SIGS Semester Online: Learning without Borders

At 8am on February 17, spring semester started at Tsinghua SIGS amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. This year proved to be slightly different, as faculty and students around the world greeted each other online via their laptops and phones.

Although a large number of SIGS faculty and students are in different regions in China, some among us are still in other parts of the world, overcoming time differences and other challenges to continue teaching and learning.


Professor Ercan E. Kuruoglu: Exploring possibilities in Math teaching

TBSI Visiting Professor Ercan E. Kuruoglu is currently in Turkey and carrying out his classes at the Izmir Institute of Technology. For the spring semester, he is offering two courses "Bayesian learning and data analysis" and "Random Processes" both of which he has taught several times at different universities.



Prof. Ercan conducting online classes 

Facing the transition from offline to online classrooms, Prof. Ercan admits that it brings a new challenge, especially for his class “Random Processes”, which has a heavy math component. After encountering technical difficulties during his first online class, he decided to convert his handwritten notes to slides so that students can have a better learning experience.

“Teachers need to adapt their ways of teaching and I am finding out aspects I have not thought before. We need to make teaching Math’s with slides a possibility although it may make students very passive,” said Prof. Ercan.

In terms of advantages, Prof. Ercan believes that online classes encourage students to give feedback so that teachers can have a better grasp of students’ understanding. Now that students can send comments by chat while he is teaching, he can have a better judgement of students’ comprehension and adjust his pace.

Seeing China’s great efforts in controlling and preventing the spread of the epidemic, Prof. Ercan said, "China is an admirable society and it is dealing with the situation with dignity and determination."


Prof. Vijay Kumar Pandey: A Positive Experience


Nearly 4000 km away from Shenzhen, TBSI Assistant Professor Vijay Kumar Pandey is currently at Bangalore, India. This spring semester, he is offering the course "The molecular basis of cancer".


Prof. Vijay conducting online classes  

Prof. Vijay describes his first online class as a positive experience and a good alternative during these special times.

During winter break, Prof. Vijay and his teaching assistants started to familiarize themselves with the online tools. After trying various platforms with students, he decided to use a combination of Rain Classroom and Tencent Meeting. He noted that classroom material had to be kept simple, and immediately made modifications to his presentations.

Many of Prof. Vijay’s medical lectures require active participation from students. Citing the restriction of discussion-based activities as one of his major challenges in online teaching, he proposed two options to improve interaction. “First, after finishing presentation we could discuss using an alternative platform. Second, I might assign another timeslot for one-one or group discussion.”

Although students are miles away, they could still see the immense amount of preparation that went behind Prof. Vijay’s classes. “Prof. VJ’s class is very informative and his explanations are detailed. Although he can’t see our expressions across the screen, he often checks in by asking “So far so good?”, said Liu Mingyang, a student taking the molecular basis of cancer.


Among the Tsinghua SIGS community, some students are also learning across borders via our cloud classrooms.


International Students: A Time of Unity


Sebastian Beetschen, a Master’s student at TBSI, is currently in Switzerland where his family lives.

Despite the seven-hour time difference with China, Sebastian is able to continue classes, for all his lectures at TBSI are in the evening, and therefore around noon in Switzerland.


 Sebastian Beetschen taking classes in Switzerland 

Sebastian believes that everyone has been doing a great job in adapting quickly to the new situation and providing the best for students.

He notices that people actively extend their help, offering solutions to professors if there are technical difficulties during online sessions. “(We) all understand that the situation is not easy, and we cannot expect the exact same thing as usual. However, everybody helps each other to adapt and attain the best possible,” said Sebastian.

Some international students chose to stay in China during the winter break, such as American Master’s student Steven Beattie who is currently in Nanshan, Shenzhen.



Steven Beattie taking classes at home in Nanshan, Shenzhen 

Taking three classes this spring semester, Steven says that he enjoys the flexibility of online courses. “I like that I’m able to attend class from anywhere”, he said.

He also points out that online classrooms encourage more teacher-student interaction. Students are more comfortable asking questions, and professors are soliciting feedback more frequently, possibly due to the lack of visual feedback.

Having stayed in Shenzhen for the past month, Steven expressed his amazement towards the city’s response against the epidemic. “I’m amazed that the entire city seems to be united and working together to respond effectively… (These measures) have not fully stopped people from learning, working, and making the most of this new year! It's inspiring to see," said Steven.

Tsinghua SIGS has successfully concluded its first week of classes, offering a total of 107 courses. Although faculty and students are around the world in China, United States, Italy, India, Korea, Japan and in other countries and regions, the implementation of online classes still ensures teaching and learning to continue. As Tsinghua President Qiu Yong said, “Even in times of great hardship, we at Tsinghua have continued our main mission: educating students and promoting knowledge,” Tsinghua students will continue to pursue knowledge and stay united during this special period of time.


Edited by Karen Lee  

Photos provided by interviewees