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Lessons from China for online support and assessment

27 May 2020 | Charlie Reis Charlie Reis, an educational developer at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), shares his thoughts on the challenges of suddenly shifting to online teaching for an entire semester, supporting staff in preparing online assessments and how XJTLU supported students during the pandemic.

Having had to race online for the entire semester and assessing online, we have learned a lot about what works and what does not at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), in Suzhou, China.

We learned that students appreciate being able to interact with content (lectures) multiple times, so recommend both synchronous and asynchronous elements for all modules, as well as all synchronous interaction to be made available later. We have also learned that our students and we ourselves, miss the interactions on campus. So while this has been an interesting experience being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, we will hopefully offer more interactive classrooms and more content online in the future as well as better blended courses.

Chunking, feedback and interactivity

When I learned that our semester (and now summer and likely the fall of AY 2020-2021) was going to be entirely online, I created many resources for staff both to provide direction based on my own experiences and research and in response to staff needs and the changing context of COVID-19. I also appreciated the importance of it, so I made sure to get support from senior members of staff, lest the response be limited to tech support, which was suggested. It was important to lead in order to have the University take pedagogy seriously and be ready to support staff from the perspective of classrooms, not boardrooms or computer rooms.

Our quality teachers transferred their skills to the new environment with great adaptability, and they have done some amazing things under difficult circumstances, while less-engaged practitioners simply threw PowerPoints and other pre-made teaching materials onto our VLE.

As an educational developer, I have been trying for years to reach staff who don’t normally engage with professional development and who don’t consider student learning as much as they should. The sudden shift to teaching online made the range of teaching expertise immediately visible to a wider range of stakeholders (families) than normal, who expressed some concerns. As a result, we have been able to do more with different groups than ever before, such as reach more mid-career academics who have graduated the PGCert, but who needed suggestions on VLE and online assessment design.

Dealing with staff, we have tried to keep things simple and clear, which is good advice when you consider that they too are affected by the pandemic and most of them were unfamiliar with online learning and teaching. The main messages we shared in the beginning were about communication with students, interaction, and chunking materials into manageable portions. Then you look to link those chunks together with activities like online quizzes and forums so that students could use what they have learned and check their understanding.

We did this by holding a series of webinars, which were new to us in February, with the following titles that are reflective of our emphasis: The Basics on Online Pedagogy, Human Interaction Online, Clarity of Expectations, Structure Delivery of Content, Pastoral Care for Students, Colleagues and Self, Self and Peer Assessment Online, and Facilitating Discussions Online. These materials are available here, but note some of these are rough and ready.

Like all developers, we are modelling good practice (as we learn) when leading webinars, and we often meta-teach, meaning reviewing what we are doing pedagogically and how it works – often explaining a bit of how to use the technology or how to quickly check in with students – to give nuts and bolts support. The educational technologists have also been offering lots of support about using the tools built into our VLE and other bits of software, like our videoconferencing tools.

Our senior management team also asked each department to come up with a way to monitor student engagement and satisfaction more frequently, for example by holding Student Staff Liaison Committee meetings every few weeks.

Engagement while isolated

The concern I hear from staff most often is that students seem disengaged, so we have been focusing a lot on strategies for engagement.

Two things of note here are that, like you, students have been buried in a blizzard of emails and they don’t like reading long emails, so try leaving vocal instructions. Also, and this comes from our School of Design, have something like a virtual whiteboard so that the class can all interact physically with something, even at a distance. Finally, we have some staff experimenting with gamification to motivate students. Indeed, in our synchronous PD, we often check in asking ‘Type 1 if you have a comment, 2 to move on’, which has become a game to get to 10 or a reasonable number of 2’s for the group.

Frankly, I try to be more serious and academic when leading PD than dealing with undergraduates, but have loosened up in the current context because COVID-19 is so boring and horrible at the same time. I am also posting links in the chat as we are talking, to provide more information, resources, and university policies.


Our university has decided to assess as normally as possible this semester, meaning we are still responsible for quality assurance and the moderation process, unlike many UK universities.

It is essential that staff realise students are taking exams in unfamiliar ways, often requiring mastery of tech skills, and in home environments that can be unconducive to success. Major concerns of staff are what kinds of time windows to set for assessments because, while assessments have to be feasible for students, too much time might be an attractive opportunity for collusion or cheating. Some tips are to group assessment items by learning outcomes and then randomise, so that your assessments are valid, and to provide context-specific elements from the semester to prevent plagiarism and contract cheating.

To help, we designed another suite of PD about online assessment, including alternative assessments, how aligned learning and teaching will be affected, how to design assessments to maximise academic integrity, and considerations for online open book (take home) assessments. These resources are available here.

Going Forward

As we continue to struggle through the crisis, my main thoughts are to have everyone stay safe as a top priority; be empathic since we’re all weathering the same storm; be leaders because it matters now (and it can help motivate you and give you meaning) and talk to your students, staff and self about growth and grit. We will all need a lot of that in the coming months.


Charlie Reis is an educational developer and PGCert director. His research centres on the application of classical Chinese thought to contemporary educational development.


Throughout the crisis we have been collating numerous online resources to support our members through this difficult transition. For all of our Covid-19 response resources click here.


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