Switching Extra-curricular Classes to Online Teaching Amid the Pandemic Gave Rise to Disputes Urged for Communication to Address Consumers’ Needs and Sentiments

15 June 2020
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The coronavirus pandemic has caused not only the regular schools but also the off-campus tutorial classes and children interest classes to suspend face-to-face lessons. In the first 5 months this year, the Consumer Council has received over 250 complaints concerning some course providers unilaterally changed their teaching arrangements, format and even the curriculum that gave rise to consumer resentment. While the Council understands that the switch from classroom lessons to online teaching by the course providers could mitigate the risk of spreading the pandemic, the fees for these classes were generally costly and if the course providers unilaterally change the format to online teaching, this may reduce the interactions between the teachers and the students, not to mention that the students may not be equipped with the necessary computers or other network facilities for the online teaching. As such, the course providers should ensure that the course contents, the teaching hours, and the teachers’ qualifications should be comparable with what would be provided in classroom lessons if they want to switch to online teaching, they should maintain good communication with students and parents so as to avoid the inconvenience caused and to protect consumer rights.

Case 1: Parents was forced to accompany their kid for online lessons with teaching hours slashed by more than 80%

A complainant enrolled her son in a K3 phonics class ($9,100) with Company A. The course was originally scheduled to start in mid-February. However, a few days before the course started, the complainant was notified via an email that the first lesson would be cancelled while the resumption of class would be subject to further notice. Company A suddenly informed the complainant a month later that classroom learning would be replaced by online teaching and asked the complainant to choose the dates for online classes as soon as possible. Complainant was also asked to print out the teaching materials beforehand and make arrangement to accompany their kid during the lessons.

The complainant pointed out that it would be hard for kindergarten children to focus on learning in front of a computer. Furthermore, working parents might not be able to adjust their work schedule easily to accompany their kids for the classes, not to mention that nowadays, a printer might not be a household necessity to support the printing request. As such, online teaching caused much inconvenience to consumers. In addition, the complainant had purchased an expensive course in the belief that her son would have 90 minutes face-to-face tutorial on phonics by an expatriate teacher instead of a 15-minute online lesson on the screen.

The complainant firmly refused to accept the online teaching mode, but Company A incessantly emphasized that there were no alternatives and declined to return the tuition fee. Company A finally agreed to refund after the Council’s repeated conciliations.

Case 2: Personal demonstration of Latin dance tutor replaced by live broadcast, dance practice at home may increase injury risk

 Complainant enrolled his daughter in a 48-session Latin dance class ($7,200) operated by Company B. In view of the pandemic, Company B announced class suspension in early February. 2 weeks later, the Company informed the complainant that the dancing class would be resumed and conducted online. Students who were unable to join the online lessons could attend classes at the school. However, as the classroom could only accommodate up to 6 students at a time, advance registration would be required. While being reluctant to take the risk of bringing the daughter to school, the complainant was also worried that online teaching lacked face-to-face guidance from the dancing teacher. Moreover, dance practice in a cramped environment via live online instructions at home with space and facility constraints might increase the chances of injuries. The complainant found neither of these two options acceptable. However, the company insisted that the scheduled lessons would be forfeited if neither classes at the school nor online classes were opted. The complainant sought help from the Council. Subsequently, Company B agreed to extend the course period for the complainant without forfeiting any lessons in the meantime. The complainant accepted the arrangement.

Case 3: DSE preparatory course only provides self-study materials with little value in improving examination skills

Complainant enrolled her Form 5 daughter in a DSE English preparatory course ($6,300) with Company C. Following the Government’s class suspension announcement, Company C cancelled the preparatory classes originally scheduled in mid-February but replaced with self-study handouts. The complainant was not satisfied for being ‘passively informed’ of such arrangement. Despite understanding the reasons for the class cancellation, the complainant still considered it was an unjust arrangement in considering the high tuition fee of more than $6,000. Worse still, it could not help improving the daughter’s examination skills. 

The complainant was disappointed at Company C’s refusal to refund.  Emphasizing that the class had not formally started, the complainant firmly rejected the replacement of classroom learning by self-study materials. After conciliation by the Council, Company C contacted the complainant to arrange a refund.

The Council understands that quite a number of industries are in a difficult time amid the pandemic. While struggling to continue their services under the constraint of social distancing measures, the needs and feelings of consumer might not be well taken care of. Even though the contracts may stipulate with terms such as “non-refundable”, “reserving the right of final decision”, course providers should not use them as their indemnities to unilaterally change the class arrangements, resulting in vast discrepancies in consumer expectation on the teaching quality.

Notwithstanding that the pandemic has shown sign of receding, course providers should not take the situation lightly but should get well prepared by maintaining good communication with students and their parents. They should also develop appropriate alternative plans to meet the needs of different courses and students so as to strengthen customer services to avoid creating disputes again.

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