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MOOCs Gain Popularity in China in Spite of Barriers to Access and Anxiety About Western Influence

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, May 6 2014

Screenshot of Coursera Zone

Coursera's founder Andrew Ng has announced that China is the education platform's fastest growing market after the United States. More Chinese users download the Android app than in any other country, and China ranks second in number of iOS downloads.

This growth is all the more impressive when one considers that Coursera only launched the Chinese-language portal Coursera Zone last fall.

In a keynote address at the Global Mobile Internet Conference, Ng spoke about the importance of the mobile app in reaching new Asian audiences, particularly less affluent groups.

However, he also pointed out that the average student is a 35-year-old with an undergraduate degree.

Some have even said that, far from being great equalizers, massive open online courses (MOOCs) on platforms like Coursera are actually widening the educational divide between the haves and the have nots.

Other MOOC platforms in China include XuetangX, Kaikeba and TopU.com.

In addition to the problems that plague MOOCs everywhere, there are additional barriers to access in China. A February 2014 report points out that “Foreign MOOCs platforms in China face the challenge that foreign websites load slower and that Youtube, the tool most of the platforms use to make video courses available, is blocked in China. Chinese students need to download videos instead of just stream them.”

Western-designed university classes may also clash with Chinese learning styles. From the same report:

Some Chinese professors as Prof. Zhang Jiahua from China Agricultural University are concerned that “foreign ideas” might be imported via MOOCs and that it will affect the Chinese ideology and socialism. With Universities offering western originated online courses on a global level, cultural differences may be disregarded. Lani Gunawardena, a professor at the University of New Mexico, did research on how people construct knowledge through online collaboration. She noted that in the West, a belief with roots in classic Greek civilization, namely that argument is necessary to generate knowledge, prevails. In China however, Gunawardena found students don’t necessarily openly argue with each other based on points of view. They build knowledge based on collaboration. Therefore western MOOCs might not always fit the Chinese pedagogy.

It will be interesting to watch the evolution of MOOCs in China for several things in the coming months and years: censorship, adaptability, and popularity.

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