Intellectual click: Mainland Chinese students join the Mooc revolution

Mainland students are signing up for no-cost university courses open to anyone with an internet connection

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 4:02am

For years mainland students have flocked to top universities overseas for their education, but today greater numbers are turning to the newest education frontier: the internet.

Students are embracing the idea of online learning through access to massive online open courses, or "Mooc platforms", such as edX and Coursera, and one mainland recruitment company is preparing to sink millions of dollars into establishing its own platform.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) is also committing some subjects to the Coursera platform, so as not to be left behind in the education race.

Massive open online courses are a recent development in distance education and often use open educational resources available to anyone. Normally, they do not offer academic credits or charge tuition fees.

Probably the first Mooc to appear was in 2011 when Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun put his graduate-level artificial intelligence course online, attracting 160,000 students in more than 190 countries. The following year, several well-financed providers associated with top universities emerged, including Coursera, Udacity, and edX and they are changing the face of Mooc education.

Founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), edX has already attracted some 6,000 mainland students to its free open courses. EdX press officer Dan O'Connell admitted the number was still small because YouTube, which hosts the courses, was blocked on the mainland.

"That requires students to find workarounds and ways to download the videos, but we're looking at ways to remedy this situation," he said.

O'Connell said edX was also talking to Chinese universities about joining the platform as it was planning to incorporate language translations.

In February, edX said it had added six more international universities including the Australian National University and Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands to its X University Consortium.

This expansion almost coincided with an announcement from Coursera about its signing up 29 universities from around the world, including CUHK and National Taiwan University to provide free open courses.

Coursera, which has partnerships with 62 universities worldwide, said its expansion would allow it to broaden course offerings with new subjects in multiple languages including Chinese, Spanish, French and Italian.

"With the addition of so many courses across a wide range of disciplines, languages, and academic approaches, we are now able to meet the needs of a more diverse student body, and give students more options," said Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng.

"We are equally excited about bringing higher education to places where access is limited, and giving established universities opportunities to raise their impact both on and off campus."

Coursera was founded in April last year by Ng and Daphne Koller, two computer science teachers at Stanford University in California, with an initial investment of US$16 million from venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and New Enterprise Associates.

The company has since registered more than 2.7 million students. However it said it could not track how many came from China, largely because many mainland students accessed Coursera via virtual private networks that bypass the so-called Great Firewall of censorship.

EdX said it had more than 700,000 students on its platform, accounting for more than 900,000 course enrolments.

Although sign-ups from the mainland to Mooc platforms like Coursera and edX are small, international open courses from elite schools available via major internet portals have taken the mainland by storm since 2011.

NetEase, a leading China-based internet technology company, said that the number of open course subjects had doubled from last year to the present 12,000. It reported 4.6 million subscribers via PCs and smart phones and about one million student visits a day.

However, John Zhang, co-founder of mainland-based online career and recruitment consultancy said open courses delivered by internet portals simply served as a "media platform".

In contrast, he said Mooc platforms provided students with a classroom-setting learning experience and opportunities to receive credit and recognition for their work. Already five subjects provided via Coursera had been recommended by the American Council on Education.

"This is a moment of historic significance in higher education because Mooc is not just a complement to existing higher learning, it opens up a new era of online teaching," Zhang said. which unveiled its own Mooc platform in a low-key launch in October, the first on the mainland, has recorded 35,000 enrolments for 200 courses from 100,000 sign-ups.

Zhang said the company would invest US$30 million in its Mooc platform over the next three years, in co-operation with leading international universities such as Harvard, Columbia University and MIT, to provide a specialised platform for career-minded Chinese youth.

The company would also begin to introduce Chinese language courses for international students including Tibetan language and cultural subjects from Tibet University.

Zhang said it was inevitable other elite Chinese universities would join the Mooc movement. Chinese University of Hong Kong Pro-Vice Chancellor Hau Kit-tai said the university joined Coursera in February and would commit at least five subjects to the platform from September.

Hau, a professor of educational psychology, said he had already adopted video education, while devoting much of his class time to tutorials.

He said Mooc-style teaching could one day blur the lines between top-tier universities and other institutions as premium online courses became widely available.

However, he said that the university's association with Coursera was part of its overall e-learning experiment to help boost its competitive edge and cut costs while embracing the growing trend of online teaching.

"The Mooc platform is new to us and we need to go with it slowly as long as we learn, particularly as it is still the subject of debate," he said. "One big question [we ask ourselves] is why are we doing this, as it's free?"

While access to Mooc platforms is free, Coursera said it would charge students from US$60 to US$90 for the proctored exam via a third-party and US$30 to US$99 more for its Signature Track service, which gave students in select classes the opportunity to earn verified certificates for completing their courses.

EdX said it also offered students the option of having their final exams proctored for a fee at official testing centres.

Meanwhile, edX said it was exploring business-to-business options to provide licensed courses to other universities for a fee, and it had formed a partnership with San Jose State University.

Zhang said that it was natural for universities to join the Mooc movement.

"Those that are willing to embrace Mooc have reaped some benefits, because it provides them with a new battleground for competitiveness," he said. "

Those that had signed up have not seen their reputations hurt, Zhang said. In fact, it turned out to be a great marketing tool.