Asia’s first MOOC draws students from around world

Naubahar Sharif has been teaching science, technology and innovation for some years at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He drew on his lectures to develop a massive open online course, or MOOC, on “Science, Technology and Society in China”, and this month it was launched on the Coursera platform – billed as Asia’s first MOOC.

Some 17,000 students registered for the three-week course, which began on 4 April.

“I was astonished and overwhelmed. This is far more than the 8,000-10,000 students we were expecting,” said Sharif, an associate professor.

Around 60% of the students are from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and other rich nations, with the rest from countries like Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, and middle-income countries in Asia.

Inviting Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, or HKUST, onto the California-based for-profit MOOC platform was a deliberate strategy by Coursera to attract more Asian and particularly Chinese students – a massive market for MOOC providers.

“We do have students from China as well, in places where internet connections are more reliable,” said Sharif. But, he added, it was striking how international the student body was.

This presents its own challenges regarding the level at which to pitch a MOOC. “We have the whole gamut of older and younger, experienced and less experienced students, and also academics and probably some people who are experts in related fields,” said Sharif.

Coursera platform

HKUST developed and owns the MOOC and uploaded it onto the Coursera platform. “Coursera’s role is to host the course. So many large universities are part of it, that it is the go-to point for those seeking a reputable course,” said Sharif.

For Sharif it meant producing almost 30 videos and other materials, restructuring and rewriting parts of his ordinary course and adapting it to the MOOC audience, which he describes as a “faceless large mass”.

“Not knowing who my students are, I have to treat them with the utmost respect,” he told University World News. It is more time consuming than face-to-face teaching. “I give the time and attention a student body deserves.”

HKUST will run anther MOOC, on the “Science of Gastronomy” with particular reference to Chinese cooking. It is about to start on Coursera run by King Chow, a professor of life science and biomedical engineering, and Lam-lung Yeung, a chemistry lecturer. A Chinese history course is also scheduled.

While HKUST’s was the first MOOC by an Asian university, the Chinese University of Hong Kong has now joined the Coursera platform with a MOOC scheduled for September on the international role of China’s currency.

Japan’s Tokyo University will offer its inaugural four-week Coursera MOOC on the evolution of the universe from September, and on peace and conflict from October, both taught in English.

Cracking China

Language is still an issue if MOOCs are to recruit significant numbers of Chinese students – still only the 10th largest audience in terms of student numbers, with 35% from the US.

Coursera will launch a Chinese-language platform in August linked to a MOOC on Chinese history from National Taiwan University and one on Chinese opera from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Several Coursera MOOCs have Mandarin or Russian subtitles, and HKUST is experimenting with a Mandarin-language voice-over for Chinese students.

In talks with HKUST, Coursera expressed an interest in Chinese language courses, “but that’s not something we were keen to do in the first round”, said David Mole, HKUST’s associate provost for teaching and learning.

Coursera and other MOOC platforms have been talking to universities in China. But many point out that China would be a hard nut to crack, preferring to be in control of its own Chinese language MOOC platform.

Individual Chinese professors may be allowed by the authorities to put courses on Coursera, but universities would have to cooperate with an official version sanctioned by the Chinese government, a source in Beijing said.

“Chinese courses need to be made in China not America,” said Sun Maosong, a party secretary and professor in Tsinghua University’s department of computer science, quoted in official media this month. However, he invited Coursera co-founder, Stanford University professor Andrew Ng, to speak at the university in Beijing on 26 March.

“It cannot be long before those interested in these things in China will have a look at the way MOOCs are moving and will be thinking of how to adapt that to their particular environment,” said Mole.

He added: “At HKUST we are proactively developing education relationships with Chinese universities, because these kind of online components would become part of that, and if an online platform similar to Coursera were to come about in this region then of course we would look at that,” Mole said.

China’s own platform

Other sources in Shanghai and Beijing have said China is speeding up its work on MOOCs. “The authorities do not want to be seen to be backing any specific for-profit or non-profit platform outside of China,” said one academic speaking on condition of anonymity.

However students in China have flocked to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s free open courses, showing a huge pent-up demand for quality instruction delivered online.

Stephen Carson, director of communications and external relations at MIT Open Courseware, said: “Subtitled MIT videos across the web have attracted a tremendous amount of traffic.”

Affiliate organisations translate the MIT courseware into Chinese on a voluntary basis and then bilingual students at MIT check them for quality.

Carson said MOOCs such as MIT’s non-profit edX platform, which competes with Coursera, require a scaling up of such courseware and much greater teacher interaction. They are not a panacea for countries like China.

“There is not much flexibility with MOOCs,” said Carson. In particular, “you can’t get just-in-time information, you have to sign up and wait for the information to become available”.

“Some regions don’t have the resources to connect and participate in an edX course because they don’t have the persistent high bandwidth connections.” By contrast, open courseware can be viewed offline.


Interactivity is key to the MOOC environment, distinguishing it from other types of distance and open learning.

“The biggest revolution of MOOCs is the interactions between students and teachers as well as other students,” Ng of Coursera said in the face-to-face lecture he delivered at Tsinghua University on 26 March.

“The critical thing is to develop a level of interactivity so that it is not just like watching television. At moments, as you run through the course, there are multiple choice questions and social networking so that students enrolled can contact one another.”

There are other reasons to join MOOC platforms. China, for example, wants to upgrade the teaching skills of its university faculty. MIT and other Ivy League open courses are often used for training purposes.

“There is a lot of mystique about the top US universities. A lot of the popularity of these open courses in China was being able to peek into a Stanford or Yale classroom,” said Stian Håklev, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Education, who has researched Chinese open courseware.

Sharif said the Coursera experience would help HKUST build its own ‘blended’ courses.

“We are committed to increase the digital component of our own HKUST courses. In doing that we expect to learn something as we go along in the partnership with Coursera to move towards more blended learning.”

Once his Coursera MOOC is over, Sharif added, “I intent to milk the course to a maximum extent to use at HKUST and to supplement it with other activities and in-class assignments.
This is the most exciting part of my participation – it can revolutionise my way of teaching.”

Reputation building

International advantages include enabling universities to be more visible overseas, building their reputation and global brand.

Martin Ince, a London-based author of a number of science books including The Politics of British Science, said he signed on to Sharif’s HKUST course “as a way to expand my knowledge of science in China”. But the course had also helped him “form a good impression of HKUST, which I could not have had in London”.

He described the lectures as “detailed and interesting”, his fellow students as a “lively bunch” and the workload required as “quite high”.

Even the problem that bugs many MOOC operators – student retention – does not worry HKUST. “People are welcome to sign on in whatever spirit of participation they can. It’s a free good,” said Mole.

Rather, it will enable the university to produce better courses, by studying those who drop out and those who continue. “Where do they hit difficulties? What went smoothly? We would like to know who the students are and what 'turns them on',” Mole said.

“As time goes on there could even be local platforms in Hong Kong where we develop and share these kinds of MOOCs with others in the region.”