Special Report

Quality Concerns Slow E-Learning Growth in China

By Katie Ash — January 30, 2012 7 min read
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The Chinese government has set a goal of creating digital learning environments for all the country’s students by 2020, but the growth of online learning in China has lagged behind that of the United States, experts say, in part because of concerns about the quality and reputation of such education.

“Online learning is considered second-best [in China],” said Yong Zhao, the director of the Center for Advanced Technology in Education and a professor in the college of education at the University of Oregon. “They have not accepted the fact that you can learn as much [through online learning].”

The online learning that does exist in the Chinese education system is mostly supplementary, said Mr. Zhao, who was born in China. “They’re experimenting, but the stigma is still there, and they haven’t moved much in that arena.”

A recent study from the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, found that nearly 26 percent of Chinese students, or 12.7 million students, engage in some type of online learning. The 2011 report defines online learning as “all aspects of technology-assisted learning,” such as using the Internet for a research project, visiting websites for class, or keeping a school-related blog.

The report notes that while the Chinese government has set standards for online teaching, there are no national standards for online content or courses at this time.

That lack of policy guidance in China, a lack of professional development for teachers, and inadequate Internet access and technology tools for students have contributed to slow growth in this sector in China, the report says.

Teachers as a Gateway

Chengfeng Zhou is the chairman and chief executive officer of the Vancouver, Canada-based China Education Resources, one of the largest online learning providers to China. The company is working directly with China’s Ministry of Education to develop and implement an online teacher-training program to help teachers complete their continuing education credits, said Mr. Zhou.

“Through the training program, it forces teachers to get more familiar with the Internet and learn the skills,” he said. The online training program is also more cost-effective than face-to-face professional development, said Mr. Zhou, and provides teachers greater flexibility in when and where they can take the classes.

“You can do large-scale training,” he said.

The online teacher-training program is highly interactive, with fixed and flexible classroom scheduling and interactivity, said Mr. Zhou. Teachers gather in chat rooms to speak with each other, as well as expert educators, about how best to improve their instruction. They are also required to give feedback on their peers’ contributions, so that everyone both gives and receives advice, Mr. Zhou said.

In addition to helping the teachers complete their continuing education credits, Mr. Zhou sees the program as a gateway to providing online learning to students.

“The more teachers take the online training program, I believe there will be more students who will rely on the Internet to do learning and studying,” he said.

But there are many challenges to integrating online learning into the Chinese education system, Mr. Zhou said, starting with teacher attitudes and teaching techniques. “China uses more traditional learning methods to teach,” he said.

Through the government’s push to digitize classrooms in China with the goal of achieving a 6-to-1 computer-to-student ratio by 2020, Chinese officials hope to emphasize more creativity and student-centered learning—a shift in how that country’s teachers traditionally teach, he said. And as of now, students are overloaded with homework, said Mr. Zhou, which does not allow them time to explore Internet resources after school hours.

The current digital culture in China is one in which most Chinese students view the Internet as a form of entertainment, he said. Unlike American students, who have time to socialize with their friends after school, Chinese students typically spend their after-school hours studying and may have only 15 minutes to relax, said Mr. Zhou. During that time, students will often turn to the Internet and online games.

“The homework is so much that they can only take a break at home,” Mr. Zhou said. “They cannot just call their friends and go out for several hours. And because of the one-child policy in China, most of the kids are at home by themselves.”

Therefore, students view the Internet primarily as a way to decompress and socialize rather than as a tool for learning, he said.

Pressure to Succeed

A huge part of the skepticism toward online learning in China stems from the pressure Chinese parents put on their children to succeed on national exams, said William Skilling, the superintendent of the 4,600-student Oxford community school system in Michigan, which recently opened an international school in China. That school, called the Northeast Yucai Oxford International High School, located in Shenyeng, China, will provide opportunities for American students to spend up to three years studying at the school in China. (“Partnerships With U.S. Schools Break Down Wall,” this report.)

“What really inhibits [digital learning] from taking off is [that] the students who are planning to take the national exam for admissions into the Chinese university are fearful that virtual education will not be adequate enough to prepare them for national exams,” he said.

Mr. Skilling believes, however, that if virtual education begins to build a stronger reputation in China, it will become a popular option for students there.

“Whoever gets into China and demonstrates virtual education and its possibilities—they’re going to inherit that virtual market very quickly,” he said. “People just need to see it and see the results.”

Gaoxiang Huang, a 27-year-old student at the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., attended primary and secondary school in Ningbo, China—an urban area located 150 miles south of Shanghai.

Although he did not have any direct experience with online education as a student, he can see how it may become a viable option for Chinese students.

“First, more people are able to have Internet access,” Mr. Huang said. “And second, the traffic is becoming horrible, and the life pace is becoming faster as the economy develops.” Not having to commute could make online learning a good option for some students, she said.

In addition, Chinese parents are eager to provide high-quality learning opportunities for their children, and online courses and tutoring could make those opportunities available to more families, he said.

E-Learning Skeptics

However, proving the quality of online learning and online courses is still a challenge in China, Mr. Huang said.

“How you can improve your quality of education is the major concern if you are not a major international brand,” he said of virtual learning providers seeking to tap into that market. “How to do the marketing is another problem, since people are still skeptical about online learning.”

In fact, in an effort to branch out into China, several U.S. online learning companies, such as the Seattle-based Apex Learning and the Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., have paired up with pre-existing Chinese education organizations to provide virtual education opportunities to students.

“We found that virtual education is not really received or viewed favorably [in China],” said Apex Learning’s chief executive officer, Cheryl Vedoe. Consequently, the company paired up with Beijing Normal University, which opened up a high school where Chinese students could earn both a Chinese and American diploma using Apex Learning curriculum taught in classrooms by Chinese teachers.

Similarly, K12 Inc., invested in an already existing Chinese digital education company called Web International English, which works with 100 Chinese schools in 50 Chinese cities, as a way to tap into that market despite the negative perceptions of online learning in China.

“The Chinese market is not really ready for online learning,” said Bruce Davis, the company’s executive vice president of worldwide business development. “It suffers from the stigma that online learning had in the U.S. 10 or 15 years ago.”

Andrew S. Torris is the deputy superintendent of the Pudong Campus Shanghai American School, in Shanghai, which serves more than 3,000 pre-K-12 students from 40 countries. Although his school does not educate Chinese students, it regularly uses online courses from the Virtual High School Global Consortium, based in Maynard, Mass., to supplement its own courses.

Online learning may catch on in China, he said, in part because of the goals of parents and students in China.

“There’s a real push in China right now for the Chinese to get kids from the rising middle class and upper class into U.S. universities,” he said. That push could prompt some Chinese families to enroll their children in online courses provided by schools or companies based in the United States.

But for now, that is not the norm, said Mr. Torris.

“These Chinese are strong believers in tradition and history. It’s all about reputation with a particular school,” he said. “So because online learning is still new, and it’s still rough around the edges, they immediately default to not having the trust in the system.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as Quality Concerns Slow E-Learning Growth in China


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