Education Opinion

In China, Where Everything is a MOOC

By Justin Reich — May 10, 2015 6 min read
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The most memorable line from my recent visit to China was this: “We have 12 million K-12 teachers in China who need to receive this particular in-service training, so we started with a group of about 200,000.” When you are examining education policy in a country of 1.4 billion people, all of the numbers become unfathomably large very quickly.

Last week I visited Zhongguancun, China’s Silicon Valley for a meeting about MOOCs and education technology co-hosted by the World Bank and a research group in Peking University that advises the Ministry of Finance on educational issues. The topics for the day were MOOCs, online learning, and educational entrepreneurship in China. I was invited by Michael Trucano, who writes a very good blog for the World Bank on global education policy as it relates to ICT.

For those who have experienced the travels of the MOOC along the highs and lows of the Gartner hype cycle (“The Year of the MOOC! The Backlash! The Boring Part Where They Have Good Points and Problems!”), MOOCs are still very much a rising star in China. The building I was in was recently rechristened the Zhongguancun MOOC Times Building, and it hosted 15 startups hoping to become the next major edtech company to host an IPO on the NASDAQ. In China, the acronym MOOC has become untethered from its original meaning: it still means large-scale online courses, but it also means anything related to online learning or education technology. In China, all of edtech got MOOC’d.

Part of the reason for the rise of MOOCs in China is that educational demand radically outstrips supply. We talked with multiple start-ups that had tens or hundreds of thousands of learners after only a few months of operation. In the US, most of the growth in MOOCs and other informal forms of online learning (like Lynda.com), has been in marketable skills: mostly computer programming, web design, and data science. In China, they have this same market, but they also have a number of state-sponsored certification exams that are amenable to test preparation, as well as a strong demand for English language classes.

One of the companies in the MOOC Times building was providing online courses for automotive engineers, presumably for a professional certification exam. It struck me as an odd topic, until I considered the rapidly rising rate of car ownership in China. More cars require more repair shops, and trades can’t necessarily rapidly produce new tradesmen. As a vast population moves in the Chinese middle class, and as middle class jobs increasingly require some form of post-secondary education, demand for education is growing faster than the established education sector can keep up.

In the U.S., educational demand isn’t a big factor in debates around MOOCs. In 2012, there were some conversations about community college students in California not being able to get space in required courses. But these concerns were never framed as a chasm of opportunity. In fact, opponents of online education have an incentive to describe these opportunity gaps as sufficiently modest that they could be resolved through more robust public support for non-selective higher education. There is a sense, in the U.S., that if we stopped cutting funds to public education in the states, we’d be able to address a substantial portion of academic demand. Equity concerns, therefore, are more often framed around quality of instruction: a fear that MOOCs would lead to a two-tiered system where the affluent get their instruction in labs and seminars from elite professors and everyone else has to click through alone.

This particular line of concern, about MOOCs leading to a two-tiered educational system, was essential non-existent in our conversations in Beijing. In China, resolving equity is mainly about resolving access. The east has access, the west doesn’t; the cities have access, and the rural villages don’t. China has several long traditions that ameliorate concerns about online learning quality. First, China has a long history of distance education with television and video, so MOOCs feel like an extension of that work rather than a new phenomenon. Second, Chinese instruction is generally didactic, so the gap between listening in a lecture hall and listening online is modest. Third, there is some sense of a Confucian tradition where teachers are revered orators and students are responsible for the hard work of memorizing and synthesizing from these teachers. As a result, once you can distribute the teacher’s presentations and give everyone an equal chance to hear and process them, you’ve achieved equity. The closest thing I heard to concerns about equity in online learning had to do with the social contexts of learning, and the concerns of students learning alone. There was a sense that teachers and peers provide a positive pressure on students, and solitary students might lack the will to persist. But there were no rousing defenses of the power of residential education or the “campus magic” that would ensure that professors would stay gainfully employed--the professors were not worried about a lack of students any time soon. For most of the people in the conversation in Beijing, even when pushed on these issues of quality, the fundamental issues of equity revolved around access, and MOOCs were seen as a potentially powerful way to expand access.

The Chinese appeared committed not only to increasing their commitment to MOOCs and other forms of online learning, but to Sinicize them as well. There was a sense that the early relationships with edX and Coursera may have been made hastily, and Chinese universities might be better served moving to Chinese-owned platforms, build for Chinese learners in Chinese languages. There was one startup that had built a platform that looked to me to be basically a clone of Udacity--with courses focused on programming and Web design--that had signed up 800,000 users in a few months and had grown almost instantly to 300 employees. (The young founder spoke for his allotted 20 minutes at the podium, and spent the rest of his time on the stage poking at his mobile phone. ) There seemed to be budding proof points that everything that American companies had pioneered could be duplicated easily enough by the Chinese themselves.

China’s central government also has the power to rapidly incentive the development of MOOCs. The assistant president of Beijing Normal University--one of the nation’s premier schools of education--argued that the government should define a common set of credit hour requirements for degrees and then let students assemble those credit hours from multiple sources, including MOOCs. Recently, Arizona State University took a tiny step forwards towards accepting MOOC credits towards their regular Bachelor’s degree, a position that affects only ASU. Multiple people in China reminded me of their top-down system: if the government decides to legitimate MOOC credit, they can do so nationwide overnight.

One of the earliest beliefs that I developed with my colleagues at HarvardX is that there is no grand unifying theory of MOOCs. The instructional and policy implications of large-scale online courses vary from course to course, field to field, and context to context. I’m sympathetic to the arguments put forth by MOOC critics that new forms of online learning could undermine very valuable elements of the well-developed higher education system in America, particular as it comes under assault by state legislatures around the country. At the same time, in places like China where demand for education is vast and growing, the rise of MOOCs and other forms of non-selective online education could play a powerful role in expanding opportunity. Even with China’s legendary speed at constructing new buildings and developments, new forms of residential education won’t be able to expand as rapidly as the Chinese state and private sector working together to provide new forms of learning on phones, on laptops, and online.

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