A university student watches an open course on a computer tablet in Shanghai on April 16, 2013. Photo: CFP
As students in Peking University and Tsinghua University, two top universities in China, start their fall semester, tens of thousands of people who did not make it through the elite schools' grueling admissions process will also be able to take classes there - in front of their computer. The two schools are joining the world's top universities in the MOOC movement.
A MOOC, short for massive online open course, brings together top professors from elite universities from around the world to anyone anywhere with Internet access. The movement has been described as an avalanche permanently altering the landscape of higher education.
Between the two schools, they have released a dozen courses on edX, a non-profit organization founded by Harvard and MIT in 2012, and Coursera, another MOOC platform founded by two Harvard professors.
As MOOCs have swept the world in the past two years, Chinese universities are playing catch up, hoping to improve domestic education as well as to increase their international presence.
MOOCs are the latest development in sharing education resources online in the past decade. While online courses such as Professor Michael Sandel's Justice allow Chinese students to watch videos of his lectures as delivered at Harvard, an MOOC is an actual course designed for Web users with a more direct one-on-one interaction. Students have to finish assignments before deadlines and take final exams to earn a certificate of completion.
Such online courses attract lots of Chinese people, who have long been dissatisfied with Chinese higher education. Now Chinese universities are responding to the challenge. In March, Zhou Qifeng, speaking as out-going president of Peking University, said the school must not fall behind. "This [offering MOOCs] would improve the quality of our education as well as promote our school's international impact," said Zhou. "In fact, it might be a matter of life and death [for the school]."
Joining the club
In May, Tshinghua and Peking universities announced that they are joining edX. On September 8, Peking University joined Coursera.
In July, it was reported that Fudan University and Shanghai Jiaotong University are joining Coursera, although neither school is listed on the Coursera website as its partners and there has been no sign of any courses from the two schools being offered any time soon.
After joining edX, both Peking and Tshinghua universities started to invite teachers to join, especially those whose courses are well-received on campus.
Tsinghua plans to offer four courses in the first year on edX. Two courses, Principles of Electric Circuits and History of Chinese Architecture, are expected to start this week.
Peking University has released four courses on edX and six on Coursera. Most have started since late September.
Most of the courses offered by the two schools are STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines such as Introduction to Computing, Data Structures and Algorithms, or Principles of Electric Circuits. But there are also courses such as the Study of Folklore and Music in the 20th Century and World Art History. The courses do not appear to have a strong "Chinese characteristics" so to speak but are mostly introductory courses. There are also courses like History of Chinese Architecture from Tsinghua on edX.
Getting it together
MOOC video lectures come in different styles. Some are more elaborate, with visual and audio effects, or precious copyrighted archival footage, while others are simpler, with the professors going over the key points behind a desk or at a podium. One of the six courses Peking University puts up on Coursera, General Chemistry, appears to be using videos of previous classes.
Putting together a MOOC course is no easy task. "The complexity involved in taping such courses is quite unexpected," said Li Xiaoming, a professor at the School of Electronics Engineering and Computer Science at Peking University, who was in charge of the cooperation with edX and Coursera. While he usually spends two to three hours preparing for a 2-hour lecture, he had to spend four to five hours preparing, shooting and editing a 10 to 15 minute clip, he said.
Teachers are generally left on their own to figure out how to create an online course, from shooting snippets of video lectures and devising weekly assignments and grading systems, to monitoring online discussion forums and interacting with students. The schools provide studios and some cameras, but no money.
Chen Jiang, an associate professor at Peking University, said he is spending all his time, aside from teaching, on preparing and delivering his course on edX, Electronic Circuits. About 4,000 people have registered for this course.
Chen, 39, has high expectations for his MOOC debut.
With a computer background, Chen took everything into his own hands, from planning the course to shooting and editing the video lectures. He has watched other MOOC courses and read about what professors from other elite schools think about MOOCs. He also tries to get feedback from his own class at Peking University and revise his edX courses accordingly.
Chen said it takes at least one full week to prepare for one week's course material, which includes about one to two hours of video lectures broken down into clips and slides and additional reading and assignments.
Yu Xinjie, a professor at Tsinghua University whose edX course "Principles of Electric Circuits" starts next week, said about 80 percent of his time since June has been spent on preparing MOOC courses. And it's not just making video lectures. "There's also the discussion forums, reacting to student feedback and so on, and we don't have any experience in this regard, and have no idea how much time we need to invest in it," said Yu, who now has about 6,000 people signing up for the course.
Wang Guixiang, a professor of architecture at Tsinghua University, is less enthused about putting in the extra time and energy. Wang, who is teaching History of Chinese Architecture, an introductory course on edX with five other professors, said the whole process is a bit of a hassle and he prefers the flexibility of meeting face-to-face with students.
In early February, a Coursera course was suspended indefinitely for technical and design issues. Two weeks later, Richard A. McKenzie, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Irvine, announced mid-course that he is leaving the MOOC Microeconomics for Managers offered on Coursera. He wrote that he decided to disengage from the course because of "disagreements over how to best conduct the course." The professor was unhappy that fewer than 2 percent of the nearly 40,000 who had registered for the course had been actively engaged in discussions.
But Chinese professors are mostly optimistic about MOOCs. They see them as a good opportunity to introduce Chinese universities to a world audience.
Crashing the English club
English dominates MOOCs. For instance, 414 out of the 458 courses listed on Coursera are in English. Many Chinese Web users find it difficult to follow courses with no Chinese transcripts. But there are volunteers and translation communities who are translating courses into Chinese.
The courses on edX and Coursera by the two top Chinese universities are all given in Chinese. Professor Yu from Tsinghua, who teaches Principles of Electric Circuits on edX, has his teaching assistants translate the course and add English subtitles. But most courses do not have English subtitles, although many professors post course introductions and updates bilingually.
Many teachers say they do not have the time and resources to give the course in English or have English subtitles just yet, nor is it a requisite.
But it's not just the Chinese-speaking population who are interested in taking these courses. In the discussion forum on Chen's edX course, quite a number of users are asking how to access the course in English.
On Tuesday, Coursera announced its cooperation with Chinese Internet company Netease so that mainland viewers could access the video lectures. EdX, which hosts most of its videos on YouTube, seems to have similar arrangements for the Chinese courses.
Transforming the classroom
Today many universities in China are already experimenting with new teaching methods such as "reversed classrooms" or "blended learning," in which students watch video lectures about the basics on their own time and go to class for discussions with the teacher.
Li Xiaoming's Coursera course People and Networks is based on an elective course he gives on campus. This semester, his students at Peking University are required to watch the videos on Coursera before coming in to classroom discussions. "In the future, MOOCs will become part of Peking University education," he said.
Professors say MOOCs help bring down the walls of the college campus so that their resources can be shared with society. It also encourages teachers to improve their teaching.
"To be able to reach tens of thousands of students, I think that's very fulfilling for a teacher," said Li. "I dream that someday when a course is released, 100,000 people from around the world would sign up. And even if only 10 percent finish the course, it would be a large number."
Such a dream is echoed by many teachers. Chen said he loves teaching and wants to be able to reach more students.
"Online education is the future; and it's important to join the party sooner rather than later," said Chen. "I think teachers also need to have this sense of crisis; you are in a way competing with all the other great teachers, and you need to be creative."
For example, both Chen from Peking University and Yu from Tsinghua offer a course on electric circuits, although they say the courses are different. But they are not only competing with each other. They are also competing against Circuits and Electronics, the first edX course given by Anant Agarwal, MIT professor and president of edX. It had over 150,000 registered students and was immensely popular.
"If you want to become the cream of the crop, you need to compete with the best of the best," said Yu.