China encourages MOOCs in HE transformation drive

The Chinese government has responded positively to the arrival of massive open online courses, MOOCs, and is speeding up the development of its own online offerings.

The government is actively encouraging the import of quality courses to China – as long as they do not contain politically sensitive content – as well as the export of its best courses, Professor Huang Ronghuai, associate dean of the faculty of education at Beijing Normal University, told University World News.

He was speaking after the British Council's Global Education Dialogue on the “Impact of Digital Technology on Higher Education Institutions”, held in Beijing.

Chinese universities such as Tsinghua, Peking and Shanghai Jiao Tong were now launching MOOCs to “join the club” of first-class universities in the world, to share resources and to help transform teaching methods in their own universities, said Huang, a leading Beijing-based researcher on digital technology.

“It is recognised that international online learning will have a significant impact on higher education, and it may transform the function and structure of [China’s] universities.”

Chinese platforms such as Tsinghua University’s, launched in October, would carry a mix of local and international programmes, including some translated into Chinese.

Access to MOOCs could address complaints from parents and education experts that so many good Chinese students could only gain a world-class degree by studying abroad – but often could not find jobs on their return – Huang said.

Tsinghua University has a team of 30 people now working on MOOC platform development and another team working on course content. A new MOOC platform is needed in China in order to increase current restricted bandwidth that is hampering the proliferation of MOOCs.

A parallel platform will also give China greater control of overseas content, made available in Chinese, than is possible on global platforms like edX and Coursera.

Another reason for the country’s interest in developing MOOCs is the large market of Chinese-speaking learners. However, savvy Chinese 'netizens' are also accessing full overseas courses, in English.

Tsinghua is understood to be already supplementing face-to-face courses with content from overseas universities on the Coursera and edX platforms, as well as locally produced open courses. Students are expected to follow courses, and complete assignments and assessments.

However, under current regulations MOOC units are not officially credit-bearing, as authorities remain concerned about quality control and cheating.

Mechanisms for credit transfer and recognition are still being worked out in China for all universities. “Once the policies for credit transfer and recognition are established, online courses will go far beyond lip service,” Huang said.

But he added that China now needed to address several strategic questions, to support the emerging MOOCs sector:
  • • Which level of education should MOOCs be developed for, what types of courses were suitable to become MOOCs, and what kinds of learners would use them?
  • • How should instruction be designed for MOOCs, and how should providers deal with the interactions among students and between students and teachers, and what teaching principles should be used?
  • • Which organisations would provide MOOCs and why? What was the business model for MOOCs, and what service would be provided?
  • • What impacts would MOOCs have on cultural work, and economic and political activities?
If these questions could be resolved, MOOCs could play an important role in realising China’s “transformation from a big education country to a strong one,” Huang said.