In China, Online Degrees on Hold, Even as MOOCs Rise

As China approaches the top ranks as a global power in science and technology—building huge new academic complexes, rising to the top of the world’s elite universities, overtaking the United States in science and engineering doctorate graduates, and on track to outperform all other nations in academic citations for science and technology. – I was baffled to discover that China is stuck in offering online postgraduate degrees.

In fact, the country has no accredited institution to offer online degrees, though it has moved quickly to embrace MOOCs, which are free or low-cost online courses offered to millions across the country.

Since virtual degrees and MOOCs are both digital inventions, I wondered what explains China’s reluctance to offer remote degrees, while moving forward at full speed with MOOCs. It’s a puzzling irony, because you think that China will view remote higher education as part of its global ambitions.

Seeing the rise of China, I imagine how Europeans felt at the end of World War II, when the United States overcame their longstanding dominance. After the war, the mighty imperial centers of London, Paris and Berlin were transformed into runners-up, and could no longer exercise their former authority. Today it is China, the world’s second largest economy, which brings the United States out of global technical supremacy.

Online degrees pending

China actually has a long history of distance learning – mostly in correspondence schools and on broadcast television. At one time, the Chinese Ministry of Education approved 68 online pilot colleges, including many elite universities, such as Beijing, Tsinghua, Shanghai Jiaotong and Fudan universities. But to earn a fully accredited degree, students in online pilot programs must take additional exams to qualify — credentials that do not hold the same academic standing as those awarded on campus.

Michael Wang, CEO of Beacon Education, a Beijing-based company I consult with that offers online degrees in the US to working Chinese professionals, says distance learning programs in China are largely two- to three-year vocational and vocational schools. “It’s not as stringent as the degrees obtained from more expensive four-year Chinese colleges,” Wang told me on a phone call from Beijing last week. “They are also not the same standards as online degrees from American colleges.”

Several obstacles stand in the way of the Chinese Ministry of Education’s approval of online degrees. “With 1.5 million enrolled in graduate programs, the state does not have enough faculty to manage the Internet community beyond its current commitment,” Wang said. “With no experience teaching online, the faculty are not prepared either.”

Noting that the Chinese government is very conservative, Wang noted that the ministry likely fears that its academic reputation will be damaged if it approves online degrees prematurely. Wang thinks it will take another three to five years for officials to agree to any virtual certificates.

To expand the country’s technical talent pool, Chinese universities are upgrading their ability to offer more modern science and technology courses, with universities just beginning to offer degrees in artificial intelligence, machine learning, software engineering and other advanced disciplines. For China, the move is a departure from its centuries-old tradition of favoring liberal arts and literature.

“Most Chinese schools only offer new programs on campus, not on digital platforms,” said Charles Ianuzzi, Wang’s fellow and global head of Beacon. To bridge the gap, Beacon offers mid-career Chinese workers technical graduate degrees by partnering with US colleges and universities to offer US online degrees in China.

Joint International Programs

As Dean of Online Learning at Stevens for more than a decade, I have conducted three hybrid master’s degrees at two large Chinese institutions: Beijing Institute of Technology and Central University of Finance and Economics. While our Chinese students in Beijing were accessing Stevens’ digital courses on their laptops at home or elsewhere, just as our students did at Hoboken, online learning at most Chinese universities at the time took place in traditional classrooms or streaming videos. Or broadcast live TV lectures on the screens in the foreground, as in the cinema.

Stevens’ programs in China represent two of about a thousand similar joint degrees launched by foreign colleges and universities. Today, in addition to about 10 fully-built residential universities, including the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, the University of Liverpool at Xi’an Jiaotong Campus and New York University in Shanghai, 40 online degree programs are offered in China by international colleges and universities .

According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, joint international programs are being launched on campus to promote education reform and encourage modern pedagogical practices. The ministry should also be keen to encourage Chinese academic institutions to emulate the Western institutions that have helped drive dynamic capitalist economies.

Recently, in the wake of troubled relations with the United States and other countries in the West, the Chinese Ministry of Education closed more than 200 foreign programs, of which twenty are with American colleges and universities.

High MOOCs

China has come a long way from cinema-style teaching to adopting more mainstream digital learning practices, often following closely US developments in online pedagogy, such as flipped classrooms and educational online courses (MOOCs).

“Open online courses are necessary to reform China’s traditional teaching model,” says Wu Yan, head of the Department of Higher Education in China.

Massive online courses (MOOCs) have proven to be very popular in China. In 2016, MOOCs acquired more than 10 million registrations in the country. Currently, the number of Chinese MOOC learners should be double — or even triple — that number, if we gauge its trajectory against the burgeoning MOOC enrollment around the world. Class Central, a site that tracks MOOC enrollment, reports 180 million MOOC learners worldwide, jumping from just 58 million 8 years ago.

Last year after the start of the new high school semester was postponed in January due to the pandemic, the ministry endorsed a list of free MOOCs for use by universities. Today, after the rush of the global epidemic, an astonishing 24 Chinese MOOCs are offering, more than double the number in 2019.

Curiously, China’s reluctance to offer online degrees parallels the attitude toward online degrees in the Ivy League in the US – both have adopted MOOCs while shying away from virtual degrees out of concern that remote degrees will damage their reputations.

But by protecting prestige and failing to see the need to move into the online degree space, they will allow others to take the digital lead.

It seems worth reminding Chinese officials of a passage from Mao’s Little Red Book, “Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong”: “Many things may become a burden, and they may become hindrances if we cling to them blindly and without criticism.”

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