Emergency Distance Learning

In late May I had planned to be in Hong Kong to help run a workshop on international institutional eLearning collaborations, but the workshop was postponed due to the SARS epidemic. While planning the workshop, I became electronically acquainted with several very skilled and creative educators in Hong Kong. Through our online discussions I learned about some of the ways they are dealing with the fallout of the SARS epidemic, which has closed the schools and discouraged large public gatherings.

How do you keep your university community going under these conditions? How do you help students maintain their progress toward their academic goals? Besides requiring surgical masks to be worn by everyone on campus, the overwhelming response was to incorporate what we think of as distance learning solutions.

Before I outline some of those solutions, it is important to acknowledge that the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) is a traditional institution in every sense. Faculty members focus on their research and usually meet with students face-to-face. Essentially, all members of the university community had to change overnight.

In one instance, an instructional task force manages a Web site that is updated several times a day on SARS-related developments. Elsewhere, academic departments maintain their own Web pages and post specific course-related information such as lecture notes and references to substitute for lectures.

Several classes are using online interactive discussions for teaching. For example, in the medical school a plastic surgery class has stopped meeting on campus. Instead, students access an Internet site of images in one window and a chat room in another. The class is run similar to the way it always was, with students taking turns to identify features of images and discuss treatments.

The university's Writing Across the Curriculum project is another example of the shift to distance learning. There are instructors who work with campuses in all disciplines to support writing in English. They quickly shifted from face-to-face consultations to using e-mail. The students e-mail their drafts and the instructors send back annotated files. These interactions are sometimes supplemented with phone conversations when needed.

Another critical shift is in the area of assessments. The university strongly encouraged the faculty to use alternatives to the usual formal, proctored examinations. A large number have switched this school term to using extra written work or take-home exams.

As CUHK's Dr. Carmel McNaught put it, "All this is evidence that technology is now a mainstream tool that can be rapidly mobilized." It may seem that way to her, but I wonder how many of our North American campuses would be able to react as quickly as those throughout Hong Kong should we face a similar emergency in the near future.

While this is not what we had in mind when we first began planning our workshop, perhaps in sharing their challenges, our Hong Kong colleagues are engaging in the most critical of international collaborations in distance learning.

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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