Online Degree, Online Courses and Distance Learning in China

About Online Degree, Online Courses and Distance Learning in China

China is an enormous country, spread out over 9.2 million square kilometers.  It has a population of nearly 1.3 billion, and a school system that educates over 350 million children each year at the primary and secondary levels.  Of these, around 10 percent will go on to receive a university education—a figure that, while representing a large number of students, is still very small when compared to some western nations, many of which boast a percentage figure that is double or more.  For this reason, China is constantly looking for new ways to attract more students to higher education, and one of the ways they are accomplishing this is through distance online education.  Below we will take an in-depth look at the Chinese distance learning system and explain some of the measures the country has taken through the years to improve upon this structure and thus give access to more students.

Distance Education in China:  Then and Now

Up until 1976 and the rule of Deng Xiaoping, the higher education system in China could only be classified as archaic, and based almost exclusively on what many referred to as the “outdated” teachings of Confucius some 3500 years prior.  During that extended period, no more than 1 percent of the Chinese population was involved in or received a university or “higher” education experience. Xiaoping’s government attempted to modernize the system by classifying four essentials on which the university educational system should be based:  agriculture, industry, science and technology and national defense.  These changes, along with a rise in economic prosperity in the country, helped to stabilize the education system for a brief time, but after a couple of years, university enrollment was still stuck at the 1 percent mark.  This prompted the government to look for more flexible educational methods as a way to reach the masses.

In the late 1970s, distance education in the western world was mainly accomplished through the use of printed materials, but unlike in the West, paper in China was very expensive.  Instead the Chinese government turned to television.  In 1979 the Central Radio and Television University was established in Beijing as a way to reach those students who could not participate in traditional education, and by 1986 more than one-third of all higher education students in the country were learning from television universities (TVUs).

With the advent of the personal computer there came additional opportunities for higher education, but also more challenges.  On the one hand, distance education over this medium could be much more cohesive and comprehensive than the television model, but as late as 2002 the number of Chinese people who actually possessed a computer was a mere 12 in 1000.  Despite the slow start, however, online distance education did become a reality in China towards the end of the 20th century with the development of the Chinese Educational and Research Network, or CERNET, which ultimately helped to boost the enrollment at Chinese academic and vocational schools dramatically.

Today CERNET is the largest education and research network in the world.  It is connected to most of the major universities in China, as well as some of the secondary and private schools.  The system has helped to revolutionize the higher education system in China, reaching people that would otherwise be excluded due to distance or financial hardship.  Last year, an estimated 6 million people were enrolled in online courses, pursuing both academic degree programs and technical certificates.  This accounts for nearly 20 percent of all university learners in China.

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