Two of the mainland's most prestigious institutions of higher learning, Peking and Tsinghua universities, will start offering free online courses in partnership with EdX, a major open-course provider.
Peking University announced earlier this week it would make four courses, including electronic circuits and the study of folklore, available to students around the world through the EdX web platform starting on Monday. Tsinghua University will make available two courses - the history of Chinese architecture and principles of electric circuits, starting on October 18, according to an EdX schedule.
The introduction of Chinese-language courses from Peking and Tsinghua comes after the two universities signed a deal with EdX in May and spent subsequent months preparing the courses.
Li Xiaoming , an online and information systems professor overseeing the web offerings at Peking University, was previously quoted by mainland media as saying the university planned to offer about 100 courses through EdX within five years. EdX, a major provider of massive online open courses, or Mooc, was founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. It has signed up 29 global universities - including Harvard, MIT and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology - as partners.
Its competitor Coursera, which was founded in April last year by two computer science professors at Stanford University and which has more than 60 partner schools, signed up two additional mainland institutions, Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, in July.
But neither institution has announced plans about which courses it would offer or when their programme would begin.
While it is free to access non-profit Mooc platforms, Coursera said it would charge students between US$60 and US$90 for exams proctored by a third party.
EdX said it also offered students the option of having their final exams proctored for a fee at official testing centres.
Cheng Fangping , a professor at Renmin University who specialises in tertiary education, said Chinese universities could not afford to be left out of the online education trend in an increasingly globalised world of higher learning.
Traditional universities should not regard such online courses as a challenge but an opportunity to boost their global competitiveness by devising courses that met international standards and by further diversifying and broadening their curriculum.
Cheng said that as the nation rose to prominence on the economic and political global stage, studying topics that focused on Chinese issues such as the environment, could become highly prized by people in many other countries.
"Chinese universities would no doubt benefit from the explosion in the number of courses available online," he said.
"They could certainly contribute their own unique perspectives and methodology used in fields of study such as traditional architecture, medicine and even mathematics."