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Massive free online teaching the next big thing in China

Apr 14, 2013
FREE online teaching is set to explode as a trend in China, as the world's most populous country has a strong tradition of respect for education but uneven resources.

"Massive online open courses" or MOOC, designed for large-scale interaction and open access at no cost, have become a rising power in China's education landscape. While MOOC has been labeled a "tsunami" of education by the president of Stanford University, educators in China have called it the most important invention in their field since the Internet.
A Chinese student takes an online course at home. Massive online open courses have become a rising power in China's education landscape.

One of the biggest providers of MOOC, alongside other American operations like Udacity and edX, is Coursera. Since launching in April 2012, Coursera has picked up more than three million users, and the largest MOOC forum in China has more than 12,000 members. When Andrew Ng, the Chinese-American academic and cofounder of Coursera, lectured at Tsinghua University last week, interest was further piqued as to the potential for his creation.

"The biggest revolution of MOOC is the interactions between students and teachers as well as other students," says Ng. The system includes videos, various materials, tests and with community-building user forums.

Stanford is one of Coursera's partner universities in the United States and Ng is seeking similar relationships in China. In an interview with Xinhua, he says his hopes are high, since the country's educational institutions and companies are hungry for ties with experienced US education platforms.

"Coursera wants to embody the Confucian value of making no social distinctions in teaching; providing education for all people without discrimination. Education for everyone is our goal," explains Ng, whose positions at Stanford include associate professor with its Department of Computer Science.

Education shake-up

Ng and MOOC students believe this new medium will revolutionize both online and offline education. MOOC platforms set hours of homework every week in addition to lecture videos, and the homework is either graded automatically or by students' peers.

Another major departure from previous online courses is that MOOC has successfully brought together student communities. They either discuss difficult points online or come together in the real world to meet.

Furthermore, participants can earn a certificate to be included in a resume. Many students in China have been attracted to the free courses for the chance to learn from top teachers worldwide who mostly speak English, while the number of MOOC members in non-English-speaking countries has been climbing.

"Essential knowledge points are chopped into pieces that suit the timeline presented online," says Ji Xiaohua, founder of China's popular science website Guokr.com, which hosts the country's largest MOOC forum, the MOOC Study Room.

Adopting high-tech measures, MOOC can imitate real classrooms in the virtual world, and even grade students and match them with suitable classes using computer programs, which was unimaginable in the past, Ji adds.

"This will have a great impact on traditional college education," says Professor Sun Maosong, Party secretary of Tsinghua's Department of Computer Science and Technology.

He predicts that university professors may soon find it difficult to lure students to physical classrooms because they are faced with the popularity of MOOC. But he stresses that this is not to their detriment: "It is the honor and social responsibility of great universities to open high-quality education resources to the whole society."

New MOOC icon

Others high up in Chinese education agree. "I have a dream that all who want to be a student of Peking University can be a student of Peking University," said Peking University President Zhou Qifeng earlier this month.

In 2010, the university made headlines by making a few of its courses available for study online free of charge.

Language has been the main obstacle for MOOC's spread in China; it is much more popular in India and other English-speaking countries. There is general agreement that the best way for MOOC to spread in China is to shoot Chinese-language videos in the country.

As an education pioneer of Chinese origin, Ng wants to express his own "loyalty" to China; he believes the value of Chinese courses needs to be shared around the world.

In August, Coursera will launch a Chinese-language platform linked to a Taiwan university's history classes, according to Ng. Similar services for a Chinese opera course run by the Chinese University of Hong Kong are likely to begin soon.

Coursera's co-founder is in talks with mainland universities, though he declines to elaborate. The key issue is which Chinese websites, institutions and companies will win dominance in the emerging MOOC sector in China. Investors are watching.

Tsinghua's Sun Maosong suggests Chinese institutions may prefer to set up their own versions instead of join foreign platforms. It could be more practical for out-riding professors to join Coursera, rather than a whole university.

"Chinese courses need to be made in China," he says, stressing that MOOC is still "in the experimental phase" and that some universities may wait for the platforms to prove themselves before explicitly backing them.

[From Shanghai Daily]
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