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UPDATED: February 5, 2014 NO. 47 NOVEMBER 21, 2013
University Courses Online
Top Chinese universities are getting involved in a new global trend in learning
By Tang Yuankai

On October 17, Tsinghua University's Principles of Electric Circuits course was made available simultaneously on XuetangX and edX websites. On the same day over 10,000 students registered for the course online: 1,775 through XuetangX; and through edX, a further 8,313 students from 151 countries and regions—including India, the United States and China.

"Every year, about 500 Tsinghua students register for Principles of Electric Circuits. The number of students that registered in one day through edX and XuetangX is equivalent to nearly 20 years at Tsinghua. MOOCs truly make the impossible possible," said Yu Yunjue, one of the course's instructors and an associate professor at Tsinghua's Department of Electrical Engineering.

"MOOCs play an important role in reallocating education resources," said Li Xiaoming, a professor at Peking University's Computer Science Department and an assistant to the university president.

Li is in charge of the university's MOOCs project. With the best educational resources in China, Peking University will be able to contribute to societal progress through MOOCs, Li said.

According to Li, Peking University offers 1,998 courses every semester. The average number of students registering for any one course is 48, but the median is 29. "An excellent teacher can only teach slightly more than 20 students," he said.

Internet technology enables a teacher to turn a conventional course into a MOOCs course with nearly no added costs to the university.

Some Chinese universities such as Shanghai Jiaotong University and Fudan University offer courses on Coursera.org.

According to an agreement signed between Coursera and the two Shanghai-based universities in July, Coursera is responsible for the training of faculties to make sure that courses offered are up to MOOCs standards. The universities can decide whether to continue or cancel a course based on feedback from students.

Koller said that Coursera's goal is to "take the best courses from the best instructors at the best universities and provide them to everyone around the world for free." She said that she expects Coursera will work with more Chinese universities in the future to deliver more courses in Chinese.

New era for education

MOOCs are not only able to expand the learning options for everyone everywhere, but also greatly impact higher education as a whole.

"MOOCs help prestigious universities expand their influence in the higher learning market," said Zhu Zhiting, Dean of the Shanghai-based East China Normal University's Distance Education College and Director of the Chinese e-Learning Technology Standardization Committee.

While top universities continue making their courses available on MOOCs platforms and students flock to courses taught by famous professors, ordinary universities and faculty members are feeling unprecedented pressure.

"MOOCs sound an alarm for university professors—you no longer have a monopoly on knowledge," Zhu said.

"Many professors are accustomed to traditional teaching methods...now it is time for them to adjust and adapt," Lu Fang, Vice President of Fudan University, commented. Lu said that in the future, students will be able to learn on the Internet, and come to classes to discuss what they have learned with teachers.

Professors from China's universities hold differing opinions on the impacts of MOOCs. Some people believe while they can dramatically lower the cost of higher education, MOOCs will force some more universities out of business. Some others argue that MOOCs will not jeopardize universities' survival as the latter have things that online teaching cannot offer, such as interpersonal exchanges, research opportunities and club activities.

In March, Zhou Qifeng, then President of Peking University, called on teachers to embrace MOOCs, saying that they not only contribute to and improve the quality of the university's teaching, research and international influence, but also determine their survival.

"Online open courses are an important development in international higher education, and will have a great impact," Zhou said.

MOOCs have prompted universities to rethink their function in society, said Li Zhimin, Director of Science and Technology Development Center in the Ministry of Education.

The basic responsibility of universities is producing and disseminating knowledge. Now that knowledge can be disseminated via the Internet, the future responsibilities of universities will be to explore, verify and test knowledge through research, Li Zhimin said.

Email us at: wanghairong@bjreview.com

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