The education revolution has just begun

Updated: 2013-01-25 08:54

By He Feng (China Daily)

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The education revolution has just begun

Internet learning throws open opportunities, and challenges, for all

Jane is straining to catch the discussion over Skype, the online voice chat software. The conversation of her teammates is distorted and intermittent. After 20 minutes she gives up in frustration and starts reading the PowerPoint presentation that was emailed before the scheduled online meeting.

This is a telling scene of both the potential and pitfalls from the latest developments in online education. Jane, a young college lecturer who lives in Beijing, had enrolled in what Stanford University in the US calls "a crash course on creativity". The course is the university's latest innovation in reaching out to a global learning community. An article in the recent issue of Stanford magazine Stanford for All talks of the school's aims for online education.

The creativity course was one of 16 online courses that Stanford offered last autumn. But as early as 2004 the university had started to offer free video lectures of its courses through Apple's iTunes U.

When Stanford and other top US colleges put their courses online, they may not have expected to find a willing audience all the way across the Pacific. To the millions of students in China, these open courses, as they came to be known, offered a window through which they could get a close look at what learning looked like in the world's top schools.

Chinese have long revered the quality of US college and postgraduate education. China is the biggest feeder country for overseas students in the US, 150,000 of whom are estimated to be Chinese. That may sound like a lot, but it is miniscule compared with the millions who have never had the chance to study overseas and are unlikely to be able to do so. To them the online open courses satisfy curiosity, and are increasingly becoming a handy resource to complement or even replace classroom learning.

This latest development, which is benefiting students worldwide, is in part the result of Americans' frustration with their education system. Even as tens of thousands of Chinese flock to the US for education at all levels, there is heated debate in the country on the failure of its schools. Statistics are frequently cited on how the US is underperforming at the kindergarten to high-school level, and colleges are criticized for churning out graduates with useless degrees.

One possible solution is MOOC (massive open online course), which uses technology to deliver quality education that is cheaper and better tailored to specific needs of the students. Besides the popular iTunes U, sites like the Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization, and Coursera, a venture-backed, for-profit startup started by Stanford professors, have sprung out to offer MOOC free.

China is also riding this trend. All of the major Chinese websites feature open-course content. Netease's Open Course Project, the best known of the lot, hosts a collection of thousands of open courses under a Creative Commons license. The project also organizes a sizable team of translators and post-production staff to give the mostly English lectures Chinese subtitles, making them more accessible to Chinese viewers. One of the first open courses introduced to China, Harvard University's Justice, received millions of views in China. Its instructor Professor Michael Sandel has had the kind of popularity in China usually reserved for Hollywood movie stars and NBA players.

Chinese, even more than Americans, have an intense love-hate relationship with their education system. In China, as in the US, a college degree, particularly one from a handful of prestigious universities, is seen as a ticket to a better life. Yet in China the competitive college entrance exam and a long tradition of rote learning have turned schools into spirit-killing, mind-numbing pressure cookers. The result is mentally drained students who have all but lost interest in the dreary classroom teaching found in Chinese colleges.

Official statistics are unavailable, but the author, in his numerous encounters with college students, has yet to come across someone who does not skip classes regularly. Indeed, it is quite the norm that students bypass most of the lectures and only show up for finals. Their logic is hard to argue with: "The teachers merely read from textbooks, and I could have read it faster on my own."

It is in this context that the open courses are welcomed in China with open arms. Students and recent graduates are attracted by the more engaging lectures given by professors who are enthusiastic about their research and care about teaching. On top of that, many are the best scholars in their fields. For the Chinese students it means they can attend Harvard classes without leaving China and without paying the hefty Harvard tuition.

But things are going to get better if the vision of entrepreneurs and social innovators pans out. The current breed of MOOC is, by and large, still a direct offshoot of the traditional classroom teaching, that has been practiced in Chinese and US universities. This has changed little over hundreds of years, from when colleges were a training ground for the clergy, as in the West, and bureaucrats, as in China.

A medieval college professor, or for that matter Confucius, stepping into a modern university classroom would probably feel quite at ease. The lecture format has changed little, with the professor standing at the front carrying on a monologue, and students scribbling down every utterance. At a time when the printing press was yet to be invented, this may have been an effective way of disseminating information. Yet despite outliving its usefulness, in the age of the Internet the lecture format lives on.

But perhaps that is about to change. Stanford's creativity course attracted 24,000 students from all over the world. In it, lectures took a second seat to working together and assignments. Students had online discussions and voted on each other's homework. Although there were some kinks, as Jane found, it points to a future where learning would become more engaging and effective.

What does this revolution mean for Chinese universities? Notably absent is original open-course content from China. Even on the Chinese websites, the lectures predominantly came from US universities. The Chinese universities have long watched on as its brightest graduates have left the country to pursue advanced degrees overseas. But in a world where lectures from Stanford and Harvard are just a click away, how long will it be before Chinese universities begin to lose their grip even on their home turf?

The good news is that we are still at the beginning of this revolution. Nobody has any idea what higher education will look like in 50 years. It may not look like anything that we now recognize as education. Peter Thiel, the PayPal cofounder, has been offering fellowships to students who have dropped out of college and are working on their own projects. This, he argues, is the kind of education that young people need.

In the early days of TV people had no idea how to make TV programs. They simply stuck cameras in front of radio announcers. It was through decades of experimenting and innovating that programs making the most of the medium were developed.

With online education we are in a period of transition akin to that between the era of radio and the era of TV. Much innovation will happen in education, and it is fair game for anyone. One thing is certain though: the greatest beneficiaries will be students, whoever and wherever they are.

The author is co-founder of, a crowd funding website. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. Contact the writer at

(China Daily 01/25/2013 page8)