Tsinghua University is using the cloud to make it rain in the classroom

5 min read

Professor Yu Xinjie teaches Principles of Electrical Circuits in a nondescript classroom at Tsinghua University, sometimes referred to as the MIT of China. This required course for electrical engineering freshmen looks completely ordinary until you see the large QR code projected on the white screen. To get the lecture slides, students scan the code with their phones to access Rain Classroom, a WeChat mini program created by MOOC-CN Education.

Professor Yu’s Principles of Electrical Circuits at Tsinghua University. (Image credit: TechNode)

“I sent everyone pre-class reading,” says Professor Yu, addressing the auditorium-sized classroom. “Only 120 [of 150 ] students looked at it. So, there’s going to be a pop quiz. You have 2 minutes.”

Some students grumble but dutifully tap into the quiz when it appears on their phone. Afterward, the mini program shows that over 90% of the students had gotten the correct answer.

Formally incorporated in 2014, MOOC-CN Education is owned by Tsinghua Holdings, a subsidiary of Tsinghua University. The company operates XuetangX, China’s largest—and the world’s 3rd largest—platform for massive open online courses (MOOC). Rain Classroom, the interactive teaching app, was launched in 2016. MOOC-CN Education is one of the edtech (education technology) companies who is capitalizing on and providing innovative solutions for China’s massive education industry.

The challenges of China’s education

China has the world’s largest education system with 260 million students (in Chinese) from K12 to college, almost 20% of the total population. With such a large student population and obsessive focus on education, competition for quality resources is intense. From the moment a child is born, parents and grandparents fret over whether they can into the best kindergarten. And it doesn’t stop there: How the child does in school will be a much-debated topic right up to the university entrance exam, aka gaokao, which will determine where students will attend college and decide their careers, ideally a stable job in the government or an executive position at a big company.

Read more: Hujiang VP on Online Education Monetization in China: Users and Quality Content are Keys

As a result, teaching—much like other public services—has become almost industrialized with the sole goal being to ace the gaokao. Students in Chinese urban centers face an unimaginable amount of pressure to do well in schools. Cases of students committing suicides due to academic stress are not uncommon. At the same time, the distribution of educational resources is highly uneven across the country. In impoverished provinces, several villages can only be served by one school, staffed by a few teachers.

Yet, there are also opportunities. China’s education sector is growing rapidly and poised for disruption. A 2017 Deloitte report showed that the “total amount of M&As in China’s education industry exceeded RMB 12.6 billion in 2016, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of up to 78% over the past four years.” The Chinese Ministry of Education is also pushing forward education reform, changing the gaokao system and introducing guidelines to reduce stress for elementary school students.

“Teaching used to be more of an art, now it can be made more scientific,” Professor Yu told TechNode after class. Other than teaching electrical engineering, he is also part of the committee of professors that guide the development of Rain Classroom.

Translation by TechNode. Image credit: Rain Classroom

The app is named after a positive education cycle reinforced by edtech akin to earth’s precipitation cycles. Services (rain) made possible by big data analytics (the cloud) are utilized in classrooms or for self-learning (rain irrigating the soil). More data on teaching and learning is generated and collected then uploaded to the cloud again (evaporation), completing the cycle.

“Before, other than grades from assignments and exams, you don’t really know how students are doing. With Rain Classroom, you can see if students have gone through class readings and assess their understanding right away in class,” Professor Yu explained.

Ways to assess that understanding include live quizzes and danmu. Danmu is a feature first popularized through video streaming where the audience sends messages that fly across the video content. In class, Professor Yu asks his students about the electrical current in a circuit shown on the screen. Students answered on their phones, which then showed up on the class PowerPoint presentation.

Danmu in a college classroom! (Image credit: TechNode)

But even with a high tech classroom, there is still room to misbehave. The danmu feature is only meant for students to send messages related to the class. However, when Professor Yu left the danmu feature on for too long, one student cheekily sent 火钳刘明 (huoqianliuming) or “leave your name before this goes viral!” This is an internet slang that Chinese netizens leave on posts or content they think will go viral so that they get some good luck by association.

Quantifying Interaction

For those who haven’t experienced a Chinese classroom, the necessity of such tech-based facilitation may not be obvious. Can’t the students just answer a question aloud?

“In China, there isn’t a culture of lively classroom interaction. Students here are shy or may be afraid that they have the wrong answer,” Wang Shuaiguo, the Curriculum Director at Tsinghua University’s Online Education Office, told TechNode. He works alongside MOOC-CN Education to develop Rain Classroom. Wang says Rain Classroom is an effective way to address the issue of timid students and, at the same time, gain meaningful data about teaching and learning.

TechNode did great in a class of 1 (r) but was below average in Professor Yu’s class (l)

The live quizzes, danmu and other data gathered in the classroom are made into reports for both teachers and students. Teachers can see statistics on how many students completed quizzes in class or have done the readings. In turn, students also receive a report on how well they did compared to the rest of the class.

Electrical engineering freshmen Li Daiyan solving a problem shown in Rain Classroom on his phone (Image credit: TechNode)

So what do the students think of it? TechNode talked to Li Daiyan, an electrical engineering freshman that happened to sit next to us in Professor Yu’s class.

“[Principles of Electrical Circuits] is the only required class I have that uses Rain Classroom. It’s probably the more interesting of my classes this semester,” Li said. “But having Rain Classroom doesn’t necessarily make me more focused. If I’m sitting with my friends, then I’ll probably still get distracted in class.”

What’s Next

Rain Classroom is used in over 2,300 universities in China and there are plans to expand this to colleges overseas and also more high school classrooms at home. At the same time, the team continues to work on adding features to Rain Classroom.

“In the future, I’d like to see modeling and predictive functions added to Rain Classroom. If we can predict what students’ performance will likely be towards the end of the class, we can take tailored actions early on to help students improve,” Professor Yu told TechNode.