Online education has become increasingly popular among Chinese people, particularly after massive open online courses (MOOC) entered China in cooperation with universities and websites.
The first batch of 490 national-level quality courses were made available online for the public on January 15, according to China's Ministry of Education (MOE). Another 3,000 national-level online courses will be hammered out by 2020.
The courses focus on common curriculum for undergraduate education and higher vocational education, said Wu Yan, head of the MOE's Department of Higher Education, at a press conference.
In addition, the number of online education courses in China ranks No. 1 in the world. MOE statistics show that there are more than 10 MOOC platforms in China, covering 3,200 online courses. Some 55 million college students or social learners have viewed the courses.
Based on data from the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), 144 million people have taken up online education as of June 2017, 4.8 percent higher than that of 2016.
However, the boom in online education has also raised public concerns.
New mode to promote education equality
The distribution of educational resources in China is uneven, with significant differences among different regions, urban and rural areas and between different schools. Online teaching is an effective boost to promote education equality.
A report released by CNNIC last December shows that more than 90 percent of schools in China, including those located in remote and poverty-stricken areas, have access to the Internet, up from less than 25 percent five years ago. With the aid of the Internet, those students can also enjoy high-quality educational resources.
Online education has broken the limits of time and space. Such convenience makes more people willing to learn. With a computer, mobile phone or other smart electronic devices, one can learn whenever and wherever possible. It is especially helpful for those who want to make good use of fragmented time and don't have big chunks of free time for formal education.
Peng Xinsong, an English teacher with 17 years of offline teaching and three years of online teaching experience, noted that unlike offline courses that are usually taken in a classroom with certain number of students, an online course may attract hundreds or even thousands of viewers.
The huge number of viewers will further reduce the cost of the courses, he added. Learners who cannot afford relatively expensive offline teaching have more options online.
In addition, most online courses can be reviewed as many times as one likes, which will be helpful for learners to understand difficult material.
Personalized learning and lifelong development
Huang Ronghuai, dean of the Smart Learning Institute of Beijing Normal University, pointed out that online education has provided more efficient communication channels to meet learners’ demands of personalized learning and lifelong development.
In particular, with the application of new technologies including cloud computing, study analysis and artificial intelligence, designers of online courses can innovate their ways of teaching to improve the learning experience.
According to Xiong Bingqi, a deputy director of think-tank 21st Century Education Research Institute in China, teaching learners online based on their individual differences is beneficial for cultivating learners’ thinking abilities.
Huang noted that the government and schools should consider students’ concrete needs and give full play to their advantages. Schools can provide online courses based on students’ personal interests to make extra-curricular education complementary to formal education.
Online education indeed has had a great impact on traditional school education. Its prosperity has attracted many school teachers to give classes online.
According to Huang, digital and personalized learning provided by online courses can better meet individual demands.
The current evaluation system also matters. Although the government keeps emphasizing the concept of "burden reduction" and "quality education,” it is still focused on selective examinations. The "burden reduction" of schools has provided favorable conditions for extracurricular tutoring.
Huang noted that schools need to carry out overall reforms to enhance teachers’ ability in online education in order to obtain higher remuneration by providing personalized services to students. What’s more important is that teachers also need to increase their sense of social responsibility.
Experts point out that the popularity of online education in China is inevitable and call for an open mind to face the opportunities and challenges it brings.
Huang said that schools need to make full use of the advantages of online education to supplement daily teaching. Young Chinese, especially “digital natives” below the age of 20, are more likely to take online courses.
Despite the advantages, drawbacks and controversy, online education is gaining momentum in China.
China’s State Council issued its Guidance on Actively Promoting the Internet Plus Action in July 2015, which encourages schools and Internet enterprises to jointly explore new methods in basic education services.
Data from iResearch and Decebo shows that the online education market is expected to increase by 20 percent each year and reach 270 billion yuan ($41 billion) by 2019.
“People are no longer satisfied with standardized education,” said Huang.
Huang stressed that the development of online education should be value-driven and people-oriented based on core literacy.
People need lifelong learning opportunities and diversified personalized education services, Huang said. The development of technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data will provide more opportunities for online education.
Hyped-up online education
The investment in online education has been a hot topic of media reports recently. For example, VIPKID, a provider of online learning aimed at children, received a $200 million investment in August of last year, the highest ever amount of financing for online education.
However, according to a CCTV report, of around 400 online education companies investigated, about 70 percent are losing money.
Another phenomenon behind online education is the emergence of celebrities in online education, who enjoy popularity among their online students and a huge income.
However, Xiong said that “it is an exaggeration to say celebrities in online education can earn millions of yuan per year.”
In the long term, this kind of hype will inspire the desire to pursue quick success and gain instant benefits, harming the healthy development of online education, Xiong added.
Another problem is the lack of supervision of online platforms, which leads to many problems, such as entertainment content and even pornographic information on some online platforms.
As users of online education are usually young students, they may not have the capability to shield themselves from misleading information.
In July 2017, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a regulation on information in apps, demanding that Internet information service providers cannot provide or share apps with indecent information.
The qualifications of teachers also worry many people.
According to Huang, online educational companies should file related documents of the teaching content, teachers and students with government departments.
In addition to improving their quality to better integrate information technology with classroom teaching, teachers should have full knowledge of the students’ extracurricular learning and even seek cooperation with online educational organizations.
In the long run, joint efforts should be made by related departments and companies, experts said.