Online learning: When class is just a click away | Duke Kunshan University

Online learning: When class is just a click away

March 16, 2020


Laura Navarro from Colombia takes notes on an online lecture while studying at home

By Lei Qi
Staff writer

When Lan Tang registered for Biology 110 this spring, she didn’t expect she’d be completing the lab component in her family’s living room. Since the Covid-19 outbreak forced Duke Kunshan to move classes online, Tang has been conducting experiments at home on her laptop instead of at the university’s high-tech lab.

One test involved transforming E.coli bacterial cells, which usually takes 24 hours but took Tang just 10 minutes using advanced simulation software recommended by her professor.

“Although the lab’s virtual, the learning experience remains the same,” said Tang, a sophomore from Shanghai. “I still needed to write up a lab report afterward, just like my previous biology classes.”

Duke Kunshan’s 579 undergraduates began receiving online instruction on Feb. 24. Despite being scattered around the globe, students and faculty have adapted quickly, with staff at Duke Kunshan and Duke University helping them navigate the academic, technological and emotional challenges.

While IT technicians have worked around the clock to ensure access to learning materials, Counselling and Psychological Services has guided students on how to stay focused while studying at home, and Duke Innovation Learning and the Center for Teaching and Learning have provided faculty advice on best practices.

Although online classes offer a different experience to learning on campus, students say there are definite benefits, such as flexibility. “I can now rewind lectures and watch them again after class, pausing at any bits I didn’t follow. And I can keep replaying them until I totally understand,” Tang said.

Reika Shimomura, a freshman from Kyoto, Japan, also feels there are now more options when it comes to choosing classes, as there is less chance of a scheduling clash. “Besides,” she added, “since we’re just one click away from class, there’s no need to worry about making it to the classroom on time.”

Maintaining a high level of student-faculty interaction was a concern when moving instruction online. With this in mind, in addition to recording lectures, faculty also provide live class sessions using the Zoom videoconferencing tool to ensure students can engage, debate and share ideas in real-time, as they would on campus.


Milica Jordanov from Serbia attended a conference in Croatia and completed her coursework online during breaks

“Zoom is very convenient and even has a ‘breakout room’ feature that allows us to split into groups and discuss topics with our peers,” said Caroline Palmer, a freshman from Connecticut, U.S. “I was concerned that I’d miss interacting with peers during class, but this feature eases connectivity.”

John Lewis, a sophomore from Lagos, Nigeria, added: “Even though we’re all in very different time zones, and different parts of the world, we’re still making a concerted effort to be part of the DKU community and attend classes live.”

On top of the classes offered by faculty, students have also enjoyed free access to more than 3,800 online courses on the Coursera learning platform since mid-February. As of March 9, 188 students had enrolled in at least one course, including two undergraduates who have completed more than four courses. The response has been so positive that Coursera has expanded the model introduced for Duke Kunshan to all partner organizations until June 30.

With sophomores preparing to declare their major in March, many said they are taking advantage of the Coursera access to explore their interests in more depth.

Huangrui Chu, a student from Jiangsu province who intends to major in data science, has completed three courses related to artificial intelligence and is now embarking on a fourth. “They cover the foundations, theories and application of deep learning, and how to build projects using the knowledge,” he said. “They’ve given me the big picture of my future career path.”

Lewis Tian from Henan province has been using Coursera since the summer and is midway through a series of interdisciplinary courses designed by IBM that combine the study of data science with health care and finance. “DKU encourages a ‘data plus X’ model, which looks at the intersection of data science and another subject. The courses I’m taking shed light on how different combinations work,” he said.

Students are also using Coursera to audit their progress and explore new subjects. Shimomura is taking a course to prepare for the HSK Chinese proficiency exam, to test her language learning, while Palmer, who intends to major in global health, has enrolled in an academic writing course and is considering classes in biology and psychology. “I love that Coursera allows us to venture outside of our intended field of study,” Palmer said. “I think it will be a great way for us to reinforce our learning.”

Scott MacEachern, vice chancellor for academic affairs, said he has been impressed with the students’ resilience in the face of difficult circumstances as well as their enthusiasm for online instruction. He also praised the faculty, many of whom are also getting their first taste of online teaching.


Lindsay Mahon Rathnam, assistant professor of political theory, has been using her children’s playroom as a temporary workspace

“It’s not an easy transition to make, as it requires a different mindset. In a classroom, you can read a student’s face and body language, and if something isn’t working, you can change things up. That’s much harder when you teach online,” MacEachern said. “Our faculty have been working extremely hard to guarantee that all our online courses are engaging and fruitful.”

Lindsay Mahon Rathnam, assistant professor of political theory, joined Duke Kunshan in January. When the campus was closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, she was midway through teaching Foundational Questions of Social Science.

The online experience is an entirely new one to Mahon Rathnam. “Redesigning a course that’s already underway has felt at times like building a plane in mid-air, but everyone has seemed pretty game for the challenge,” she said. “I am proud of how engaged our students are: Across time zones and continents and sometimes dodgy internet connections, they are still committed and present and ready to go.”

Mahon Rathnam has found definite advantages to online teaching. While traditional seminar formats suit more extroverted participants, she said online forums give students more time to reflect, engage and contribute to the discussion.

However, Mahon has also encountered an unexpected challenge of teaching from her home in the U.S. – namely stopping her sons Peter, 3, and 1-year-old Edward from making cameo appearances during her Zoom sessions. “That doesn’t happen on campus,” she said.

Qian Zhu, assistant professor of history, who has previous experience teaching remotely, took the opportunity to carry out Zoom tests with her students before online classes began, allowing them to discuss expectations and how to get the most out of their sessions. She said her class has looked relaxed and confident.

“When it became clear that that the Covid-19 outbreak meant we needed to move classes online, we immediately began working to accomplish it. But this is only the start,” said MacEachern. “Duke Kunshan had to sprint to launch its virtual campus, but now we’re very much in marathon mode as we focus on delivering a high-quality education for our students.”