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Universities boosting fight against virus

By Qiu Yong | China Daily | Updated: 2020-04-03 07:19


The novel coronavirus outbreak has forced many countries and cities to impose lockdowns and tens of millions of people to go into self-quarantine or isolation to maintain social distancing. The outbreak is yet another reminder that we are part of a global community that shares an uncertain future, and no one can manage to meet common challenges alone.

The pandemic has caused worldwide disruption, particularly in the field of education. According to UNESCO, more than 165 countries have ordered nationwide closure of schools, affecting 87 percent of the world's total enrolled students. But despite closing down their campuses, many universities have moved courses online, which is indeed unprecedented.

Physical and spiritual shelter of intellectuals

Since the establishment of the University of Bologna in 1088, universities across the world have always been the physical and spiritual shelter for intellectuals. Some universities may have temporarily closed down before, but never on such a large scale. The pandemic is a great challenge for all of us, and all countries, universities and individuals ought to jointly meet it.

China was the first country to be hit by the outbreak, and the first to announce the closure of schools. After detailed discussions, on Jan 30, Tsinghua University decided to start the spring semester courses online-on schedule.

On Feb 3, more than 57,000 Tsinghua students, faculty and non-teaching staff and alumni attended a special lecture on Tsinghua University's epidemic prevention work and the arrangement for the spring semester through a live broadcast. An audience of more than 3 million tuned in.

As we face this unprecedented global challenge, it is time to reflect on what makes a university great. For one, great universities should proactively respond to the challenges of the times and fulfill their responsibility of serving society.

The essence of education, especially university education, is to empower students with the gift of knowledge, and to safeguard their health and well-being. After the epidemic broke out, therefore, we (Tsinghua University) immediately worked out a campus safety plan under our emergency response framework.

Teaching and learning should not stop

University education is neither spontaneous nor sporadic. Rather, it is a well-designed systematic program based on comprehensive planning.

As such, online teaching and learning is not supplementary to in-person classes, so we try our best to ensure online courses have the same quality as in-person learning.

On Feb 17, Tsinghua University resumed teaching for all courses via Rain Classroom and other platforms. Rain Classroom is Tsinghua University's independently designed online teaching app, which offers real-time interactions between teachers and students, and helps evaluate the results of online teaching. Teachers can use the app to conduct courseware preview and check students' status before class.

Through Rain Classroom, slides can be synchronized with WeChat-the most popular messaging and social media app in China. Students can take quizzes during class, and send their feedback and questions anonymously via the on-screen comments section.

While observing the app, we noticed that, compared with in-person classes, the interactions between teachers and students have considerably improved online and students are more satisfied with the courses.

Rich experiences have been accumulated from, and insights gained into, online education practices. For example, in-class interaction is very important not only for in-person classes but also for online teaching and learning-no matter whether we adopt the Socratic method or Confucius method.

The concept of community means a lot for universities-faculty and students gather, with a sense of collective identity and integrity, to share knowledge. Online teaching and learning with real-time interaction is an extension of universities' community building work.

Moreover, despite the physical distance, the quality of education can still be sustained and the university community reinforced.

In addition to online courses, we also offer innovative modes of defending a thesis. By March 22, altogether 42 students-26 doctoral candidates and 16 master's students-had completed their thesis defense online, seven of those being international students from Canada, the Republic of Korea, Pakistan and the United States.

Contributing to the epidemic prevention work

Drawing on traditional strengths in academic research and innovation, universities can play an essential role in epidemic-prevention work. Modern universities, characterized by academic research and innovation, have made indispensable contributions to the well-being of humankind.

Thanks to its strength in science and technology, Tsinghua University swiftly initiated research projects on COVID-19, and has made substantial progress in basic medical and vaccine research, fast testing kits, and intelligent epidemic prevention systems and equipment. In fact, during his visit to Tsinghua University to inspect the School of Medicine's research on the novel coronavirus on March 2,President Xi Jinping emphasized that "science and technology are the most powerful weapon in humanity's battle against diseases".

Taking on social responsibilities

In May 2019, the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate was established at Tsinghua University with 12 universities from nine countries as founding members. The GAUC charter says that, "in response to global challenges presented by climate change, world-leading universities shoulder an extremely important role".

Likewise, we believe universities can also make indispensable contributions to the fight against the novel coronavirus outbreak. Over the past two months, we have maintained close contact with other university leaders and global partners, exchanging best practices and providing mutual support, and proactively taking on a wide array of social responsibilities.

In the wake of the epidemic outbreak, Tsinghua University has opened a series of online programs to the public, including more than 1,900 MOOCs (massive open online courses) on XuetangX, China's first and largest MOOC platform initiated by the university. It has also created "clone class" courses to share online education resources with universities in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province and the epicenter of the outbreak in China, and other areas, including courses in English communication, engineering drawing and solid state physics.

The clone classes are characterized by two identical classes, one in Tsinghua University and the other in a sister school, with exactly the same course content, materials and assignments taught by the same Tsinghua professor. From March 16 to 20, the university organized a large-scale online career fair with 126 universities in Hubei and inviting 621 employers to participate in the fair.

Time to collectively fight against outbreak

Infectious diseases know no boundaries, and certainly have no nationalities. In the face of this common challenge for humanity, we should unite instead of dividing, be collaborative instead of combative, and have confidence in ourselves and in each other.

Universities serve as the lighthouse of human civilization, imparting knowledge and propagating culture among the youths. We share a common objective, which is to make the world a better place. And at this critical moment, universities should help promote confidence, trust and unity among the people, and call for humanity to rise to its highest potential. Rest assured, despite the uncertainties and challenges that lie ahead, there remains hope for a brighter future.

The author is president of Tsinghua University. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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