Classes finally kick off, but on a trial run

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Classes finally kick off, but on a trial run

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Teachers of Seohak Middle School in Incheon hold an opening ceremony online on Thursday. [YONHAP]

After many delays over coronavirus concerns, a portion of middle and high school students in Korea finally kicked off their new school year through online classes for the first time Thursday, but not without facing a few hiccups.

The government has postponed the school year, which usually kicks off in early March, for over five weeks. Finally on Thursday, the new semester commenced nationwide for third-years in middle school, equivalent to ninth grade, and high school seniors, unprecedentedly through remote learning.

Before starting remote learning, students are required to have a compatible device, such as a desktop computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone. Students and parents were anxious about logging in properly as school kicked off at 9 a.m. and acclimating to the remote learning process.

There are generally three categories of remote learning: interactive classes through video conference between the teacher and students; prerecorded online lectures by teachers and by education broadcaster EBS; and assignments for students to complete.

The first two days will be considered a trial-run to allow students and teachers to get accustomed to the online learning system, such as logging on, virtually checking rosters, making sure servers aren’t crashing and figuring out if students really are sitting through the prerecorded online classes.

It was not an uncommon sight to see a lone teacher seated in an empty classroom in front of their laptop while their students’ faces popped up on the screen for interactive learning through a video conference app like Zoom. But teachers running interactive online classes faced technical glitches, with some students complaining they couldn’t hear well, to realizing halfway into their lecture that they were not captured properly by the camera.

But the interactive classes are at least more engaging than the prerecorded content.

At one point, the EBS online class website crashed because of an overload of students trying to log in. Other students vented that it was difficult to concentrate on the EBS online classes compared to being in class with their teachers. Parents likewise worried that their teens might get distracted on their smart devices or just log in without properly listening to the lecture.

The Ministry of Education has recognized that there will be difficulties starting a new semester online as it is an unprecedented for everybody, and will expand remote learning for all other grades within the next two weeks.

The new school year was supposed to kick off on March 2, but was delayed to April 6, then pushed back another week as Korea tried to more fully contain the virus and also give time for educators to prepare for the transition to online teaching.

The new school year for the rest of middle school and high school, and elementary grades four to six, kicks off next Thursday. The remaining elementary school grades start their semester on April 20.

Kindergartens and child care centers remain closed.

Other concerns are a lack of smart devices or computers for students who come from low-income families or have multiple siblings. There is estimated to be some 223,000 students who lack the proper devices to carry out remote learning, according to a survey by local education authorities. The Education Ministry prepared some 321,000 devices such as tablets to loan to students.

Another issue is how younger children might have a hard time with gadgets on their own without parental assistance.

“As this is a road untaken, it may be a trial-and-error but this process can become an experience and an asset for us,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye said Thursday. “The Education Ministry will respond swiftly to any problems or discomforts arising from the online learning process.”

She also promised extra support for schools that need more equipment to properly run interactive classes.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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