U.S.-China MOOC Cooperation: Toward Educational Advancement

Winning Essay, Trans-Pacific Student Contest 2015

May 20, 2015

CREDIT: Terence Lim (CC).

This is one of two entries that won joint first prize in Carnegie Council's 2014/2015 Trans-Pacific Student Contest, where we challenged American and East Asian students to collaborate on the following topic:

What is the future of U.S.-Asia relations or of the United States and one of the Asian countries participating in this contest? Please use specific examples or stories to illustrate your points.

To read the other prize-winning essay on addressing modern-day slavery in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, click here.

To read all the entries, go to our social media site www.globalethicsnetwork.org.


In the 1970s, the famous educator Ivan Lllich mentioned three objectives for a good education: first, education should offer accessible resources to people who wish to learn. Second, it should match people with knowledge to those in need of their knowledge, and lastly, it should create avenues for people to raise questions in public debate.Unfortunately, even the world's two largest economies currently struggle to achieve all three of these objectives.

In the United States, for example, we have witnessed thousands of students dropping out of school because of excessive student loans. Many college graduates still face difficulties looking for jobs because their skills do not match society's demands. In China, the second largest economy in the world, we have heard stories of students having recurring nightmares about their college-entrance exams after they failed to get into the top-tier universities. After spending years preparing for those exams, many Chinese students have grown accustomed to an educational system that emphasizes regurgitation and standard answers. The education system harms students' ability to be creative and critical thinkers. Moreover, the educational accessibly divide in China is growing; rural citizens receive less quality education than urban citizens. This to some degree also exists in the U.S along socioeconomic lines—the rich have access to better educational resources.

Both systems face challenges specific to the structures and limitations of their countries. The United States, a thriving capitalist economy, has seen profit maximization seep into the educational system, causing a distortion of the ethos of education. In China, a communist country, we see the remnants of communist standardization eat away at the creative potential of its vast population.

Both countries can look to online education as a solution to their deficiencies. For example, China, transitioning from an export led economy to a knowledge-based economy, has a massive demand for skilled labor. While its traditional educational system has produced stellar test takers, China still faces problems. Recently, China has learned from the U.S. online education platforms, in particular the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These online classes bridge the gap between China's traditional educational offerings and those of the most elite colleges in the Western world. In addition, they have significant advantages in cost, quality, and accessibility compared to traditional education. MOOCs have circumvented the trend of increasing college expenses in the United States by providing free courses, and can address China's problem of accessibility and provide additional alternatives to standard classes and teaching methods. In this way, U.S.-China cooperation in MOOCs will lead to a win-win outcome for both countries.

China's Traditional Education and its Challenges

China traditional educational system based on rote learning, standardized tests, and rigorous hours faces immense challenges. While many American students complain about the intensity of the SATs, millions of Chinese high school students are only given one shot for their college-entrance exam—the gaokao. In almost all cases, students spend their entire senior year in high school preparing for the gaokao without learning anything else. Their gaokao scores are the only determinant of the colleges they are able to attend. The exam system favors students from big cities, as the scores required for residents are usually lower than those for non-residents. Since the best colleges are located in big cities, a student from rural China has only a 0.5 percent acceptance rate to top universities in Beijing. In comparison, Harvard University has an acceptance rate around 5 percent.

Even though China has expanded its educational resources, the good resources are concentrated in a few major cities. Consequently, students who get into second and third tier colleges do not find their diplomas worthwhile. Even for the graduates from top-tier universities, many of them have difficulty finding jobs because they lack personal networks and/or family influence. In addition, similar to the United States, Chinese students come to realize a gap between what they learned in school and what employers want. In recent years, there is an emerging trend of students opting out of gaokao in search for alternatives. They represent the two ends of Chinese society—the wealthy and the underprivileged. The former send their children abroad while the latter seek blue-collar jobs and give up on higher education entirely.

Due to education and employment scarcity, the gaokao opt-outs and other college graduates increasingly look for professional training that is obtainable, flexible, and inexpensive. Luckily, in the Internet age, online education can be the answer to these requests. A widespread Internet grants more people access to online educational resources, which reduces costs, improves quality, fosters communications, and develops better technologies over time. Thus, online education will be the cure to the weaknesses of China's traditional education. In this way, MOOCs can be an entry point for the continued development of online education in China.

Benefits of MOOCs

MOOCs have expanded in the United States for more than a decade. Professors at Stanford and MIT originally created the most popular MOOC platforms, Coursera and EdX. These MOOCs offer free online syllabi, courses, and other educational materials. MOOCs respond to the growing needs of students who are burdened by the cost of education, access to quality training, and those students who need more space to experiment and learn outside of their current curriculums. Nowadays, these platforms have attracted millions of students, not only in the United States, but also around the world. According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), about 5.5 million students in the United States enrolled in online courses in 2012. That participation rate has increased year after year for the past 10 years in a row, despite the declining rate of overall enrollment in higher education. Online education is becoming a complementary part of education in the United States.

More so than ever, students have free access to skill-enhancing classes such as programming, engineering, finance, economics and statistics. These skills enable students to perform technical tasks at work with certificates received online. Courses in history, philosophy, and the social sciences are also offered, allowing curious students to pursue varied interests. MOOCs provide a significant professional enhancement quality; graduate student enrollment in fully online programs has been twice that of undergraduates in the past few years illustrating that students closer to entering the labor force seek additional courses via these programs. This proves beneficial for a country's economic growth where entrepreneurship and professional success are highly valued.

Equally, such a trend has made a significant impact on China given that the country's massive population creates demand for quality education and professional development. MOOCs have proven beneficial in many ways for the United States, and in places like China, the experience can have similar impacts addressing a different set of challenges. With a massive population, varying access to quality education and professional enhancement, China can benefit from a MOOC model that provides specific vocational skills and boosts creative and critical thinking.

Advancing MOOCs in China

An accessible MOOC platform gives students access to top educational resources and the freedom of selection. More importantly, it will fill the void for students who are unable to go abroad by granting them access to foreign education at a low cost. For example, the Financial Times tells the story of Kong Sultra, a student from a provincial university in China. Sultra took an R Programming course at Guokr—a MOOC created by Ji Xiaohu—in order to complete his thesis. The R Programming course was not offered in his school, nor was he able to find aid from his research team on the topic. In a similar way, other Chinese citizens can benefit from the most valuable aspect of MOOCs: access. China can benefit immensely from MOOCs, especially those providing free education to current students at top-tier universities who want to "skill-up" or students who traditionally lack access and can benefit from the professional courses offered.

Another advantage of MOOCs is that it gives teachers more time to work on one-on-one communication. It will also intensify the competition among teachers for better educational materials and lectures. At the same time, MOOCs give students more options that cater to their interests and create incentives for them to learn on their own. This will divert students away from traditional regurgitation and memorization toward innovation and creativity. While China promotes the kind of repetitive learning that has made students overly stressed, sleep-deprived, and highly anxious, online education stimulates students' thinking. In other words, it is not about how much information the Chinese students can memorize, but the extent to which students can apply a new piece of information to a real-life problem. Only in this way can China improve its antiquated educational system, which is destructive to its future human capital. Niche markets for educational games and MOOC mobile apps can further inject innovations into the Chinese economy, improving the online educational environment.

MOOCs have already developed quickly in China. Top Chinese universities, such as Peking University and Tsinghua University launched their first MOOC curriculums on the Coursera platform a few years ago. The latter even established its own MOOC platform to include not only its classes, but also courses offered on the EdX platform worldwide. To illustrate the scale, the number of registrations for the MOOC program in Peking University has exceeded the entire student body physically present at the university. This offers Chinese students who are underserved by their educational opportunities the chance to interact and study with whomever they want and wherever they are.

Though the presence and popularity of MOOCs have boomed in China, the country still faces structural and technical challenges. Since the United States is a forerunner in online education, it becomes a great place for China to learn from best practices and improve its own online education platforms. Therefore, U.S.-China collaboration should play an active role in building China's MOOCs. A U.S.-China partnership towards MOOCs will offer educational benefits to the large labor force in China and an additional market to expanding MOOCs in the United States.

Barriers to U.S.-China Cooperation in MOOC Education

While there are many potential opportunities for U.S.-China cooperation in MOOCs, China's MOOC development has several domestic limitations. First, even though top-tier Chinese universities have tapped into the online educational market, many of the universities' leaders are still nervous about foreign ideas flooding their schools. Second, the effectiveness of MOOCs requires students to have strong self-discipline and an exceptional moral compass. Hence, it is hard for MOOC platforms to monitor the integrity and fairness of student's performance. This could lead to fraud. Third, the Chinese employers have not been entirely open about MOOCs, and many regard MOOCs as an "informal" education that does not have enough credibility. Fourth, MOOCs generally face low retention rates, reducing student "stickiness" to the platform and making learning a temporary task rather than a lifetime process. Lastly, MOOCs can be a direct threat to non-elite universities, as some Chinese students have already opted out of those schools to pursue direct employment.

Externally, China has strict regulations on foreign online businesses trying to penetrate into the Chinese market. All Internet content providers are prohibited from producing, copying, publishing, or distributing information, which may threaten China's domestic stability. Because of these limitations, it is important for U.S. organizations to engage with the Chinese government to establish an online education environment in China. Currently, circumventing these regulations only creates disadvantages to those who need free and accessible education the most, because the Chinese government will limit the distribution of such programs. Through the process of collaboration, there will be more intellectual exchange, further facilitating cultural understanding, and diversity.

The distinction between educational websites and online education is also another bottleneck in China. Because of the legal restrictions against online education, many adopters of MOOCs simply suffice with being educational websites, which limits the services they can provide to no more than advanced content-sharing platforms. Because of these rules, by 2010 there were no instances of foreign providers being appropriately approved to operate an online educational program in China. Despite these limitations, cooperating with the United States on MOOCs can be an exciting opportunity to promote China's values and culture around the world. In this way, top Chinese universities can highlight their research and academic achievements to attract both domestic and international students by adding to the MOOC course database. This will also be a way for China to improve its traditional educational system, fostering benign competitions, academic debates, and cultural exchanges.

Avenues for U.S.-China Cooperation

A series of avenues exist toward U.S.-China cooperation in MOOCs. They range from public-private partnerships, to inter-governmental partnerships. A good exemplar is the EU-China e-learning program, which has set forth a mission to develop content strategies and methodologies toward improved e-learning design, and implementation in China. Picking up on a similar track, the United States's top-tier universities and most successful MOOCs can form a partnership with Chinese Universities, the Chinese government, and its emerging MOOCs such as Guokr and New Oriental Education & Technology Group, to design better practices in MOOC education and implementation. Most importantly, these partnerships should work on adopting a Chinese cultural context, alleviating China's concern of crowding out its traditions with foreign ideas. In this way, these programs can work to extend MOOCs beyond the top-tier universities and find ways to introduce the system to the rural areas of China.

Along these lines, another segment of cooperation is in internet connectivity. As the Chinese government aims to expand education in its rural areas, it does so chiefly through physical infrastructure. In cooperation with other organizations, the government can attract investment to enhance Internet connections, servers, and computers in rural areas. This would assist MOOC platforms for rural residents who can benefit tremendously from this service. As a result, the current crux in China's economic development provides a pivotal moment for cooperation with the mature MOOCs in the United States.

Moving Ahead

As China aims to address the educational needs of its population in a way that fosters novelty, job-market skills, and creativity, and as American MOOC organizations aim to expand their reach, the two countries have found a mutual match in needs. If the United States is able to foster collaborations through expanding affordable online education to massive populations, not only will it aid the expansion of E-learning as an educational alternative, but also ultimately, it will facilitate cross-cultural exchanges and deep learning.

Online education will incrementally shift China's education system towards more openness. It could be the new channel for schools to re-engage imagination, and exploration, which have been lost via the gaokao system. As Confucius said, "if you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of 10 years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people," a U.S.-China partnership in online education will be a crucial investment towards both countries' future development.

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