When Lele Bin first knew the most important exam in her life was postponed for a month, a lightbulb went off in her head: The long-expected summer vacation was one-month shorter.
But she flipped through her notes about “100-Day Plan before College Entrance Exam,” and found herself unwilling to fill in another 30 pages. “I can’t go back to school anyway,” she thought.
Bin is a high school senior in Guangzhou, a city in southern China. She is one of the 10.71 million Chinese students who will take the College Entrance Exam this summer, or “Gaokao,” a nine-hour standardized test in multiple subjects including Chinese, math, English, and either the sciences or liberal arts.
The Ministry of Education, however, announced on March 31 that the national exam will be held on July 7-8 given the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, a first-time suspension since the test resumed in 1977 following the Cultural Revolution. An exception was made in 2008 after the Wenchuan earthquake, when some 120,000 students from Sichuan and Gansu provinces took the exam one month later.
Following the principles of “safety first” and “fairness first,” the ministry intended to cushion the devastating impacts on students who are preparing for the exam in villages and poor areas with limited access to digital learning portals.
With a long history as a civil service exam, Gaokao is “a central aspect of China’s social, cultural and even political culture,” according to Clayton Dube, head of the USC U.S.-China Institute. It has been traditionally “the main route to economic security” of a Chinese family, Dube said, and “a national phenomenon where some will do anything to help their child succeed.”
With a national focus on this extreme, uncertain moment, the delay means that students “will have enough time to prepare and to hopefully be confident as they go into the exam, especially for those places where the impact of COVID-19 was greatest,” Dube explained.
As coronavirus hit the city of Wuhan, China in December 2019 and swiftly spread across the globe within months, China’s Ministry of Education requested on January 29 that primary and high schools nationwide would stop classes without stopping learning to prevent the illness from spreading within the campus. It also planned to launch an internet cloud classroom, providing a full range of teaching materials and courses for students from the first grade in junior school to the third grade of high school on February 17.
Following the ministry’s instruction, different levels of educational departments encouraged teachers to use online education platforms and apps to live-stream or pre-record lessons.
Now two months into online learning, students have been adapting to the brand new teaching mode in terms of overcoming technical issues and training self-control to increase study efficiency.
“Since this is a moment of, quite literally, people worrying about life and death, but also upgrade economic dislocation,” Dube said. “A standardized examination in that kind of situation magnifies the problems of those tests.”
Some families in remote areas don’t have access to digital learning portals. Bin Liang is an 11th-grader at the Affiliated High School of South China Normal University, a top high school nationwide located in Guangdong Province. Liang is in his hometown in a remote village of Hubei Province, the epicenter of the coronavirus with the lockdown order. Since the express delivery was blocked and he doesn’t have access to a printer, Liang has had to hand-write all the learning materials posted by teachers online.
Students of younger grades without strong self-learning skills have been facing challenges to catch up with remote learning without tutors’ or parents’ help, while high school seniors have to digest the pressure brought together by remote learning and the delayed Gaokao.
Bin found the online communication with teachers inefficient, since technical issues have stopped her from responding to teachers immediately or asking questions. It’s also a waste of time when teachers didn’t know the specific pain points but explained the entire test paper thoroughly. Therefore, Bin usually turns to the WeChat group of her class at 7 p.m. for one-to-one troubleshooting.
In addition, Bin tends to lose focus while studying at home where she has many other distractions, such as reading novels. After an hour of study, she’ll read a chapter of a newly updated novel about criminal psychology online for 10 to 15 minutes, which might be criticized by her mother and lead to further squabbles. Spending too much time with her mother sometimes renders Bin exhausted; at other times, her mother can be a quiet companion, giving Bin a sense of comfort and peacefulness from which she could gain support and fight on.
“The me at home respect the me at school,” Bin said, recalling how she stays focused and self-controlled when surrounded by diligent classmates in the classroom.
Meanwhile, parents are also unprepared for distance and home-schooling. Many are obligated to supervise their kids when taking tests, sometimes at the expense of their own work time.
According to a Bingdian Weekly report, a senior high school student spent time on short videos, games and social media platforms for hours during online classes. Another student binged on soap operas for a whole day before he regretted, panicked and cried at night. In addition, athlete students have had to stop outdoor training as usual, and art students were short of necessary materials. A prospective pilot student was even concerned his eyesight would be deteriorated by long hours spent on online classes every day.
Students are not the only ones who overuse eyes. Teachers are also suffering from home-schooling, spending an enormous amount of time online juggling technical issues while also looking after their own children at home.
Yun Li is a teacher at the Affiliated High School of South China Normal University teaching Chinese classes. Selected as a paradigm due to having done such a good job, her school is obliged to pre-record classes of all disciplines for high school seniors around the Guangdong Province and post the videos on a provincial public education platform. The first day of online classes on February 10 led to a viewership of 150,000 for the platform.
Every morning, Li has students read the Chinese articles aloud in the video group in order to get familiar with the article. She has five lectures in the morning and two in the afternoon, all of which are approximately 20 minutes each. At dusk, it’s usually time for troubleshooting, followed by hours of homework that include students taking pictures of their homework and sending them to her. In the evening, when all is quiet, Li begins preparing for next week’s pre-recorded classes Now that all the communication is done online, she has a hard time separating her personal life from office hours.
The time spent on the laptop is “literally from the moment I open my eyes to the moment I close my eyes,” Li said.
While the curriculum online may give all students equal access to some of the best teachers in China, Li said it’s also divided students as good students adapt to remote learning quickly while undisciplined ones lag behind.
China’s online education industry is booming over the last decade, which provides a timely alternative to schools amid the highly contagious disease. The revenue of its market reached RMB 251.76 billion ($35.9 billion) in 2018 with a year on year growth of 25.7%, and paying users reached 135 million, according to iResearch Consulting Group.
Although higher education and vocational education take up 80% of the market, K-12 education is on the rise recently, thanks to improved awareness of education among the Millennials, increasing adaptability and accessibility to the Internet among Generation Z and the demographic dividend brought by the second-child policy.
But adapting lessons to an online environment takes time. “What is harder online is the social and psychological support that students need,” Dube, the head of the USC U.S.-China Institute, said. “In China, you have large classes so it’s hard to be supportive of all the students as they need that support in the way that they need it...You can’t just focus on one or two students. You have to try to do the best for all.”
For high school seniors already burned out at this crucial point, the delayed Gaokao is not good news, especially coupled with remote learning, because the remaining days for studying hard extend for one month.
“It’s as if you were supposed to run 1000 meters. When you finished 800 meters, suddenly you were told to run to 1500 meters,” Zaijun Bin, Lele Bin’s father, said. “You wouldn’t feel relaxed but frustrated, because it’s harder.”
Lele Bin, along with her classmate, has set up a Tencent Meeting that allows users to join meetings on mobile phones, so they could live-stream themselves studying every night from 9 to 11:30 and keep an eye on each other.
“When you see your classmate on the screen is studying, you’ll feel guilty idling,” she said.