China’s new MOOCs could be a double-edged sword

Millions of learners in China and internationally can now access courses offered by China’s leading universities. The country’s top institutions launched their first massive open online courses, or MOOCs, on the US-based edX and Coursera platforms recently.

But as the MOOCs floodgates open, university leaders in China are calling for clearer policies from the government on MOOCs. Online courses are seen as a double-edged sword, with both advantages and disadvantages for higher education, a recent conference in Beijing heard.

In October China’s Peking and Tsinghua universities unveiled their first MOOCs on the Coursera platform, which is available in China through the new Coursera Zone, in partnership with local internet provider NetEase.

And in the latest move Tsinghua University launched its own platform called, to host local MOOCs as well as courses on the edX platform of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nine courses are already on the XuetangX site from Tsinghua, Peking and MIT – including MIT’s "Introduction to Circuits and Electronics", led by edX President Anant Agarwal.

Professor Li Fei, vice president of Wuhan University, said policies were now needed to develop the MOOC sector in China. He was speaking on 19 October at a conference on the “Impact of Digital Technology on Higher Education Institutions”, held at China’s National Academy of Education Administration and organised with the British Council.

“If universities cannot embrace this technology, they will lose students,” Li said.

Government policy should enable completed courses to count towards a qualification. “Strategic planning is also needed to ensure effective sharing and coordination of resources,” Li added, noting that there had been too much repetition and overlap in the development of online courses.

Institutions should also do more to meet the interests of the wider public. And professional development was needed to improve the digital literacy of both staff and students in China, the conference heard.

Foreign ‘invasion’

The arrival of MOOCs has been greeted nervously by many university leaders in China, with some concerned about ‘foreign ideas’ being imported via MOOCs.

Professor Zhang Jiahua, vice president of China Agricultural University, said: “China is a socialist country. Will our ideology be affected? Will we be influenced by Westerners? We need to address such issues head on.”

But he added: “MOOCs can also be an opportunity to promote Chinese values and ideology to the rest of the world.” Leading Chinese universities could use MOOCs to raise their international profiles.

Zhang Zhiyuan, of Sichuan University of Arts and Science, said that China should push ahead with its own platform to compete with those from the West. “The Ministry of Education should allocate funding for a platform for Chinese speakers, from China and internationally,” he said.

“Providing Chinese-language versions of overseas courses can meet some of Chinese students’ needs for learning, while providing courses from Chinese universities could share Chinese culture and knowledge with students all over the world,” Professor Huang Ronghuai, associate dean of the faculty of education at Beijing Normal University, told University World News.

“In future, this could extend to Confucius Institute MOOCs,” Huang said, referring to China’s extensive network of language and cultural institutions in countries overseas.

While Chinese MOOCs could be useful abroad, Dr Paul Redmond, director of employability and educational opportunities at the UK’s University of Liverpool, told the conference that the new Chinese MOOCs could be valuable for his university’s Chinese students.

“But we would want to be involved in their creation,” he cautioned.

King Chow, professor of life science and biomedical engineering at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who taught one of the first MOOCs in Hong Kong on the Coursera platform, said: “An important solution is to build platforms that can share resources.

“In China MOOCs should not be used for ranking and branding, but to complement the things they do less well in.”


Professor Hao Zhifeng, vice president of Guangdong University of Technology, said MOOCs could help second-tier universities, where a large proportion of faculty did not understand “core scientific principles”, to access teaching content.

A key concern voiced by some of the 130 Chinese university presidents and vice presidents at the conference included the threat to weaker institutions. Academic jobs could also be threatened as more course content was relayed electronically.

“If MOOCs are cheaper than attending a physical university, people will rush to take such courses. Then, like department stores that lose their customers to online shopping, they could collapse,” one participant said.

Professor Fan Lu, vice president of Wenzhou Medical College, said: “MOOCs can replace some weak institutions. If universities are strong, they don’t need to worry.”

And Wuhan’s Li argued: “We are talking about complementarity between MOOCs and traditional learning. MOOCs can be useful because China suffers such a shortage of education resources.

“A lot of people who traditionally do not have access to higher education can be better equipped through the use of MOOCs, for example people in the workplace who want to update their knowledge,” Li told the conference.

If students could not attend top universities of their choice, they could turn to a MOOC, he added. MOOCs could help extend access to higher education, make up for the weaknesses in teaching in some institutions, and drive improvements in pedagogy.


Professor Stephen Gomez, who has led initiatives at Britain’s Higher Education Academy that aim to bring digital technology from “the periphery of higher education to the centre”, said Chinese university leaders’ concerns were similar to those elsewhere in the world regarding the proliferation of MOOCs.

“We face common issues and they are not insurmountable.”

Speaking after the event Sue Milner, director of education with the British Council China, said there could be opportunities for institutions in China and overseas to develop MOOCs collaboratively, particularly in academic areas where there were common strengths.

Huang of Beijing Normal University agreed that both local and international collaborations in developing MOOCs would now emerge, and told University World News: “We are preparing a teacher education MOOC programme, which will be launched by the Collaborative and Innovative Centre for Educational Technology.”

The centre is run jointly by Beijing Normal University and Central China Normal University and plans to develop courses that offer urgently needed continuing professional development for teachers in using digital technologies.