallways, and vacant playing fields.

The steep escalation of people contracting the potentially fatal respiratory illness known as SARS forced many government and school officials in Asia to close school for more than 2 million students. Schools are gradually reopening, and, surprisingly, many students aren’t behind academically.

That’s because while school buildings stood empty, students still attended classes—virtually. Their experience, a U.S. observer says, could hold lessons for American educators as they make contingency plans for a host of different emergencies.

Thousands of Asian students logged in to Web- based, virtual classrooms, where they took notes and spoke to their teachers and classmates using technologies such as Web cameras, audio-video phones, Web- conferencing software, instant-messaging tools, and multimedia animation programs.

More than 8,000 students in 60 schools in Hong Kong, for example, clicked into powerful, interactive Web sites developed by the publicly financed Hong Kong Baptist University and the government-run Hong Kong Education City Limited, to continue their lessons.

“The virtual-classroom program [brought] us to a new horizon of school education,” said Jonathan Lai, the vice principal of the 800-student Yan Chai Hospital Wong Wha San Secondary School, in Hong Kong. “It made us aware that learning can go on effectively and efficiently outside the classroom. ... The SARS school-closure period proved that this idea work[s].”

Schools in the United States could take a page out of the Asian schools’ crisis-planning playbook, said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, based in Westlake Village, Calif.

Online learning, Mr. Stephens said, could be integral to a school district’s emergency plan, not just for drawn-out medical crises like SARS, but also for situations like last fall’s series of sniper shootings in the Washington area, which prompted some school closings; a biological-weapons attack; and even more familiar crises such as snowstorms and tornadoes.

"[Virtual learning] makes a lot of sense for schools,” he said. “As new levels of threats and violence move onto the scene, schools need to continue to develop their technological capabilities to deal with these crises.”

‘Crisis-Management Tool’

The American School in Japan has already taken that precautionary approach.

The school has not closed because of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, but if it does, teachers and students at the 1,450-student private international school in Tokyo will be ready. They’re trained to use Washington-based Blackboard Inc.'s software, which allows students to turn in their homework via digital “drop boxes,” and take real-time classes, said Eugene Witt, the school’s technology coordinator.

He and other administrators started planning an online-learning option last fall for emergencies such as earthquakes.

Mr. Witt’s supervisor, the school’s director of technology, previously worked at a school in Kobe, the site of a massive earthquake in 1995 that killed 5,500 people and injured 35,000 others.

“He wanted to put this in place based on his experience,” Mr. Witt said. “We see this is as a crisis-management tool.”

The American Connection

Meanwhile, in Toronto, four schools closed, one for more than a week, in April because of SARS cases in the Canadian city. School officials in the 300,000-student district didn’t implement a full-scale virtual-learning program. But they did gather online- learning links from the Canadian Ministry of Education on the district’s Web site for access to material supplementing students’ classwork.

Up to 1,000 students were quarantined for 10 days or otherwise stayed at home because of SARS, said Maureen Kaukinen, a system superintendent for the Toronto district.

“We had homework provisions [online] for these kids,” she said. “They need to keep up with their classwork and keep engaged.”

Warning bells started ringing for Hong Kong educators in February, when people there started dying of the mysterious pneumonia-like illness. SARS, discovered in the Guangdong province of southeastern China, had killed more than 100 people in Hong Kong at that time. Since then, that number has more than doubled.

Almost 600 people worldwide had died from the illness as of last week, a large majority of whom had lived in Hong Kong or China, according to the World Health Organization. More than 7,600 people have been infected with SARS since November.

In response to the health crisis, Hong Kong officials shut down the city’s 1,300 elementary and high schools and colleges on March 29.

That’s when Alex Fung, the chairman of Hong Kong Baptist University’s task force on Web-based teaching and learning and its head of education studies, ramped up an ambitious online project called the Virtual Integrated Teaching and Learning Environment, or VITLE.

In two days, with the help of staff members and several U.S. technology companies, including Macromedia Inc., of San Francisco, and the Bellevue, Wash.-based Microsoft Inc., that Web platform was up and running.

It allowed teachers to post their curricula online, write on digital whiteboards, and magnify their materials so students could read them on their computers. It also enabled teachers to see, hear, and speak to their students in real time.

In the first week of use, 15 schools signed up to use VITLE, Mr. Fung said. By the second week, 60 were using the program.

“I saw the possibility of using this to give schools the opportunity to keep their students learning,” Mr. Fung said in a Web-video interview from his office in Hong Kong earlier this month.

In addition, Hong Kong Education City Limited, a division of the Hong Kong government’s Education and Manpower Bureau, partnered with First Virtual Communications, a company based in Santa Clara, to make HKedCity’s Web site interactive for schools.

The technology company’s software not only made it possible for teachers and students to teach and attend class as usual, it also let teachers take roll and “lock” the virtual class door against any tardy students.

The Web portals especially helped Hong Kong high school students who were preparing for their final exams next month.

“School officials said, ‘Well, we may be out [of school] physically, but exams are in June'—so they had to find a true virus-free environment to allow the kids to continue their studies and matriculate,” said Jonathan Morgan, the chief executive officer and president of First Virtual.

“This is as close to a real-time, face-to-face environment you can get, absent your actually being there,” he said.

‘The Biggest Headache’

Up to 70 percent of Hong Kong students have access to Internet-accessible computers outside of school, according to Mr. Fung of Hong Kong Baptist University. While that proportion is high, it still left a good number of students without the equipment needed to take online classes.

So the students improvised. Some at Yan Chai Hospital Wong Wha San Secondary School teamed up with classmates who did have home computers, others went to neighborhood youth centers that had computers, and some checked out the small number of laptops the school had available, said Mr. Lai, the school’s vice principal.

“This is the biggest headache of our virtual-classroom program,” he said of the difficulty of ensuring student access to the Internet.

At the American School in Japan, Mr. Witt worries about the complicated logistics of arranging an online-class schedule that works for all students and teachers, as well whether the school’s Internet system has data pipes big enough to support interactive online learning.

“In a true crisis, could we meet the true demand for the vast majority of our teachers in an online synchronous learning environment?” Mr. Witt said. “Do we have enough server power to deliver this? We’re studying that right now.”

In Hong Kong, at least, virtual classrooms have been effective, and some schools such as Yan Chai may use online education permanently for after-school learning, Mr. Lai said.

“Our students and parents have experienced how useful [information technology] can be in school education,” he said. “Now, teachers see IT as an ordinary teaching tool.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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