Teaching and Learning in the Time of COVID-19
As the COVID-19 outbreak and strategic measures to deal with it ratcheted up in Hong Kong in early 2020, the start of the Spring semester was delayed at HKUST, assisting decisions to move to total interactive online learning and faculty to prepare for this switch.
Although the School of Engineering (SENG) has played a significant role in the introduction of blended learning (a mix of face-to-face and digital/online instruction) and online learning via Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) at HKUST and globally over the past decade, full interactive online teaching was a new experience for most instructors and students.
The form adopted by HKUST was to use Zoom to deliver all classes on schedule, and in person, meaning teachers gave and learners took the courses virtually in real time.
To master such teaching, the University set up many tutorials for faculty on using and optimizing the software and other equipment. For example, academics were shown how to create their own whiteboards using a piece of paper and a well-positioned camera. In addition, multi-camera set-ups were employed, for instance, one directed on the “whiteboard”, another on a PowerPoint, while a third could capture the instructor’s face.
Difficulties related to online examinations and assessment were also addressed, with training arranged for instructors in handling fairness, monitoring, and other such issues.
Initially, students pushed back against full online teaching, especially in the early stages of the pandemic when fewer locations were affected. However, surveyed after two weeks, and again at mid-term, more than 60% of SENG students reported they were satisfied, feedback similar to classes where they are physically present.
“We have had instructors who reported they found students more comfortable about asking questions, as with online tools this meant questions could also be typed,” Dean of Engineering Prof. Tim CHENG Kwang-Ting said.
Meanwhile, laboratories that were essential for thesis research for some engineering students, particularly those focusing on chemical, mechanical or electronic engineering, were partially re-opened during the semester. With the School working together with the University’s Health, Safety and Environment Office, lab access entailed adherence to stringent protocols, including wearing of masks, temperature checks, logging of start and finish times, and careful scheduling of sessions.
“Our attitude throughout has been one of caution, with safety the top priority, ahead of everything else,” Dean Cheng said.
School arrangements have been overseen by the Dean and his management team, comprising Associate Deans, Department Heads, and Administration Unit Heads. Members have met regularly to discuss critical issues, policies, and actions, including taking care of the many challenges facing both undergraduate and postgraduate students. HKUST senior management have handled University-wide issues.
“Moving forward we are still very cautious,” Dean Cheng said. “The types of challenges we have had to handle are unique for academics, situations we have never had to deal with before. But it shows HKUST’s robustness to take proper action in a time of crisis.
“Actually, every crisis offers new opportunities as it causes us to reflect and we change our mindset,” he pointed out. “We have tried hard in the past 10 years to do blended learning, for example. Now, if people see the value of online interactive lecture delivery, then you will fundamentally change engineering teaching in a classroom setting.”
Dean Cheng is also expecting that this experience will serve as a living example of the need for engineering education to move beyond the training of technical experts toward the provision of solutions and services that can impact society. “From this pandemic, we have seen our faculty and alumni produce so many useful solutions, provide something needed,” he said. “That’s why we must strengthen our students’ training in the humanities in addition to technical knowledge. In this way, they will understand people’s needs, and the services and products they create will not just be another technical solution or gadget but impactful and relevant.”
This story was originally published on the SENG In Focus magazine (issue 32, P.22).