//Public Opinion on Online Education in Mainland China during the Pandemic

Public Opinion on Online Education in Mainland China during the Pandemic

Text: Zhou Mingming.Photo: Editorial Board, with some provided by the author.Chinese Translation: Davis Ip

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced teachers and students at all levels of education to quickly move to online classes, which have traditionally been seen as an alternative route in education. To our knowledge, our study is the first attempt to analyse public opinion about online education before, during, and after the outbreak in mainland China. In the study, we have also made recommendations for improving online education.


Analysing Microblogs about Online Education

The study was conducted by Prof Zhou Mingming and Mou Hao, director of DataStory, a big data company based in Guangzhou. With the help of DataStory, we collected microblogs about online education published on Sina Weibo between mid-2019 and late 2020 and conducted sentiment and content analyses of the data.

These microblogs were divided into three time periods: 1) Pre-pandemic Period (1 July 2019 to 9 January 2020); 2) Mid-pandemic Period (10 January 2020 to 30 April 2020); and 3) Post-pandemic Period (1 May 2020 to 30 November 2020). The three periods were delineated by two key events: 1) In January 2020, COVID-19 rapidly spread across mainland China within weeks. In recognition of the situation, the Chinese central government recommended the use of distance learning for all grade levels across the country; 2) In early May 2020, the Chinese central government concluded that mainland China had achieved a major strategic success in combating COVID-19, and schools were reopened to resume face-to-face teaching.

In addition to the content of the microblogs, we also collected the profiles of their creators, including their gender. To compare the microblogs from the three time periods, we used Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) for sentiment analysis. Specifically, we used this machine learning technique to automatically classify the microblogs into three sentiment categories: positive, negative, and neutral. Each microblog was tagged with a numerical sentiment value of +1, 0, or – 1 to indicate positive, neutral, or negative polarity. For content analysis, we used the Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) algorithm to identify the topics to which a piece of unstructured text data belongs.

We found that the number of microblogs about online education increased dramatically during the Mid-pandemic Period, peaking at 430,566 microblogs in March 2020, when schools and other educational institutions in mainland China completely suspended face-to-face classes and switched to online learning. This number is over ten times higher than that from the first month of our study (33,415 in July 2019) and over 40 times higher than that from the last month of our study (9,366 in November 2020). This indicates that the emergencies that started in January 2020 caused a lot of concern about online education among the population, especially among women.

The total number of microblogs about online education during the three periods

Indeed, the dramatic increase in the number of microblogs about online education during the Mid-pandemic Period came mainly from female users. In the first and third periods, most male and female users seemed to be equally indifferent to online education. Before the pandemic, 79.03 per cent of microblogs in the study were classified as neutral towards online education, and only 4.67 per cent of them were negative. However, in the Mid-pandemic Period, only 33.04 per cent of the posts were classified as neutral, and 51.63 per cent of them were negative. Moreover, the proportion of female users who held negative views was much higher in the third period (9.27 per cent) than that in the first period (3.26 per cent). This implies that the pandemic has had a lasting negative impact on women’s attitudes towards online education.

The total number of microblogs about online education during the three periods (by gender)

During the Mid-pandemic Period when online education was the only alternative to face-to-face teaching, Weibo users generally held negative attitudes towards online education. This is consistent with a study of Chinese users’ satisfaction with selected online education platforms during the pandemic, but contrasts with previous studies that examined public attitudes in mainland China towards online learning models such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This shows that the public would likely take a negative stance if they participate in online education involuntarily.

Changes in sentiment scores of microblogs about online education during the three periods

Topic Clusters of Microblogs about Online Education

Meanwhile, we found that the optimal number of topic clusters was 2 in the Pre-pandemic Period dataset, 4 in the Mid-pandemic Period dataset, and 7 in the Post-pandemic Period dataset. In the Pre-pandemic Period, the first group of topics was primarily about the purposes and functions of online education, expressed in a positive tone. During the Mid-pandemic Period, the topics mainly reflected concerns about schools, teachers, students, and curriculum. In the Post-pandemic Period, the topics that appeared on Weibo were even more diverse, although the number of microblogs about online education decreased.

To our knowledge, our study is the first attempt to analyse public opinion about online education in mainland China during this period. The results have been published in Educational Technology Research and Development, the only peer-reviewed journal in the field of education that focuses exclusively on the research and development of educational technology. The journal is ranked sixth among international journals of educational technology, with an Impact Factor of 5.58 in 2021.

According to our datasets, ‘sleepy’ and ‘anxious’ emerged as frequent keywords in microblogs during the Mid-pandemic Period. Online education often requires learners to be highly self-disciplined and self-directed, but it can be difficult for learners to meet this expectation when online learning is not voluntary. While we acknowledge the benefits of online education, a greater variety of online activities is needed to maximise the value of learning through the screen during long hours of online sessions.

Zhou Mingming is an associate professor and the interim associate dean (research) at the UM Faculty of Education (FED), where she also serves as the director of the Educational Research Centre. At UM, Prof Zhou is responsible for the management of the key research base of humanities and social sciences of the Ministry of Education. Her studies focus on interdisciplinary research of educational psychology and computing technology, including the integration of social media and online education, educational data mining, the use of digital technology in higher education, and how to innovate traditional measures of key concepts in education and psychology. She has published and presented over 80 papers in academic journals and international conferences.

Articles in the Academic Research column were submitted by UM scholars. The views expressed are solely those of the author(s).

ISSUE26 | 2022

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2022-11-23T09:32:10+08:00November 22nd, 2022|Academic Research|