A massive march to education

By Liao Fangzhou Source:Global Times Published: 2013-10-21 18:48:01

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

They are called MOOC (massive online open courses) and they are the latest form of interactive online education. These courses offer free access to some of the world's most exclusive and elite universities and now they are being embraced by Shanghai students, young and old, in a variety of courses.

Distance education is not new - in 1728 a Boston shorthand teacher offered mail order lessons. But radio and television changed the method of communication and approach. By the end of the 1930s when radio had become widespread, many US colleges and universities began broadcasting educational programs for public schools. In 1969, the Open University was founded in the UK, offering course-related radio and television lectures through the BBC.

With the arrival of the Internet university curricula were being offered online from the late 1990s and now institutions all over the world offer online courses that range from fundamental introductory lessons to degree and doctoral programs.

China is playing its part in this educational reformation. In 2010, the Open Yale Courses, a project designed to "expand access to educational materials for all who wish to learn" with a range of videos of lectures recorded in Yale University classes, were dubbed with Chinese transcripts on the country's portal websites and quickly won the hearts of many students and young adults. Other online open resources from MIT and Harvard proved popular, too.

More developed

MOOC takes distance education one step further than its predecessors. MOOC programs are not restricted to lecture videos, reading and tests, but provide feedback and forums so that a student can link and talk to "classmates" as well as having his or her work assessed online. Many of the courses offer university diplomas.

In 2012, termed "The year of the MOOC" by The New York Times, three major MOOC platforms took shape. Soon after Udacity was founded ("Audacious for you, the student"), two computer science lecturers from Stanford University launched Coursera and MIT and Harvard set up edX. More top universities from North America, Europe and Asia teamed up with the three organizations - at first math and science classes were dominant, but now there are more choices for humanities' students.

In a year, each of the three platforms has attracted millions of students from all over the world. Most of their users are unsurprisingly from the US (followed by India and the UK), yet there is a proliferating popularity of MOOC among Chinese people. While Coursera (the largest with more than 80 partnering universities and 4 million registered users) said it could not specify how many users were from China since many Chinese mainlanders visited the site through virtual private networks, edX said it had attracted 6,000 "students" from the Chinese mainland. "MOOC Study Room," China's largest MOOC forum on the popular science website guokr.com was set up at the end of 2012 and has attracted about 50,000 participants - according to guokr.com, this accounts to about one fourth of all MOOC students in the country.

The website also noted that 60 to 70 percent of these students are postgraduate students. University freshmen and sophomores have been a much rarer sight. 

Shanghai learners

Among the Shanghai enthusiasts embracing MOOC is Wang Yuan, a 24-year-old in a master's program in mass communications. When he saw that Peking University (an edX partner since May), regarded as the country's leading university for social sciences and humanities studies, had launched courses in September he decided to experience MOOC for himself.

He enrolled in "The Cultural Geography of the World," a favorite course at Peking University that approaches the spatial and changing process of culture through a geographical perspective. The lectures, taught in Putonghua (without English subtitles at the moment), were delivered in a series of short videos inter-connected with tests, and updated on a weekly basis.

The course lecturer is Deng Hui and he said it should take a student three or four hours a week to listen to the lectures and complete the assignments. Wang said he spent about two or three hours a week on the course because so far he has not read any extra material or joined in the forums. "For me it is just the lectures and the tests that are interesting. There is no pressure involved. When I have time, I click on to watch the lecture videos."

Most drop out

The lack of pressure to study might help explain the high dropout rate for MOOCs. According to guokr.com, about 95 percent of MOOC students in China quit before they complete the course or obtain a diploma. Anyone who manages to score 60 percent in online assignments and exams gets a diploma.

Miss Zhang, who calls herself "inkfishpku" on the Internet, is one of the 5 percent who complete a course. Zhang has been working in Shanghai for nine years after graduating from Peking University. In August she took her first MOOC course (which was also Asia's first MOOC): "A New History from a New China, 1700 - 2000" from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on Coursera. The course was taught in English.

The comparatively short course involved about one and a half hours a week for five weeks. Zhang said she set aside half a day on weekends to spend three hours watching the lectures and completing the assignments. She constantly replayed sections to ensure she understood the principles completely. She also tried to read other course material during the week and this took perhaps two hours.

She thinks the high dropout rate might have to do with students attempting too much. "Some people might choose several courses but find out later that this is not realistic and just give up. My approach was to choose just one course that I was not only interested in but had some knowledge of, and then to work hard on it."

This paid off. She passed the course and has a diploma from the university. "I went through the course partly because I wanted to prove my ability to learn and organize my time efficiently. I think the importance of MOOC lies in that it shows the ivory tower is now always open to everyone including those who said goodbye to university campuses ages ago. You just need enthusiasm and hard work."

She said two years ago she had followed Michael Sandel's "Justice" course, a popular and acclaimed course from the Harvard Open Courses, but MOOC gave a more serious learning experience. "Justice and other online courses are more like open courses that you can listen to casually. Having a MOOC course is more like attending compulsory courses at school and demands your complete attention and work in checking your references and conducting research."

But she said the module was not as interactive as it could be - despite what the MOOC organizers and media suggest. "In the course I took, the lecturer was not very involved in the forum, and some of the exam questions did not appear carefully considered," Zhang said.

While student-teacher interactions might be less than satisfying, the student community is taking shape. Ji Xiaohua, the founder of guokr.com, told the Xinhua News Agency in April that he and his team had encouraged MOOC users on MOOC Study Room to meet each other face-to-face and so far students had been meeting in 12 cities around China.

A geek's paradise

While some, unlike Wang and Zhang who chose courses from Chinese universities, are attracted to MOOC for the opportunity to learn from leading overseas academics, geeks seem particularly fond of the system. Most courses involve science or engineering.

Lin Chu is a computer science student at Tongji University and has begun three MOOCs this year. He has recently completed a MOOC math course from MIT. "That university is, of course, a dream for geeks worldwide. That is why, although the lessons are free and not compulsory, which usually results in low motivation, I was excited and did my best to succeed. In the forum, I met science, technology, engineering, and math students from all over the world and it felt great to study and discuss with these brilliant minds. This is a very exciting method of education," Lin told the Global Times.

He said only a couple of people he knew at Tongji also took MOOC courses. Most students there were busy studying or taking internships. "The fact that very few MOOCs can be transferred into grade points and none of them apply to China yet and that it remains to be seen whether the diplomas are recognized by potential employers might have led more 'sensible' students to leave them alone and focus on things that link to foreseeable 'success.' I have no idea whether the MIT math diploma will give me an advantage in my job hunting or postgraduate program applications, but to be honest that doesn't really matter. I enjoy taking MOOCs that are challenging and I enjoy completing them even more - they give me the pleasure of thinking."

Shanghai universities are now about to join the international MOOC reformation. In July, the city's two leading universities Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University became Coursera partners.

According to the Wenhui Daily, the contracts made it clear that Coursera would train lecturers to make sure that their lecture videos met Coursera standards. Each lecturer will also have to log on to the forum at least three times a week to answer questions and join in the discussions.

Wang Ying, an officer with Fudan University's academic affairs office, told the Global Times that Coursera had invited the university to provide courses that were not only high quality but also "showed the characteristics of the school" without placing detailed restrictions on language or content.

Courses considered

Jiang Zhibing, head of Shanghai Jiao Tong University's academic affairs office, said the university was considering four types of courses for the MOOC project. "First, there are courses in Chinese that aim to promote the traditional culture of China. Second there are introductory courses that appeal to a mass audience and are taught by experienced lecturers - these are generally taught in Chinese as well. Third, there are introductory courses and major courses from the university's first-tier disciplines that are taught by internationally distinguished lecturers in English, or with English subtitles and textbooks. Fourth, there are minor courses that we offer that could be included."

While Fudan did not say exactly when the university's first MOOC courses would be launched or what the courses would involve, the university is enthusiastic about MOOC.

"Joining MOOC is our way of embracing the new opportunity that the Internet brings along with an open mind. It also makes us reflect on the gap in course quality between our university and the world class top universities, as well as encouraging our teachers to evolve from the old, monotonous way of lecturing to help students achieve the best," Wang said.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University, on the other hand, said it had already chosen its first five courses which will cover math, media studies, medicine, law, and physics. Jiang said lecturers had to apply to have their courses as MOOC courses and to date there were 40 registered.

Jiang said the university's first MOOC was expected in December. "Before going online, there are a lot of details to go through with the platform. MOOC is after all a quite novel type of online courses and asks for a huge investment of time from both the teachers and the production team in designing curriculum content as well as developing teaching methods."

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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