“Dad wants to play mahjong”: The struggles of remote learning in Hong Kong during coronavirus

Craving space.
Craving space.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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Janice was teaching her English class recently when her father barged in.

“Suddenly my dad comes back and wants to play mahjong,” said Janice, who only wanted to give her first name. “I can go into my room but the network connection isn’t great. And I don’t have my own room, so I’m down in the lower bunk, but it looks really messy. And then there’s renovation work going on next door.”

It was just another day of teaching from home amid the coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong, where at least 60 people have been infected.

In a bid to curb the virus’s spread, Hong Kong has closed schools until at least mid-March, and universities have moved classes online. But remote learning is proving challenging in Hong Kong’s cramped environment, where multiple generations often share small apartments. In ordinary times, people escape in the day into a city teaming with cafes, restaurants and expansive offices. But since the outbreak of the epidemic in January, children and parents have been cooped up together for weeks as companies also implemented work-at-home policies, and many Hong Kongers have minimized going out altogether.

Janice’s setup at home. She shelled out for the iPad and stylus to facilitate online teaching.
Janice’s setup at home. She shelled out for the iPad and stylus to facilitate online teaching.
Image: Janice

A major challenge to “online learning is the offline environment of Hong Kong,” said Elizabeth LaCouture, director of the gender studies program at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).

A lecturer in English at HKU’s professional school, Janice shares an office with other colleagues, so she can’t count on having it to herself when she needs to teach. Libraries are also closed, and cafes are too loud for video calls, she said. There’s also a further calculation familiar to many Hong Kongers amid a scarcity of masks: “Each time you go out, you waste a mask. So you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

“Talking to disembodied voices”

The current disruption to classes in Hong Kong comes on top of last year’s political turmoil, when some universities ended the fall semester early after violent protests erupted on university campuses in November. Teachers hoping for more interaction with their students this year have been disappointed, as many lament the tendency among Hong Kong students to keep their cameras turned off during online lectures, depriving them of the last vestige of face-to-face connection.

“It’s sort of like a domino effect, where they show two students don’t have faces on the video, and all of a sudden no one has their faces on,” said Jessica Valdez, an assistant professor of English at HKU. “So you’re talking to disembodied voices.”

Andrew Chung, a third-year student studying physics and green energy at the Baptist University of Hong Kong (BUHK), explained that it was necessary to turn off his camera because “sometimes a family member walks past or starts talking to you while you’re in class, and that’s pretty embarrassing.” He has his own room but shares an apartment with three other family members.

Still, teachers can empathize with students’ reluctance to show their faces. Jane Chan, who teaches languages at the Polytechnic University—the site of a dramatic 12-day-long siege in Novembersaid she didn’t think she could make students turn on their cameras because “the choice of showing their homes” is a matter of privacy. “Some students told me their parents were playing mahjong. Everyone’s staying at home, there’s nothing to do.”

Chan Wai-chung’s remote learning set-up in his dining room at home.
Chan Wai-chung’s remote learning set-up in his dining room at home.
Image: Chan Wai-chung

Hands-on subjects suffer

Then there’s the matter that some subjects simply do not lend themselves well to online learning. Chan Wai-chung, a final-year student studying physical education at BUHK, said his practical classes have largely been put on hold. An event management class, in which students were expected to spend course hours volunteering at major sporting events, now has little to work with as most events have been cancelled and facilities closed.

On the other hand, some subjects had fortunately already been designed for remote learning, like the online class on dinosaur ecosystems offered by HKU. Michael Pittman, a paleontologist at HKU who’s teaching the course, said that it allows students to work with digitized 3D specimens from famous museums around the world—something that would be “difficult or impossible to arrange for a campus course.” In normal times, however, students would have been able to go on field trips to places as far afield as Taiwan, mainland China, and Montana, he said.

It’s hard to say when any semblance of normality will return to Hong Kong’s most disrupted school year. The government has repeatedly pushed back the date for schools to resume classes, and a few universities are implementing online learning indefinitely. Some teachers are, however, better placed than others to weather the uncertainty.

“I don’t have kids, and my husband can keep quiet,” said Chan, the languages teacher. “I don’t know how [other teachers] do it.”

Isabella Steger contributed reporting.