In late December 2019, Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) awarded Assistant Professor Xiaolong CHEN (Electronic and Electrical Engineering – EEE) with first prize in the annual Young Teacher Teaching Competition. As an educator born in the late 1980s and educated in the 1990s, he is one of the youngest winners of the competition. His unique perspective provides him with the ability to communicate with students in what some would say is “their language.”
Assistant Professor Xiaolong CHEN graduated from the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) with a BEng in 2010 before obtaining a Ph.D. from the Department of Physics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) in 2014. His postdoctoral research experience saw him travel to the University of Cambridge and Yale University before joining SUSTech in 2018.
Despite the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) sweeping China and, more recently, the globe, Xiaolong CHEN, like his colleagues in EEE, had to quickly adapt their offline class plans to the new online educational paradigm. In the eyes of Chen Xiaolong, this is not only a challenge but also an enormous opportunity.
He found himself in a similar situation previously. The duality of the situation meant that while he could not return to his place of work, he found peace in his work in a familial environment. In the current circumstances, he believes that China, and indeed the world, will overcome.
Adapting to an online teaching environment
Knowing his students well, Assistant Professor Xiaolong CHEN wanted the best for his students. However, he encountered numerous difficulties in preparing his classes in the way that he wanted. He struggled with consistent network connections, the rhythm of his courses, and maintaining the engagement of his students.
Xiaolong CHEN originally planned to live-stream his classes but found that his network connection could not support his plans. At the same time, his international students in Cambodia were unable to stream his classes on their local networks. As a result, he opted for pre-recorded lessons.
Once Xiaolong CHEN started his pre-recorded classes, he was highly concerned about the educational experience he would provide. He was highly aware of buffering issues that could occur with pre-recorded lessons, while also lacking the continuous teacher-student feedback that face-to-face classes and live-streamed classes would offer. He was also highly concerned about getting the rhythm of each educational experience correct.
However, as he had learned previously, with every challenge comes a new opportunity.
Knowing that he would adapt to the new situation over time, he also introduced a QQ group that allowed him and his teaching assistant to answer questions from the students. It helped him better understand and adapt his class rhythm based on the feedback from his charges.
QQ is an instant messaging (IM) service that has been used throughout China for many years. Xiaolong CHEN took advantage of the IM service to respond to student questions, release pre-class quizzes, and act on student feedback. It allowed Xiaolong CHEN to adjust his rhythm in class, based on the feedback from students.
Aware of the multiple foci of attention for students while they are not in the classroom, Assistant Professor Xiaolong CHEN broke his 100-minute lecture down into five, 20-minute segments. Such an approach breaks up the class into more manageable chunks on the eyes while ensuring significantly more retention for each section.
Despite the difficulties of the initial preparation, he found he could refine his curriculum as time passed. As he reviewed his classes, he picked up on subtle nuances that allowed him to improve his curricula more than he would have from the immediate feedback from students in face-to-face lessons.
Once Xiaolong CHEN arrived at SUSTech, he had to develop his teaching skills, moving quickly from beginner to Best Young Teacher in less than two years.
“I didn’t have any classes in my first semester at SUSTech, so I spent a lot of time learning from other educators. I learned a lot from them, and I also learned that it was important to talk to them about their lessons.” Xiaolong Chen added that he had sat in on the lessons of at least 20 different teachers at SUSTech before teaching his first class. He knew that SUSTech had many good teachers, and while he didn’t always understand the content, he can recognize good educational practice when he saw it.
Educational style adapted to the new era
Xiaolong CHEN teaches analog circuits. This introductory course is a vital course for students. Still, it is not an easy course for most students aiming to major in one of the four electronic and electrical engineering pathways. Students seek to develop the fundamental skills to analyze and design common electrical devices, circuits, and systems that lay the foundations for further in-depth studies in this field.
Given the difficulty of the course, Xiaolong CHEN converts the text into images, animations, and videos to create a more evocative way for students to understand the content. These visualizations have been highly popular with students, as it effectively explains how critical components of circuitry works in conjunction with other components.
He has also found that humor is vital in keeping students engaged in his classes, despite the dense content. “Sometimes telling a joke can help attract everyone’s attention. Similarly, using emojis and emoticons in my courseware has relaxed the atmosphere in the classroom and online.”
By focusing on the core content of his coursework, Xiaolong Chen ensures that every picture is carefully selected and relevant to the content on screen. Many images are hand-illustrated by Xiaolong CHEN , and the ongoing feedback from the students allows him to adjust his content along with the new materials he collects regularly.
His humorous and engaging class style has attracted many students. His lectures were highly detailed and energetic, and a bonus was the emoji packs that came with the coursework. His EEE colleagues highly praised Xiaolong CHEN for his knowledge and teaching rhythm, as well as the energy in his classroom.
Teaching students to teach themselves
Assistant Professor Xiaolong CHEN has a small number of researchers under his guidance, as he believes that he must understand and manage them properly. He has a firm view on the support needed for junior undergraduate students at a time when they are still developing their foundations.
Serious and diligent students have the freedom to find their path, while other students will be pushed forward to find their optimal pathway in life. He never forces a specific way on students but instead recommends a range of plans that would allow them to set their direction in life.
Students looking to pursue an academic pathway would receive more scientific research tasks, while those chasing employment or entrepreneurship would receive more free time to improve their relevant skills.
Xiaolong CHEN operates an open-door policy, encouraging students to come to his office to talk to him. He prefers face-to-face communication over online communication.
“I didn’t think about what sort of teacher I wanted to be. If everyone works together, we will be better off as a society and as a teaching institution.”
Translated and Adapted By SUSTech Newshub
Proofread ByXia Yingying
Photo ByChen Xiaolong, Qiu Yan