Compulsory online education in China during the COVID-19 outbreak: disciplines, media dependency and surveillance


Similar to prison and hospital, schools are conceptualized as an institution for social and moral regulations under a Foucauldian conceptual framework (Foucault, 2012). Teachers function as “security guards” in the panopticon who conduct surveillance towards students and discipline them to produce “docile bodies” (Ball, 2013). Nevertheless, it has not been seen in an online education setting due to its absence of compulsory education background, given that most online education programmes are designed for university students and self-motivated individuals (Sun & Chen, 2016). Whereas, online education also has compulsive requirements for students by its nature: students have to rely on digital media to access educational information. It can be seen as the latest practice of Media System Dependency theory on digital media nowadays. Students depend on mediated communication technologies to gratify their needs in learning (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976). Despite the celebration of its convenience and affordability, some studies also indicate the physical and mental problems related to digital media dependency, such as neck stiffness, attention span reduction and anxiety (Choi et al., 2015; Kwon et al., 2013; Mok et al., 2014).

Despite its rapid development, online education has not yet challenged the school-based educational spaces and face-to-face teaching model in current society, especially on compulsory education level. Nevertheless, a compulsory implementation of online education for all schools at all levels once took place in China during the outbreak of COVID-19 for preventing the potential virus spreading. The learning experiences of students under such circumstances are affected by both social and technical disciplines from compulsory education and inevitable dependency on digital media. The changing spaces from school to online spaces and homes change the power relations between teachers and students. With controlled or uncontrolled technical functions and connectivity, teachers’ surveillance on students vary in forms, instead, they may even receive the panoptic surveillance from students and their parents and even state online censorship in reverse. Moreover, students are forced to be connected throughout the entire study sessions. As the study sessions for secondary school students tend to be higher in China, the possible physical and mental problems they encountered with digital media overuse may be more severe.

This study aims to understand the learning experiences of students under the circumstances of forced online learning, following a research question: how digital media affect the learning experiences of secondary school students in a compulsory online education setting? As extant studies only focus on the postsecondary and voluntarily registered online education (Coppola, Hiltz, & Rotter, 2002; Cole, Shelley, & Swartz, 2014; Bell & Federman, 2013), this research can contribute to the literature in media education by enabling us to understand and examine a practice of compulsory online education for secondary education, and envision the digital future of education and people’s mediated learning experiences. We will apply a mixed method of both quantitative and qualitative approaches to capture the holistic picture of the issue. A comprehensive survey (N=1000) and interview (N=50) will be conducted in one secondary school in China.