MOOCs: a disruptive revolution to China’s education system

Photo Zhen HUANG / Vice President of Shanghai Jiaotong University, Chinese Dean of ParisTech SJTU Elite Institute of Technology / August 26th, 2014

The irreversible momentum of MOOCs is penetrating all levels of China's education system, providing students with unprecedented freedom to select courses and access the best educational recourses at home and abroad. MOOCs break time and space confinements radically change the way people acquire knowledge. University walls come down and national boundaries become unimportant. Chinese students very well may sit in a Chinese classroom, only to be looking at a laptop with a MOOC made by a US university. In a nation where education reform is imperative. it is MOOCs that are forcing the Chinese education system to move.

Massive Open Online Courses are an effective way to connect teachers scattered across different educational institutions to millions of learners around the world through massive open online resources and up-to-date computer and internet technologies. It has set off a storm since the fall of 2011 and been deemed “the most important educational innovation since the printing press.”

The New York Times deemed 2012 the first year of the MOOCs era. That year, two Stanford professors founded Coursera — an online platform for free lessons — and MIT released its edX online teaching program together with Harvard University. In the same year, most major developed countries introduced their own MOOCs; such as “FutureLearn” in the UK, “FUN” in France,” iUniversity” in Germany, JMOOC in Japan, and Open2Study in Australia. The EU also had its own platform called “OpenupEd.”

Within just one year, over 630 high quality lessons were contributed to Coursera by more than 100 top international universities (such as Princeton and Stanford) and the number of registered students from various countries worldwide exceeded 7 million. MOOCs are now clearly the hottest new development on the international education scene.

In China, Shanghai Jiaotong University (SJTU) and Tsinghua University have taken the lead by launching online classes, with other higher education institutions also presenting bold ideas and initiatives. Some high schools have created “Khan Academy” micro-courses to free students from remedial classes and excessive piles of books.

The irreversible momentum of MOOCs is penetrating all levels of China’s education system, providing students with unprecedented freedom to select courses and access the best educational recourses at home and abroad.

Elements of MOOCs
Novelties always emerge with controversies. Both optimism and criticism have been expressed toward the impact of MOOCs. From my point of view, MOOCs are an absolutely valuable disruptive innovation in the field of current educational philosophy and methodology. They’ll undoubtedly have a boosting effect in educational equality and social progress.

To a large extent, criticism toward MOOCs is due to misunderstandings. For instance, some equate MOOCs with online video courses, and thus, conclude that they’re really nothing new. However, MOOCs are totally different from the shared video recordings of physical courses that have become popular over the past decade. They’re mainly different in three ways.

The first is the large-scale. Compared to traditional courses with only dozens, or at most, hundreds of students, MOOCs can easily reach tens of thousands of people. Theoretically, the number of beneficiaries is infinite.

The second difference lies in the lively forms of MOOCs. Combining micro-courses and small quizzes, utilizing animations, videos and other means, MOOCs offer an immersive, game-like ambience of learning, which is more attractive to young students.

Last but not least, MOOCs completely overcome the shortcoming of traditional one-way online teaching videos, which don’t offer sufficient interaction. By responding immediately to students in the online communities, teachers can also improve their knowledge and skills when they have to find solutions for real challenges quickly.

Another misunderstanding about MOOCs consists of two polar opinions. Some people think MOOCs represent the future of education and can be applied to all cases, while others negate MOOCs for abandoning face-to-face interaction, which they believe is the essence of human teaching.

But actually, both opinions are misplaced. MOOCs of course are not omnipotent. It’s true that MOOCs provide a powerful means to improve education quality, innovation and equality. But more importantly, they have significantly challenged the traditional education system and philosophy.


Over the past few thousand years, we’ve developed an education model consisting of teachers talking and students listening, then doing homework and practicing at home.

One of the innovations of MOOCs is the so-called “flipping classroom.” This means students finish watching the online courses at home while discussing, debating, interacting and practicing with teachers and classmates in physical classrooms. Thus, the teaching-centered model becomes a student-centered model with individualized learning and development as the core focus.

Trials have shown that such “flipping classrooms” can greatly improve students’ productivity and learning performance. This model, also called O2O (online-to-offline), has taken full advantage of both online learning and face-to-face interaction to improve knowledge spreading and exploration, which presents the “dawn of future education.”

From the past two years of MOOCs’ development, it’s been noted that the number of registered students to an online course can be enormous, but usually only a small fraction of them will complete the course to the end, with even less – about 5 to 6% – actually getting a certificate. I would attribute this phenomenon to MOOCs other inherent characteristic: fragmented learning.

According to the definition of MOOCs, some elements must be included. Firstly, there must be high quality course resources, and second, there must be an interactive platform (which embeds big-data related functions). And lastly, there must be a mechanism for course sharing and credit transfer. Among these, the third element is most critical in improving the completion rate of online learning.

Shanghai Jiaotong University’s CnMooc initiative
Based on the three elements mentioned above, SJTU is now aggressively promoting the idea of MOOCs in China.

For example, SJTU was the first university in mainland China to sign an agreement with Coursera, and has since put six courses on this global platform. A total of 30 courses are scheduled to be released by the end of 2014. A course called “Traditional Chinese Medicine and Medication Culture” had attracted some 20,000 students from more than 38 countries by the end of May this year. Community interaction and feedback show that students have great passion toward the topic, even though it’s mainly lectured in Chinese with English subtitles. For each course we have a full-time teacher responding to students questions in the online community. Students who can’t understand English have also come to register; they simply translated the English subtitles to their own languages (i.e. Spanish) using Google. This has demonstrated the real beauty of MOOCs.

On April 8 of this year, we officially launched CnMooc, with the aim to “let all Chinese people have an opportunity to ‘go’ to the best Chinese universities” by creating the biggest Chinese MOOCs platform in the world. All courses on it are open and free. SJTU students register and choose courses they are interested in and earn credits. At the organizational level, “MOOCs Promotion Office” was created and directly reports to the university’s board. It takes full responsibility for constructing and running CnMooc.

An advantage for SJTU in developing MOOCs lies in the fact that over the past 20 years, a college league consisting of 19 famous institutions in the South Shanghai area has formed around SJTU; the members include East China Normal University, East China University of Technology, East China University of Political Science, Donghua University, Shanghai Theatre Academy and Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

A cross-school enrollment and credit transfer mechanism has been established within this university alliance. On this basis, we are working to combine the MOOCs with this partnership practice.

For example, each university creates lessons based on their strong disciplines, which will then be put on the CnMooc for other schools’ students and their own to register for and study. Students watch the courses online and then go to flipping classrooms to interact with teachers, take exams and finally obtain credits recognized by their own schools. At last, they get a certificate or diploma.

One point to be stressed is that we are doing an O2O method with students emphasizing both virtual and physical classrooms. Our main goal in doing this is to share good educational recourses, improve the quality of training and facilitate education innovation.


MOOCs are forcing a revolution to happen
The rapid development of the Internet and cloud technologies is dramatically changing people’s lives, work and learning. E-commerce, for example, combines business and the Internet and has revolutionized the traditional commercial scene. Similarly, Internet financing is shaking up the traditional banking and financial sector. Now, MOOCs have brought higher education and basic education unprecedented challenges and opportunities.

MOOCs break time and space confinements radically change the way people acquire knowledge. University walls come down and national boundaries become unimportant. If our teachers continue the traditional cramming method of teaching,students will vote with their “eyes and ears.” They very well may sit in a Chinese classroom, only to be looking at a laptop with a MOOC made by a US university. Education reform is imperative.

In this sense, it is MOOCs that are forcing the Chinese education system to move. The education model, which has lasted several thousand years, must be changed. Those unable to ride the digitized education wave will eventually become obsolete. The government should accelerate research on MOOCs’ impact on the country’s entire education system and the reallocation of global resources it has caused. In this way it can form policies as soon as possible. At the same time, we should get well prepared for the potential changes MOOCs may bring to teaching methodology and structure. The government should also take a leading role in promoting the O2O model in schools of all levels.

The government should construct micro-courses about key and difficult points for each discipline in primary and secondary schools, invest in building MOOC platforms in these schools, provide students with personalized course study, share good resources nationwide, balance education development among different areas, narrow the resource gap between different schools, and improve the quality of basic education.

In higher education, the government should encourage the building of course pools and sharing platforms, facilitate credit transfer and recognition, encourage cross-school enrollment, balance resource allocation, and promote education innovations.

Finally, the government should make MOOCs the main channel for receiving adult and vocational education, promote “credit bank,” and create a flexible and open system for lifelong education that leads to a learning society where everyone can learn from anywhere anytime.

Note from the editors. This article was originally published in our Chinese edition, developed with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, SJTU ParisTech Review.

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