[Shifting the paradigm] Academia faces brave new world

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[Shifting the paradigm] Academia faces brave new world

A student takes an online class at home in Seoul in April. [YONHAP]

A student takes an online class at home in Seoul in April. [YONHAP]

Fear of missing out is a perennial fear among college students. In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary even enshrined its shortened form, FOMO, as part of the English language.

 
With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, FOMO has become an emotional tsunami engulfing more students than ever before — especially freshmen robbed of their first semesters on campus.

 
“My friends and I, we had this fantasy about college, that we'd meet new people, join groups, and USC has a very nice campus, so I dreamed of going to the library with my roommate or hanging out by the fountain, and maybe going to the beach over the weekends,” said Park Mee-hee, a first year student at the University of Southern California (USC), who has been taking all her classes online this fall. “It’s sad because we won’t have freshman year again."
 
Park never even managed to touch California soil. She is one of many international students who could not enter the United States when their universities declared that classes would be largely online this fall. Last June, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said it wouldn't give visas to international students going to schools that canceled offline classes. ICE repealed its ban a month later, but Park said she couldn't schedule a visa interview with the American Embassy in Seoul in time for the fall semester.
 
All of Park's four classes are online. She takes two asynchronously, meaning she can watch recorded lectures at her convenience. For the other two classes, she shows up live on Zoom, and because of the time difference between Seoul and Los Angeles, she stays up from midnight to 9 a.m., twice a week. As hard as it is to stay awake during those hours, Park says real-time participation is crucial especially for her to practice scenes with her classmates in her theater class.
 
“I could have taken all classes asynchronously and gotten a good night’s sleep, but I didn’t want to miss out,” Park said. “I would be missing out on getting to know my classmates. If I took them asynchronously, they wouldn’t even know I exist.”
 
A lecture in Korea University in Seoul in 2017 shows what classes on university campuses used to look like in Korea before the Covid-19 pandemic. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]

A lecture in Korea University in Seoul in 2017 shows what classes on university campuses used to look like in Korea before the Covid-19 pandemic. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]

Park's online-only learning experience is being shared with nearly 5 million college freshmen in the United States. For the fall semester, many universities including Harvard, Princeton and Georgetown have operated largely online.  
 
Zoom, the California-based provider of a platform for online video communications, has seen record numbers of Zoom calls from universities since the coronavirus shutdowns — and not just in the United States.
 
“As of September we’ve seen more than a hundred thousand schools in 25 countries using Zoom and delivering some sort of online experience for their students,” said Jane Ross, part of the education team at Zoom for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa regions.  
 
The speed with which people turned to online communications was so swift that at one point, Zoom had the earliest view of which countries were experiencing spikes in Covid-19 numbers.
 
“Every morning we'd get up and see more users in different countries signing up and we could actually see the spread of the virus,” Ross said.
 
A professor teaching his class online at Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech) in North Gyeongsang this fall semester. [POSTECH]

A professor teaching his class online at Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech) in North Gyeongsang this fall semester. [POSTECH]

Many think the Covid-19 disruption will not be a fleeting phenomenon and could lead to long-term changes in how we view college educations. The onset of free, university-level online courses, also called MOOCs, or massive open online courses, in 2012 first raised the question of whether the business model of traditional universities may be obsolete. 
 
According to the Korea Education Statistics Service, 330 out of 332 universities in Korea were running their classes online or in the so-called hybrid format of mixing online and offline meetings in the first week of September.
 
“The pandemic has ushered in an era that was coming anyway, but it was simply accelerated,” says Bae Sang-hoon, professor of education at Sungkyunkwan University. “Some universities had the technological infrastructure to hold classes online before the pandemic. Others didn’t. The pandemic changed that completely because now most universities are forced to bring their lectures online. The grounds have been built for a new era of college education in Korea.”
 

Hologram professors and AI cameras

No college foresaw the pandemic, of course. But some were lucky to have invested in technology in classrooms that came in handy in times of social distancing.

 
At Hanyang University, chemistry professor Kim Min-kyoung has been appearing before students in four different classrooms simultaneously for the past few semesters.

 
“I conduct the class in my studio, but I appear as a holographic form before students in three different classrooms on the university’s campus in Seoul and one classroom on our campus in Ansan, Gyeonggi,” Kim told the Korea JoongAng Daily on Nov. 11. “In my studio, I can see every single student’s face on the large screen placed before me so that I can call out a student if I think they didn’t understand what I just explained.”
 
After the professor’s lecture, the students put on virtual-reality gear in the classroom to see for themselves the effects of a chemistry experiment the professor just explained in words. In the virtual world, they see a teaching assistant conduct the experiment step by step, and the chemical reactions take place before their eyes.
 
The course started using hologram technology in the fall semester of 2019. A former president of the university saw the technology as a way of bridging classrooms on two different campuses. In the spring semester of 2020, when Korea felt its first wave of Covid-19 infections, Kim and her students met on Zoom.  
 
“We were already practicing virtual communications before the pandemic,” Kim said. “For the students, there wasn’t too much troubleshooting in going between hologram-based classes to Zoom.”
 
Professor Kim Min-kyoung teaching her chemistry class at Hanyang University using hologram technology. [HANYANG UNIVERSITY]

Professor Kim Min-kyoung teaching her chemistry class at Hanyang University using hologram technology. [HANYANG UNIVERSITY]

At Sungkyunkwan University, digital technologies were installed in stages starting in 2003. They include cameras capable of following a professor as he or she moves about a classroom while livestreaming their lectures. Today, 60 percent of classrooms are equipped with technology to allow real-time streaming of lectures, accessible through Cisco’s Webex.

 
The university has been running classes online or in a hybrid format since the spring semester.

 
But not all universities were ready to go online from day-one of the pandemic.
 
Jeju National University on Jeju Island started running a majority of its classes online from the spring semester, but there were glitches.
 
“As far as I am aware, not all professors were able to livestream their classes online from the beginning,” says a professor surnamed Kim who teaches chemistry at the university. “Some of them could only upload recorded materials for students to watch asynchronously. But this changed after the summer vacation, during which the university equipped most classes and labs with technology and ran training sessions for professors to be able to livestream classes.”
 
At Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech) in North Gyeongsang, the school built its own online lecture platform called the PostechX five years ago, and has been funding the students’ MOOC course fees to encourage exposure to classes outside of Korea.
 
“With the technology in place, the university has been able to run 519 of its 548 courses online in the spring semester of 2020,” the university wrote the Korea JoongAng Daily on Nov. 2. “We intend to start using artificial intelligence and virtual reality programs from the spring semester of 2021 to enhance student experiences of learning virtually. For instance, for some physics classes, we will start using a 360-degree angle camera to record some experiments online for the students to view virtually.”
 
 

Can the pandemic save colleges?

Long before the pandemic, some colleges in Korea were facing existential threats.

 
“For a while, we’ve all been concerned about the drop in the number of students at universities — and feared some might even disappear altogether for lack of students,” says Bae of Sungkyunkwan University.

 
Some 220 universities outside of the greater Seoul area should expect their freshman year enrollments to fall by 50 percent by 2024, according to a report by the Korea Higher Education Institution in July. Eight out of 10 universities outside of the greater Seoul area will see enrollments fall 70 percent by 2037.
 
Demographics are a major factor, with Korea's population starting to peak and its birthrate being one of the lowest in the world. The nation’s most desirable universities are located in the greater Seoul area, which include Seoul National University, Korea University, Yonsei University, Sungkyunkwan University, Hanyang University, Kyung Hee University, Chung-Ang University and Ewha Womans University. They are often collectively referred to in Korea as the so-called in-Seoul universities.

 
Competition to get into one of them is significantly higher than for others.
 
According to Haneul Education, which runs 81 hagwon (cram schools) throughout the country specializing in the national college entrance exam, the competition ratio, which compares the number of applicants with the total number of spaces available, across universities in Seoul last year was 13.39 to 1; in Gyeonggi it was 11.06 to 1; and in Incheon it was 12.17 to 1. The ratio was considerably lower in other regions such North Jeolla, at 5.75 to 1; and in North Gyeongsang, at 5.78 to 1.
 
The trend is only expected to worsen. Korea is projected to have the largest proportion of elderly population by 2045. More than half of the country’s population has been living in the greater Seoul area as of December 2019.
 
This is where the latest technological advancements, some of it introduced or sped up during the pandemic, can save these colleges, said Bae.
 
“Before the pandemic, we couldn’t quite imagine universities sharing professors,” Bae says. “But now that universities are more or less on equal footing in terms of having the abilities to run and attend classes virtually, such pooling of resources has become possible. If I was a student living in Gwangju attending Honam University, I would have just one AI professor. But if that university, Sungkyunkwan and Hanyang and Korea universities would pool classes, that student would have access to AI classes by 60 other professors. There would be less of a need for some of these students to move out of their hometowns and try to get into the ‘in-Seoul’ universities.”
 
A professor teaches his class online from a studio in Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech) in North Gyeongsang this fall semester. [POSTECH]

A professor teaches his class online from a studio in Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech) in North Gyeongsang this fall semester. [POSTECH]

From as early as next semester, such a virtual campus will be a reality.

 
From the spring of 2021, Hanyang University will be opening hologram classes on artificial intelligence to three other universities: Eulji University in Gyeonggi, Kwangju Women’s University in Gwangju and Baekseok University in South Chungcheong.

 
“Students at the three universities will be able to earn credit for AI classes offered at Hanyang taught with the hologram technology,” Hanyang University’s media center wrote the Korea JoongAng Daily on Nov. 13. “With this technology, we intend to not only bring the professors in hologram form to various classrooms, but also recruit experts from the field to give lectures virtually.”
 
But the drive to get into one of the “in-Seoul” schools may also be reinforced as part of an immediate effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.
 
The number of unemployed youth reached 1.66 million in May 2020, an increase of 7.7 percent compared to May 2019, according to Statistics Korea. Getting a job is easier if you went to a well-known university in Seoul.
 
“I have friends who are graduating next year from a university outside of the greater Seoul area and they are really struggling,” says Kim Jun-su, a third-year student at Hanyang University. “Landing a job after graduation was already hard. Covid-19 made it harder. If a company used to recruit 100, now it’s recruiting just 20. You can’t deny that they’d be looking at the school names even more.”
 
 

All online isn’t all sustainable

The pandemic has changed the learning experience for most. And some changes may be permanent.

 
“We definitely feel there is going to be some kind of a shift after things return to normal, that it’s not going to be the normal we had before Covid,” says Ross of Zoom. “I think some of the things, that our students and teachers are learning, is that while there are downsides to moving exclusively online, remote teaching has a lot of benefits as well.”

 
Professor Kim of Hanyang University, who has been running classes in both hologram form and on Zoom for a year, says she noticed some students actually doing better academically in classes run on virtual environments.
 
“Students in Korea don’t like to draw attention to themselves in class, so not many ask questions, especially in a class this big,” she says. “But on top of that, my students are social studies majors who are learning chemistry, almost for the first time in their lives. The last thing they want to do is ask a question that makes them look dumb. On a virtual platform, that changes.”
 
Kim, in both her hologram-based and Zoom-based classes, has her students ask and answer questions on online chat rooms. The participation is so high she can barely keep up with them.
 
“I ask one question and I get 120 answers on Zoom chat,” Kim said. “It can be a bit crazy at times, as I’m looking at the big screen in front of me, divided into four to show each classroom, while I’m also looking at my PowerPoint materials and I’m looking at the chat room to keep up with their questions.”
 
Kim at her studio in Hanyang University. [HANYANG UNIVERSITY]

Kim at her studio in Hanyang University. [HANYANG UNIVERSITY]

But after a year of teaching and learning online, some professors and students are finding that even the most tech-savvy environment cannot replace the in-person interactions in classrooms.
 
“Because I major in theater, we do a lot of scene work together in class, and a lot of my coursework is intimate,” said Park Mee-hee of USC. “The other day, one of my professors commented on how surreal it had been to have run a class all semester without ever seeing her students in person.”
 
For Kim of Jeju National University, conducting chemical experiments virtually just wasn't right.
 
“Chemistry, in the most basic sense, needs the student to experiment in a lab — watching videos of experiments cannot suffice,” said Kim. “But I do think that we will have to adapt to the mix of online and offline classroom experience, because I think that will be the norm even after the pandemic has passed.”
 
The massive move of university classes online does not mean an end to college life as we knew it, according to Christopher Rim, founder of the Command Education Group and one of Forbes’ "30 Under 30" in the education sector in 2018.  
 
Park Mee-hee, first year student at the University of Southern California, taking her class online. [PARK MEE-HEE]

Park Mee-hee, first year student at the University of Southern California, taking her class online. [PARK MEE-HEE]

“You don’t go to college just to study,” Rim said. “You go to college because you want to meet people, you want to socialize, you want to make new friends, you want to live in a dorm. There are so many things you could be doing on campus. You’re not going just for the academics. My recommendation to students has been to take a gap year, because four years in college goes by so fast, you don’t want to use up one year sitting in Zoom classes.”

 
While it’s unclear if the pandemic will blow over next year, some students are making preparations for some form of return to normalcy.

 
“My sister, a senior at USC, took a gap semester,” Park said. “She is planning on going back in the spring. I hope that by then, I would also be on campus, not in my bedroom with my computer."
 
BY ESTHER CHUNG   [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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