Switching to online education: How UNNC made it happen with digital innovation

16 March 2020

When Daniel Dai, the team lead of Learning Technologies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) was asked to move the new semester's teaching entirely online within a month, he was understandably concerned. However, he also saw opportunities to achieve something special.

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Classrooms are being revamped to get equipped with ever more advanced technologies

On 2 March, UNNC launched online teaching of virtually all courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Around 8,000 students and over 400 teaching staff spread across China and around the world were involved. Provost Nick Miles described the scale of the achievement as "unprecedented".

The Learning Technologies team had already been working towards the adoption of online learning tools, but flicking the digital switch for all courses in such a short space of time was challenging to say the least. Not to mention that staff and students were scattered across the world in various time zones and with different qualities of internet accessibility. What made the challenge even greater was that all educational institutions in China were planning to do the same thing, meaning that the network would be highly overstretched.

Venturing into the unknown territory, Daniel and his colleagues first compiled a comprehensive guide to UNNC’s existing learning technologies, with solutions tailored to various teaching scenarios.

As enquiries and feedback began pouring into their email boxes and WeChat groups, the inevitable teething problems began to surface.

“At first some users reported having difficulties logging in or downloading and uploading materials, typically on tri-campus platforms such as Moodle, MediaSpace, and Echo360. It became apparent to us that those platforms all have their servers overseas, which impairs accessibility greatly,” Daniel explained. "With a huge amount of traffic coming in from various places, this issue was highlighted.”

However, a change to the existing technology solutions was on the horizon.

Learning Technologies immediately liaised with IT Services and started sourcing alternative platforms with good reputation and locally-hosted services. Within a fortnight, the mainstream web conferencing platform Zoom was adopted for holding live discussions and seminars. For lecture recording and video streaming, one of the world’s top video learning platforms, Panopto was made ready for staff and students, as a replacement for MediaSpace or Echo360.

“Having the new technologies in place so quickly took a great deal of team effort, including support from management to streamline the administrative procedures,” Daniel said. “Our UK counterparts were amazed when told that we had solved the problem inside a week.” Baker Xu from UNNC IT Services recounted with a smile.

As for Moodle, since it was a long-standing major learning hub, a series of measures were instead taken from the network aspect to improve its accessibility. IT Services tripled the number of servers, increased bandwidth and set up a virtual data analysis platform to track the system performance statistics so that any problem can be identified at an early stage.

IT Services also developed a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), a virtual machine equipped with all necessary applications. By logging into the VDI, students can remotely operate an on-campus virtual desktop from their own device, and use the installed software no matter where they are.

As the new semester enters its third week, so far all courses - lab sessions excluded - are being delivered online. Although with glitches, the feedback about this digital transition has been increasingly positive, and the teams have seen quite a few encouraging comments from students and staff.

The Learning Technologies team and IT Services are now working around the clock to prepare for the next phase of teaching, where UNNC plans to accommodate both face-to-face and online tuition. Daniel’s Learning Technologies team is presently working to upgrade the guide to UNNC’s digital teaching solutions. Among other improvements, Baker is leading IT Services to revamp over 100 classrooms, equipping them with ever more advanced technologies.

With the recent return of additional 100 staff members, the delivery of online teaching is expected to be easier with less difficulties dealing with time differences. Although more technical challenges are likely to arise, Daniel feels positive. “With commitment and teamwork, we have achieved things we couldn’t imagine before," he says. "It is also reassuring to see more and more staff members coming back to Ningbo and making adjustments proactively to cope with the changes. We are now better prepared than ever.”