MOOCs development, challenges and future prospects- insights from STO in Beijing

China is the world’s largest education market, with more than 400 million students – nearly 30 million of whom are currently enrolled in higher education institutions. China is making a big effort in improving its education quality. Expanding digital education is part of the program. Its budget for 2013 had an increase of 22% compared to 2012. Digital education is seen as a solution and the future of Chinese education. It can provide everybody an access to education regardless the geographical location or social status. As all over the world, MOOCs are revolutionizing the world of digital education. In China it is a quite new, but fast developing phenomenon.


Kevin Dooley,

Written by Anouk Lingner, Science and technolgy office Beijing

Development of MOOCs in China

As in other countries, there have been other forms of online teaching in China before the MOOC concept was imported. Various Universities, including the Hong Kong Open University or the Open University of China have been offering long-distance degree programs via correspondence, TV and radio for over a decade and started to offer online degree programs several years ago. Meanwhile, the Open University of China’s Aopeng Distance Education Xuexi Center is China’s largest online education platform with over 2 million students. In contrast to MOOCs, these programs charge a tuition fee. Before Chinese universities started to provide MOOCs, foreign MOOC or MOOC-like platforms already have been popular with Chinese students and teachers. Over 100 courses of MIT’s “OpenCourseWare (OCW)” have been translated and adapted into Simplified Chinese. edX and Coursera have been providing Chinese translations of their courses as well before actively engaging Chinese partner universities. In 2013, MOOCs became the prevalent topic in China’s education landscape. edX and Coursera partnered up with Chinese Universities, many MOOC conferences and forums were held and the local MOOC platforms emerged.

Major MOOCs platforms in China

Currently, the most significant MOOC platforms in China include edX, Coursera and the local platforms XuetangX, Coursera Zone, Kaikeba and Since many students in China use VPN to bypass the Great Fire Wall and are therefore not locatable, no exact numbers of enrollments from China are available. In December 2012 however, a bit more than 4 percent of Coursera’s students were from China. The classes, covering a large variety in topics, are mostly in English, but some classes get translated into other languages as Mandarin or have subtitles.

In February 2013, the first Chinese University, the Chinese University of Hong Kong started to partner up with Coursera followed by four other Chinese universities. In October 2013 Coursera announced that it will launch in partnership with the Chinese internet provider NetEase, Coursera Zone, a Chinese platform adjusted to Chinese student’s needs. Coursera Zone features a broader variety of inland universities than Coursera. Many international partners of Coursera offer courses on Coursera Zone as well, but some (less than 5 percent), decided not to take part in the project, worrying about lack of academic freedom or censorship in China. A major advantage of Coursera Zone, in contrast to Coursera, is that the language of the platform is Chinese. Furthermore, through its partnership with NetEase, Coursera Zone has as local provide, withan increased loading speed of videos and other course material, while Coursera as a foreign site loads more slowly.

The second largest MOOC platform is edX, and in May 2013, the first Asian universities have been added to the xConsortium (the association of all universities who provide courses on edX), including Tsinghua University, Peking University, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and University of Hong Kong. Before its collaboration with Chinese universities, in March 2013, edX had already about 6000 mainland students

In October 2013, Tsinghua University established its own Chinese platform called XuetangX. Although the platform is independent from edX, it has been developed using an open-source code repository, which was developed and made available by edX. Currently, XuetangX is offering 15 MOOCs from Tsinghua University, Peking University and MIT, but will expand quickly and offer courses from other Chinese top universities (Beijing Normal University, Renmin University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University etc.) as well.

The first purely Chinese platform has been founded in October 2012 by Guolairen, an online career and recruitment consultancy. In March 2013, this platform,, already recorded 35’000 enrollments for 200 courses from 100’000 students. Guolairen plans to invest 30 million dollars into the platform during the next three years and to cooperate with universities like Harvard, Columbia and MIT. In the future, Guolairen plans to attract international students as well, through e.g. offering the course “Tibetan language and culture” from Tibet University.

Another major Chinese MOOC platform is Kaikeba, launched in August 2013 with a venture capital funding of 16.5 million Dollars. Kaikeba offers Chinese classes with focus on software development and project management from Beihang University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Dalian University of Technology, and Xiamen University. After completion of a course, the students have the ability to transfer the earned certificate into credit of these universities.

Challenges of MOOCs in China

The rise of the MOOCs, which is seen as transforming the international education landscape, has been one of the most discussed topics in the field of education within the last year. In China too, MOOCs have been widely discussed, involving, skeptical voices who emphasize challenges as well. Some think that MOOCs are not structured enough and that there is a lack in organization. Furthermore the lack of digital literacy of staff and students as well as the occurrence of technical problems is criticized. Technical issues are also a problem: foreign MOOC platforms in China load slower and Youtube, the tool most of the platforms use to make video courses available, is blocked in China, forcing Chinese students to download the videos instead of streaming them. Another concern is the shortage of interactivity and contact with the professor which often leads to demotivation. Studies have shown that only about 7% of the students finish their courses.

Other issues include student cheating, questions about faculty copyright in course material and the risk of fake MOOC certificates. Furthermore, it is still not clear to which extent a course certificate (paid for by students) is recognized by employers or schools. On the policy side, the government hasn’t made any clear statement on its strategy towards MOOCs yet. The Ministry of Education is usually responsible for accrediting foreign universities. Since accreditation is a complex process, it might be very hard for MOOCs to get accredited. Beside technical issues, it is also the content that is seen as problematic. Some Chinese professors are indeed concerned that “foreign ideas” might be imported via MOOCs, thus affecting the Chinese ideology and socialism. With universities offering western originated online courses on a global level, cultural differences may be disregarded and Western MOOCs might not always fit the Chinese pedagogy.

As in other countries, there are fears that MOOCs, by digitalizing education, will endanger academic jobs, and pose a threat to whole institutions by pushing some weaker universities out of business, as students choose to study at top universities via MOOCs rather than enrolling at a traditional low tier university. Traditional universities have advantages which MOOCs cannot offer, such as research opportunities or interpersonal exchange. On the other hand, with offering university courses free of charge online, the ability of universities to continue to charge high fees might decrease.

Future prospects

China is the largest higher education market in the world (25 mio. students at undergraduate level and even more on vocational, postgraduate and adult education level) and has the world’s largest internet population (390 mio. internet users). MOOC’s popularity will rapidly increase, as more and more people, including from rural areas, will grasp this opportunity. For now, MOOC students are still to a large degree coming from a higher educated and richer education class. Chinese Universities, through MOOCs get the chance to raise their international profiles and to show their own perspectives and methodologies on a global level. MOOCs can further help to share Chinese culture and knowledge to students all over the world. Foreign MOOCs, on the other side, could complement the Chinese education landscape in subjects where local universities are less good at, while providing regional and international cooperation opportunities for Chinese universities. It is likely that MOOCs will change the education landscape overall and that they will be more and more incorporated in education programs. Blended forms of learning may appear, in which students may learn via MOOC and come to the class to discuss the topic with fellow students and the professor.

A key issue still pending is policy: what will be the guidelines of the Ministry of Education towards MOOCs? It is probable that the government will foster the development of local MOOCs, since they are not only a way to educate people all over China, but also to exert influence on a global level and increase the reputation of Chinese institutions.


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