If it had not been for COVID-19, Tom Watkins would have been in China now, serving as the China partner and managing director of WAY American Schools, a private US school using internet to teach students in China and Brazil and offering them an American High School Diploma program.
Being state superintendent of schools for the US Midwest state of Michigan in 2001-2005, Watkins is zealous for education. As early as in 2005, he has written an article on e-learning reform to offer a series of policy recommendations for Michigan.
"I recall the blank stares I encountered both in the United States and China in the early 2000s when I attempted to introduce blended e-learning into the mainstream," Watkins told Xinhua. "There was little appetite to be early adopters of this new technology and teaching modality into public and private schools in the United States and across the globe."
Then suddenly, online learning has popped into the spotlight.
In an initiative in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Michigan in partnership with online learning platform Coursera is offering three popular online data science specializations to learners in China for $1 a month.
"The program's specializations included Python for Everybody, the most popular specialization on Coursera; Python 3 Programming; and Applied Data Science with Python," Don Jordan, senior public relations representative at UM told Xinhua.
In another initiative to support its newly enrolled graduate students in China, UM allows select graduate students to join the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute to take UM courses remotely.
UM is not the only US university that offers online courses to their students in China. University of Wisconsin-Madison is developing curriculum for how to academically succeed in a remote learning environment. The curriculum is to be offered in all 2020, John Lucas, executive director of University Communications at UW-Madison told Xinhua.
In Watkins' eyes, e-learning has its advantages, the most important of which are greater flexibility, personalized learning and globalization of education. By e-learning, one can learn 24 hours a day and seven days a week, access the study content an unlimited number of time, and easily tap global educators.
And the benefits are particularly concrete under current situation when the pandemic is still raging. If e-learning becomes a norm in the next few years, it may lead to restructuring, reform and reinventing in teaching and learning, Watkins said.
But a coin has both sides. Chinese and other foreign students' inability to return to universities in the United States has resulted in a loss of significant revenue for universities and opportunities for students to interact face-to-face, Watkins said.
Universities in Australia, Canada and the United States all face shortfall in applicants because of travel bans, he added.
Statistics of Institute of International Education show that prior to the pandemic, over 360,000 Chinese students were studying in US universities, and they spent $15 billion on tuition. Worldwide, Chinese students spend about $40 billion a year on overseas tuition.
"Change is easy, progress is always much more difficult," said Watkins. As the global pandemic has made it increasingly difficult for students at the high school and university level to travel globally, the use of remote or e-learning has enabled teaching and learning to continue without interruption.
"We have to get to the point where the only adjective that matters before school is quality," he said.
"When COVID-19 struck, wise policymakers and educators wasted little time casting blame or cursing the darkness but reached for new technology tools to enable quality teaching and learning to continue," he said.
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