China embraces online university courses

China’s top universities, with help from the Ministry of Education, are turning to online education as a way of reaching more people. In November, 19 institutions launched 20 online courses for free, enrolling thousands of students, according to China Daily. The plan is to put 1,000 courses online over the next five years.

Still, just like in the United States and other countries that have begun to use more online classes, there is still debate about the quality of the courses. Notably, most are just videos and not supplemented with readings. 

"Through the online course, [people] can have a general picture about the teaching of Peking University," Professor Yan Buke, whose online course the Political Life of Ancient China is among the most popular of those available, told China Daily. “It’s a good supplement but, if it comes to serious learning, you will have to go to a real classroom because interaction with teachers is as important as listening to them.”

Regardless, they’re being held up as a promising way to improve education access in the countries poor regions. 

Zhu Yongxin, vice president of the Chinese Society of Education, told Xinhua that open courses would help promote education equality by making free teaching available to those in poorer provinces.

"There is still a big gap in government investment in education between less developed and rich regions. The government budget for every student in southwest China’s Guizhou province, for example, is ten times less than that in Shanghai. And it is hard to change the situation in the short term," he explains.

Tags: China Asia

China to eliminate majors with low employment rates

The Chinese government is stepping in to try and make it easier for college graduates to find jobs - by getting rid of majors that don’t have good job prospects. Any major that has a less than 60 percent employment rate for two consecutive years will be phased out, according to China Daily

China, like many countries around the world, has been grappling with youth unemployment in recent years, but its problems are exacerbated by its huge population. In 2012, 6.8 million students will graduate and flood the job market, according to the ministry of education. 

The plan to eliminate majors is just one of many steps the ministry is taking. It “has ordered education authorities at all levels to take measures which can help graduates find jobs,” the China Daily reported. “The measures include offering tuition-waivers or repayments for loans to graduates who work in remote areas or the countryside, encouraging small- and medium-sized enterprises as well as tiny firms to employ college graduates and asking universities and research institutes to employ fresh graduates to take part in research projects.”  

Tags: Asia China

Tiger Mothers and the Dictatorship of Talent

Editor’s Note: Yao Zhang is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, studying demographic mechanism in the formation of human capital, and education policies related to innovation, entrepreneurship and global competitiveness.  

 Chinese mothers living in America are often torn over whether to send their children to schools that drill them in hopes of producing good test-takers, or to embrace a less rigid education. It’s a conflict that pits the cultural values shaped by the two-millennia-old Chinese exam system against the view that ultimately creativity leads to success.

The debate is evident in online forums for Chinese mothers, as they discuss the pros and cons of the so-called “tiger mother” approach to raising children: snuffing out a child’s desire for a normal social life—no sleepovers, play dates, school plays or sports, and certainly no computer games or TV—and an expectation of straight A+s on all tests. Recently, one of the leading forums, spurred on by a New York Times article, featured a debate about whether the Waldorf approach to education can produce “real tigers in the future.”

Waldorf schools, according to the description in The Times, emphasize teaching students through activities like knitting socks and slicing food while minimizing the use of computer devices and technology-assisted learning in their classrooms. This unique pedagogy is “focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.” One parent, employed by a high-tech start-up, echoes this philosophy when explaining to The Times why he sent his three children to a Waldorf school: “Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers.”

It is the key word “engagement” that interests me more than the debate over the plusses and minuses of educational technology. Because of an absence of engagement, China—the world’s largest educational system—faces great difficulties in fostering innovation. The United States will likely retain its strength as the world’s leader in innovation thanks to a system that builds upon this notion.

Last fall and spring, I gave an overview of China’s education system to a broad audience at the China Scope Conference at MIT and Columbia, focusing on China’s long history of using nothing but exam results to select bureaucrats and determine the size of cohorts—which resulted in tremendous competition for social mobility. Schooling became essentially a competition among families rather than individual students. All of this still holds true today. Chinese students—who are often treated like assembly-line products in schools that only teach to the test—graduate from college only to find themselves unemployed.

David Brooks of The New York Times wrote in 2007 that such problems were the result of a “dictatorship of talent.” Brooks made his observations during a trip to Shanghai, which last December attained the highest PISA scores in the world.

Brooks borrowed the concept of “meritocratic paternalism”—elites ruling a society can make the best decisions for their people, like fathers have traditionally done within families—from one of his Chinese friends who argued for and defended the advantages of the Chinese way, using examples of the country’s economic success over the last 30 years. Ironically, it is the same economic development that makes American education accessible and affordable for many Chinese families, who send their children to study in the United States to nurture the “merits” in them. Yet increasingly, the students returning to China take government jobs and become part of the Chinese elite rather than striking out as entrepreneurs. Their career paths might be a clear sign of how little U.S. education altered the deeply rooted Chinese philosophy in such students.

It is neither rare nor regrettable that many leading scholars who achieved great distinction in their fields have returned to China and become governmental officials. Internationally renowned mechanical engineer Dr. Wan Gang and economist Dr. Yi Gang—who now head China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and Bureau of Foreign Reserves, respectively—and many others have exhibited impressive leadership. However, more and more parents prefer to see their children earn $300 per month in bureaucratic government jobs (after they obtain degrees abroad) simply because of the stability—and likelihood of under-the-table benefits—that such positions afford.

We might all agree logically that it is next “to impossible for a top-down memorization-based elite to organize a flexible, innovative information economy, no matter how brilliant its members are.” Maybe a truly game-changing reform is to replace the “dictatorship of talent” with a “democracy of talent,” the center of which would emphasize engagement and peer interactions rather than obedience of fatherly know-it-all teachers. Efforts in this direction have been made by educators and policymakers in China since 1998, but students and parents have largely resisted the engagement, children-centered campaign. Instead, students and parents have doubled-down on the exam-centered approach. Chinese education companies such as the New Oriental Group, Ambow and Xue-Er have made huge revenues in the test-prep business driven students and parents desirous of higher scores.

The offspring of “tiger mothers” in China are not going to take over the world as some American parents have worried. American schools and parents have the upper hand. People in Silicon Valley have been truly driving innovation and the world’s economic growth. As long as we all pay attention to what they believe about education, the momentum—the continuous wave of creative ideas—will be sustained by the children who are in schools that foster their creativity. After all, the Valley’s success has grown out of a democracy of talent, so let us hope American schools—whether Waldorf or not—can keep students engaged in learning and critical thinking to maintain the seeds of success in tomorrow’s global competition.

Tags: China

China’s shrinking rural schools change village demographics

As part of its education reforms, the Chinese government has been shuttering village schools for the last decade, further changing the demographics of rural areas nationwide.

The Chinese government even concedes that rural education has some serious problems throughout the country, although they tend to paint a much rosier picture than most of how well these schools perform. The Ministry of Education has devoted more resources to improving rural education in recent years, a plan which includes closing down small rural schools and consolidating them in to larger, regional ones that students often have to board at.

In 2000, China had 553,600 elementary schools, but by 2010 the figure was 257,400, according to Xinhua, an English newspaper in China. Chicheng, a predominately rural county in Northwestern China, for example, is down to 104 elementary schools from more than 400 at the turn of the century.

It’s a phenomenon I saw firsthand on a trip to China over the summer, visiting a rural village outside of Xi’an, a large city in central China. The village, where about 200 families live, used to have an elementary school, but it was shut down a few years ago.

While these new measures have caused a few complaints – and the Xinhua article touches on some of the potential problems like an increased dropout rate as a result of more difficult transportation demands or unhappy parents who don’t want their nine-year old child to live away from home – they also change the very make-up of these villages.   

Many students already leave home to go to school for high school and college, and they often don’t return. That trend may be solidified as they are forced to move out younger and younger. Combined with the increase in farming equipment able to perform once manual tasks, the result could the furthering of a demographic shift, where older children join the likes of teenagers and young adults and are all but absent from rural areas.

In the village that I visited, I saw just one young adult – a recent college graduate sent there by the government to work for the village’s top official. He was not from the area originally. He explained that parents want their children to leave villages and get jobs in the cities – most of which are already stuffed to the brim with millions of people.

“The main people who live here are old people or children,” he said. “You cannot see so many young [people].”  

Tags: China

National Standards on Curriculum? – We Gotta Be Cautious

Lessons from Abroad is pleased to introduce guest blogger Yao Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate in Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Born and raised in China, Yao studies demographic mechanism in the formation of human capital, and education policies related to innovation, entrepreneurship and global competitiveness.  

Imagine the settings below for a new trip for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a journey to push standardized national curriculum:

1. The U.S. Department of Education has decided to do a national evaluation of all higher education institutions’ quality (in teaching, researching, internal management, services, etc.). All institutions – private or public, two year or four year, on or offline – are mandated to participate in this campaign and the funding and federal aid their students can get depends on their final rankings.

2. Given the funding incentive above, all institutions are “forced” to respond to this upcoming check.

3. A committee is formed at the federal level with “experts” on educational assessment, they will be traveling around and check out each institute’s status.

Now, assume there is a “University X.” They have 3 different dining halls on campus, all outsourced to professional catering services, all priced their average meal at $5. But with the “national check” looming:

1. Someone heard that the baseline score on “services to students/ dining” is meals priced at $3 each; the more expensive the meal, the lower the score.

2. University X decided to end the contract with one of the three catering companies to run one dining hall on their own. They hired staff, purchased equipment and did everything else necessary to create a $3 meal option on campus.

3. But this $3-meal dining hall couldn’t feed every student. So the university decided that only Class 2008 and 2009 could dine there. Other students had to go to the more expensive dining halls.

4. Students responded by sneaking into the cheap dining hall with a borrowed ID or bribing the security guy, let’s call him Sam, who checks IDs. After a month, this dining hall is over-crowded.

5. So the university decided to add one more security guy to work with Sam together, to double check each other’s performances. Gradually, they became friends, and students bribe them together. Then, the 3rd, the 4th, the 5th security positions are added…

6. Eventually, this dining hall is providing meals with a very bad quality that is less than $3 value, and the university is paying a very high operational cost on it. No student is happy with it about its restrictions on fair access, its quality, etc.

This is just a small example of what becomes a much bigger problem, when attaching high stakes to well-intended ratings comes with unplanned consequences. Now, imagine that what happened to the university dining hall in this story actually happened in all areas of academia, from curriculum design to teaching to research. For instance, faculty members abandoned their own syllabi, and have to teach according to a “national curriculum,” which even specifies which questions to ask on a mid-term.

No academic freedom.
No innovation.
No exchange of ideas.

Luckily, all the above stories are hypothetical in the United States. Mr. Duncan and his team work on one of the most decentralized school systems in the world. They are not able, constitutionally, to carry out such “mandatory evaluations” and link its results with federal funding to institutions that obey the federal curriculum. Mr. Duncan also has publicly announced that “we will not prescribe a national curriculum.”

But unfortunately, all of the above stories happened in China – even the case of dining hall price regulation. China has had three waves of large, national evaluations of universities, the most recent of which, conducted in 2009, stirred wide debate on its negative effects.

The more national money that is made available to the Ministry of Education, the more frequently such policies are carried out to push a national standard on academic activities or logistic operations in the higher education sector. But the attempt to measure quality often has a negative effect on it. In March 2009, while I was visiting two universities in China, right in the middle of the spring semester, almost all the faculty and students that I met told me that some classes were canceled because they had to clean up their dorms and offices for the evaluation.  

I can’t find an official source about the total cost of each wave of national evaluation, so I borrowed the analogy of the dining hall response on Price Regulations and Its Consequences, to discuss how disastrous a bad government policy on education could be and why we should be very cautious of the potentially extorting effect of a well-intentioned policy. 

Tags: China

China to start assessing teachers

As countries around the world start to pay more and more attention to teacher evaluation systems - updating them, improving them - China is jumping on board with one small difference. They’re just starting them.

Beginning with a pilot program in two provinces and expanding throughout the country over the next three years, the Ministry of Education will evaluate newly appointed teachers every five years in things such as work load, teaching quality and ethics, according to CRI English. Current teachers will be exempt from the evaluations.

"The decision will change a long-lasting situation that China lacked a national standard for teachers qualifications and no supervision on them," wrote CRI. "Thus, the scheme is especially necessary due to the fact that teaching is often a permanent occupation." 

Tags: China

Companies in China seize chance to prep students for study abroad

Chinese students have been flocking to United States for college in recent years; last year, the percentage of Chinese students enrolled in American colleges leapt 30 percent to 127,628. So perhaps it’s no surprise that private companies have found a fruitful market in those eager to attend school in an English-speaking country. 

Private English schools have been around for a long time. But as the popularity and desire to go abroad for school has increased, so have the offerings. Take Kunming, China’s Best Way Training School, which works with high school and college students that have their sights set on places like the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

They’ll work with students on their English grammar and writing, but also offer classes in things like film appreciation, English conversation, western culture and presentation skills. The classes try to build in things like group work and creativity to lessen the culture shock when students attend their first classes on foreign soil.

Best Way currently has about 100 students, but they’d like to double that in the next few years. And, if current trends continue, that won’t be a problem. Private education on a whole in China is a rapidly growing industry in everything from preschool through higher education.

Of course though, private education is just one more thing to separate the haves from the have-nots in a country where the rich, poor divide is rapidly widening.  A full course load, of two two-hour long classes a day, tutoring and advice on college applications at Best Way costs 5,000 RMB a month, or about $800. It might not seem that steep to Americans, but that’s about the cost of a full year of college at a public university in China. 

Tags: China

Beijing Normal University, like many of China’s public universities, has had money poured into new facilities over the past decade. The campus’s “main building,” pictured here, was built only a few years ago as a wave of construction swept the school. Money for new facilities has been one of the key ways that China’s government has demonstrated its commitment to higher education in recent years.

Beijing Normal University, like many of China’s public universities, has had money poured into new facilities over the past decade. The campus’s “main building,” pictured here, was built only a few years ago as a wave of construction swept the school. Money for new facilities has been one of the key ways that China’s government has demonstrated its commitment to higher education in recent years.

Tags: China

The library at Peking University, one of the most prestigious universities in all of China, is a photo opp favorite for children who hoped to someday attend. But getting in is extremely difficult, and entirely based on one’s test score on the national college entrance exam, or the Gao Kao. All college hopefuls take this multi-day, multi-subject test at the end of high school and have to meet school’s high cutoff scores to be enrolled.

The library at Peking University, one of the most prestigious universities in all of China, is a photo opp favorite for children who hoped to someday attend. But getting in is extremely difficult, and entirely based on one’s test score on the national college entrance exam, or the Gao Kao. All college hopefuls take this multi-day, multi-subject test at the end of high school and have to meet school’s high cutoff scores to be enrolled.

Tags: China