As China goes back to school this September, the nation's university system bears examination. Expanding at a dizzying rate, the system is rife with problems, chief among them an application process that deepens class divisions. Urban applicants, who tend to be wealthier and have more access to educational resources, are given special consideration in gaining admission to competitive Beijing and Shanghai universities. At the same time, China's growing student body demands newer, more sophisticated universities. So administrators are starting to rethink their curricula, hire more worldly faculty, and prioritize partnerships with real-world researchers and companies. This push is creating opportunities to introduce new technologies and strategies.
(The appeal of development work across a variety of sectors in China, indeed, is that its institutions are in flux. With broad changes on the horizon, small ones are not such a hard sell.)
With help from program administrators and activists at MIT, Chinese universities are taking a leading role in the OpenCourseWare movement, a project that encourages remote learning by making university syllabi, homework problems, and examinations accessible to the general public. Following a 2003 forum on the topic in Beijing, Chinese administrators and students formed China Open Resources for Education, which oversees a countrywide network of schools interested in expanding access to information. Today, fully 222 Chinese universities have committed to putting 10 or more courses online - more than any other member country in the global OCW Consortium. The US, counts 13 member schools in the consortium by comparison.
China's high level of participation is to some degree the result of central administration. 44 of the schools participating in CORE are specialized radio and television universities that apparently pledged support for the project through a joint representative in Beijing. But the project's 10 lead universities include top institutions like Peking University and Tsinghua University.
In China, the movement centers on translating materials from MIT's site (which leads the OpenCourseWare movement in content, MIT having pledged to put all of its courses online by 2008) into Chinese. CORE is one of a number of organizations helping MIT with translation. Its schools also pledge to translate Chinese teaching materials into English, but as the movement's aim is to level an uneven playing field, the focus now is rightly on increasing access to information among Chinese speakers. (Courses have also been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, French, German, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian.)
Participating CORE universities have already translated over 130 courses into simplified Chinese, giving those locked out of China's elite universities the opportunity to learn from home. While an increase in remote learning could never make up for system-wide weaknesses like an unfair admissions process, it's a step in the right direction.
It sounds like a great idea, with one catch - how many Chinese universities have internet available for their students? How many Chinese can afford to print out or use the materials at home? Friends teaching at one of the universities mentioned by name in this article have complained about the ongoing lack of classroom/computer lab access to the Internet.
I'm sure it's a great idea, but I suspect it's only going to help the haves, not the have-nots.
Carolina, the growth rates of Internet users in China (23% in 2007) led me to think that freely available Web-resources are one of the best ways to offer education to a large number of people. Broadband access is becoming more and more popular (40% increase), so that even large multimedia documents can be accessed fast.
The difference between urban and rural areas is still striking (about 30% penetration rate in Beijing and Shanghai versus 5-10% in the Eastern provinces), but since most students are located in large cities, accessing the resources shouldn't be a problem for them.
All data is taken from the 2007 CCNIC "Statistical Survey Report on The Internet Development in China".
When you suggest that "most students are located in large cities," you make an interesting point. It's certainly true that most students are urban dwellers (and there are many of them - 166 Chinese cities now number more than 1 million people, while only nine US municipalities are as large). Yet, only some 30% of China's population is urban. As such, I agree that even the relatively meagre 10% Internet penetration rate in the Eastern Provinces is encouraging, because of the sheer numbers of youngsters to whom it provides access.