How Taiwan’s Cram Schools Have Struggled to Adapt

How Taiwan’s Cram Schools Have Struggled to Adapt
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

When Taiwan went on semi-lockdown, many cram schools moved to remote learning. The process, many teachers report, has not been as smooth as it could have been.

When Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) first issued a Level 3 alert for Covid-19 on May 19th, the initial projection was to quickly curb the spread of the outbreak. On Tuesday, May 25th, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung extended the alert until June 14th.

At the time of this writing, daily confirmed cases have held steady and schools of all levels across Taiwan have been ordered to close and move to remote learning under the Level 3 alert. With the realization that the alert may not end as quickly as many would like, businesses have started to adapt to the new restrictions and remain operating, albeit remotely. This includes the after-school cram school (buxiban) industry.

Public and private schools, which had to think about the possibility of remote teaching last year when the pandemic began, had been prepped by the Ministry of Education (MOE) which throughout the year held mandatory workshops aimed to improve teachers’ technological skills.

Jessica Huang, a public school teacher at New Taipei Municipal Hsinchuang Senior High School, said that “before the government announced the suspension of schools, [we] made sure that every student had a computer or laptop and knew how to use Google Meet for remote learning at home.” She also added that the MOE had made prior arrangements with Longteng Education (a major textbook publisher) to provide online materials to both the teachers and students.

疫情升溫 萬芳高中線上數學課很溫馨(1)
Photo Credit: CNA
Taipei Wanfang High School, Mathematics teacher Zhong Nianzu with the help from the Ministry of Education, deploys an online teaching system. May 21, 2021

Buxibans, however, are now scrambling to adapt to these new challenges. Many of these schools have no standard of practice (SOP) set in place and have undertaken similar approaches with varying degrees of commitment. 

Impacts of digital technology on teachers

Buxiban teachers around Taiwan were asked a series of questions concerning the strategies their schools are taking to transition to remote learning, the challenges they are facing, and how much direction or support they are being provided. All information was given anonymously.

The majority of buxibans have elected to use the online platforms Google Meet or Zoom to conduct their classes; with a small minority having opted to go the pre-recorded route and even fewer shutting down to restructure their teaching method to adjust to the realities of digitalization. This is the first major issue that should be addressed: The existence of a learning curve that is inherent to applying modern technology to a seemingly antiquated teaching system. 

To begin with, the buxiban industry employs a broad demographic of teachers, all with their own varied backgrounds and skill sets. While platforms like Google Meet and Zoom have been around, not everyone has had the need or inclination to familiarize themselves with them before the pandemic. Technology moves fast, and a lot of teachers have to learn to use these platforms on the fly. This makes training and teacher support an important first step — and one that is being skipped more often than addressed. 

The transition to remote learning has been rocky as both student participation and engagement have become more difficult to ensure in an online setting. Without necessary skill sets, teachers have had to adapt, some with more success than others.     

For some, the experience has been relatively painless. Many teachers at the bigger chain schools have said that while their individual branches have been supportive, they have found a lack of direction from their main headquarters who claim that online videos and standards of practice will be forthcoming at a later date. This has resulted in a lack of standardization of both teacher-made videos and materials, as well as the implementation of general policy across branches. However, at the same time, the lack of guidance has brought them the freedom to be creative and have control beyond their normal bounds. 

For the smaller independent schools, however, more responsibility has fallen onto the teachers. Either compelled to go into the office to work at a time when they feel they should be isolated or set up their own video conferencing studios within the confines of their homes and adapt their materials, some of these teachers are feeling the pressure. Given little to no choice and despite most  not being as technologically adept as IT professionals, teachers have been given as little direction as “figure it out or lose your hours.” An unwelcome ultimatum to hear when everyone is trying to avoid losing work.

Others still have found that they have become the authority on the technological aspects of the transition, often having to explain to their fellow teachers or co-teachers the finer points of their chosen video conferencing platform. They are challenged to come up with creative solutions to make up for a lack of logistical infrastructure, whether it be limited wi-fi, equipment issues, or troubleshooting video streams. 

Either way, these varied experiences are entirely dependent on individuals’ own resources and ability to adapt.

教育部宣布全國各級學校停課至5/28
Photo Credit: CNA
In response to the escalation of the domestic epidemic and to reduce the risk of group infections, Minister of Education Pan Wen-chung announced on May 18th that schools at all levels and public and private kindergartens across the country will stop attending classes.
Challenges remote teaching brings to students

The second major issue lies in how remote learning brings about a different style of teaching, one that the current mainstream system does not translate well without amendment. Remote learning is not new by any means, however, it’s generally accepted that in-person classes offer a superior experience to students and adjustments need to be made in order to elevate online teaching to the same standard. 

Most English classes focus on speaking and fostering the human interaction aspect of language acquisition. That is made difficult with remote teaching as this format limits both aspects. Large class sizes of 20 or more students make it difficult to give each individual student adequate attention and attempting to do so risks slowing down the pace of the class. This is a format that is more reliant on minimizing “dead space,” or extended periods of time of silence. 

One potential workaround involves breaking classes into smaller groups, but some teachers have reported that their schools have been reluctant to take such action. One can only assume such a stance may be financially motivated, as schools would have to compensate the teachers for the extra hours. 

Public and private schools have integrated the use of Google Classroom or other complementary platforms to aid in tracking assignments. Such attempts to shore up the shortcomings of remote learning are essential in keeping the efficacy of teaching high. But this is yet another new piece of unfamiliar technology that most buxibans are not prepared for. 

Different age groups pose different challenges as well. For the younger students, especially, teachers need to focus on attention retention, which is much easier to do in a physical setting. In the comfort of their own homes, students have access to so many sources of distraction that the teacher may neither be aware of nor in control of.

Remote learning already has the aforementioned challenges and drawbacks in comparison to in-person teaching, compounding that with the practical implications of going online puts more pressure on households. More responsibility falls onto the parents to ensure active participation and classroom control, which many may or may not have the time or motivation for. 

Then there’s the issue of accessibility. This style of learning requires a level of financial security which not all students have. It’s not merely a question of having a device (such as a computer or smartphone) but also a sizable data plan, as these video calls tend to ravenously eat up data. 

In a society where academic achievement is so emphasized, there are families who are barely scraping enough money to send their children to these schools in the first place. If not addressed, these requirements are a new luxury that they will have trouble affording long term.        

The crux of the issue lies in the unpreparedness of the relevant administrations toward an online contingency plan, as it shouldn’t fall on teachers to try and keep their respective schools open. They had a year to come up with working plans that address the aforementioned issues and to hit the ground running in a worst-case scenario. Perhaps it was complacency in the safety of the Taiwan bubble that allowed them to be caught off guard, or even a self-assurance that any outbreak would be a minor inconvenience with things on their way back to normal with vaccines.

Perhaps they’re correct in that line of thought. Regardless, the current buxiban system has a chance to restructure itself in the wake of a pandemic to evolve and become better than it was. The question now is will it take that chance, or merely coast by on sufficient mediocrity?      

       

READ NEXT: Why Taiwan Should Pay People To Stay Home

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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