Hundreds of millions of students attend online classes in China

Yu Lu, a Chinese language teacher from a primary school in Chun’an county, east China’s Zhejiang province introduces how tea leaves are picked to her students in a livestreamed class, March 19, 2020. By Mao Yongfeng, People’s Daily Online

By Yu Jianbin, People’s Daily

At 8:30 a.m., Feb. 10, 900,000 people visited an online education platform of Wuhan, central China’s Hubei province, where gigantic amount of bit streams input from teachers and students’ cameras and microphones are flocking into online classrooms.

The platform responded to every access request methodically, handling data demand in a speedy but calm manner. No lag was felt by the students, many of whom believed that the seamless experience was just like having a class in real classrooms.

Such performance was a great relief for Nie Xiaokai, an education product manager of Chinese tech giant Tencent, who had worked around the clock with his colleagues since Jan. 27 to build the platform. He and his colleagues gave each other high-fives to celebrate the success.

Similar scenes happened across China on the same day. Over 2 million views were recorded in the livestreamed classes for students of all 12 grades in Kaifeng, central China’s Henan province, and 600,000 teachers in over 300 cities gave lectures to 50 million students through a livestream platform of DingTalk, e-commerce giant Alibaba’s communication app.

Such massive online education practices in China was unprecedented for both the internet and the education industry. A journalist from Tokyo was astonished after observing an online class livestreamed on Zuoyebang, a leading online education startup in China. On the class, all the students, who were located across the country, could respond to the teacher swiftly when the teacher called the roll.

“There are over a million classes being livestreamed at the peak time every day,” said Ross Liang, Vice President of Tencent and top executive of the tech firm’s instant messenger app QQ. According to Tencent, a total of 20 to 30 million students are having classes on QQ.

“To open an online space for tens of millions of students and teachers was beyond our budget for technical framework and server capability,” Liang disclosed, explaining that huge data flow was generated when classes were on and disappeared when they were over. Such gigantic peak flow and capacity expansion were never seen by the world before. To ensure the smooth operation of online classes, internet bandwidth resources were put into use at all cost, Liang noted.

The capacity expansion was not as easy as turning on a faucet, but a process of high technical standards. To ensure the operation of the online classes in the daytime, the technicians always had to race against time to complete server expansion and other tasks in hours before dawn. DingTalk expanded the capacity of over 100,000 servers on Alibaba’s cloud platform, and made a new record by newly adding 10,000 cloud servers in just 2 hours. All the efforts were made to cope with the unprecedented data flow and ensure class schedules.

The peak flow on DingTalk was hundreds of times more than that in previous time, and five to ten times more than all Chinese video and livestreaming services combine.

“The current solution, which is proved to be the most appropriate, was far beyond our plan back then, ” said An Bu, an education product manager of DingTalk, adding that they must prepare many alternative plans to cope with the sudden and unknown situation.

Thanks to their rich technological experiences, An and his team completed their tasks, and are still responding swiftly to users’ demands

A teacher told An that he would like to make annotations to students’ homework submitted online, and the feature was perfectly realized by An and his team the second day, after at least 50 times of optimization.

China conducted the largest, widest and the most extensive online education in the world during the COVID-19 epidemic. As of early April, 1,454 universities across the country had started the new semester online. A total of 942,000 courses were offered online by 950,000 teachers and attended over 7 million times. Besides, online education resources had been visited by 1.18 billion person-times.

The figures could be attributed to online education and technological platforms that offered strong supports. Multiple Chinese apps such as DingTalk and Tencent Meeting have been recommended by UN organizations to global students.

A special opening ceremony is held online by a primary school in Anqing, east China’s Anhui province, March 2, 2020. The ceremony is attended by only four people, including a principal, a teacher, a doorkeeper and a security guard of the school, and viewed by hundreds of thousands of students and their parents via an online platform. By Huang You’an, People’s Daily Online

A teacher from a middle school in Lanzhou, west China’s Gansu province teaches online in an empty classroom, March 30, 2020. By Ding Kai, People’s Daily Online