The Thirteenth Five -Year Plan for reform and construction of the Open University of China (OUC) mainly includes the OUC’s overall advancement of the construction of the “Internet+ University;” the building of a university further integrating technology and education, with education modernization led by information-based education. A few days ago, deputy executive director Jiang Guozhen of the OUC’s Information Technology Department, in an interview with Periodical, indicated that the OUC was getting along well with its information technology construction, that the blended learning environment based on the cloud platform and classroom had been set up, and that a solid technological foundation had been laid for the development of an “Internet + University.”

The construction of a learning environment, a cornerstone project for a new type of university

Libraries, laboratories, and classrooms are prerequisite infrastructure projects for teaching and scientific research at any university. As a new type of university, the OUC doesn’t mean to do without a physical campus or buildings, but to establish a learning environment that accommodates learning in the “Internet Plus” era. What kind of learning environment is to be built? How? And what is the current progress?

According to Jiang Guozhen, in terms of learning environment, the first thing is to find a logical starting point. What’s the orientation of the university? Who does it serve? What is the teaching model? The OUC aims to facilitate lifelong learning for all, and its students are predominantly working adults in every industry, from the forests and fields to factories and enterprises, companies, and malls all over the country. “It’s the group we serve that dictates our blended teaching model and learning environment. The learning environment includes an online cloud platform, face-to-face classroom teaching environment, and cloud classrooms connecting courses with the Internet. It is obviously different from the learning environment at regular universities based on face-to-face teaching.”

Jiang Guozhen said that the construction of the blended learning environment made possible the conditions necessary for quality teaching. The learning environment is built in an industrial era transitioning into an internet era. The teaching environment in the industrial era is the classroom, where a school is equivalent to an enterprise, and a classroom to a workshop. By contrast, teaching in an Internet Plus era requires a cloud classroom and platform.

Can there be efficient teaching in a blended learning environment? Compared with practices over the past 30+ years, the biggest change now is transitioning away from means formerly utilised to construct radio and TV universities to practices that best fit the present learning environment. Jiang Guozhen holds that this requires not only a change in mentality, but also a change in ideas. Seen from the perspective of communication, whether it is the radio, TV, or today's We-Media, all are publicity-based forms of education, instead of school-based education. Since teaching represents an interactive process among students, and between teachers and students, it is a kind of social and cognitive behaviour. Radio, TV, and We-Media information only goes one way, which is impossible to form teaching behaviour. It’s a mistake to replace school-based education with publicity-based education, negatively impacting teaching quality.

Jiang Guozhen indicated that the OUC, as a new type of university, was by no means to merely change teaching means, but to set up a blended learning environment in line with the “Internet Plus” era, thus returning to the essence of improving teaching quality. “This is a fundamental point that makes us different from other, regular universities, and it is a special feature of this new type of university.”

Initial achievements in the construction of a one-stop integrated cloud platform

The cloud platform is the top priority to build a blended learning environment. However, it’s no easy task to build a cloud platform, because the past radio and TV university system was run and managed on different levels. The central, provincial, and prefectural radio and TV universities each had their own platforms, with independent teaching, learning, and examination platforms for different departments at each level. Data from radio and TV universities was scattered across thousands of platforms throughout the country. Information islands greatly inconvenienced the students. Students complaints included having to memorise multiple usernames and passwords over several years of learning through radio and TV universities. “This had something to do with both the knowledge of information technology and the technological conditions at that time,” said Jiang Guozhen.

In 2012, the OUC began construction on a cloud platform that was to be a “one-stop, integrated, multi-terminal system with thousands of user access points.” According to Jiang Guozhen, the OUC had four expectations for the platform: to solve the problem of mistaking radio publicity education for school education; to address the problem of data and information islands created by operating, teaching, and managing at different levels; to achieve centralised deployment through cloud computing to lay a foundation which streamlines teaching, academic affairs, examinations, and admission, as well as reforms the OUC’s management structures and procedures; and, to organise a school operating community which promotes the development of the OUC platform as a system, in which all parties embrace the principles of unified school operations, leveled management, staggered development, and sharing of resources, costs, and interests.

After five years of hard work, the cloud platform has been established, clear achievements made, and the needs for teaching and teaching management met. One-stop entry has come to fruition; every OUC student, teacher, and administrator across the nation enters their own portal through the same entrance - the OUC learning network. The integration of admissions, learning, academic affairs, and online examination platforms has facilitated the work of both teachers and students, and additionally significantly reduced costs.

Real-time dynamic data from the 2017 spring semester's learning platform showed that peak daily access reached 1.66 TB, and more than 30 days saw system traffic over 1T. Growth was several times the previous semester, and will continue similarly the following semester. This is the most intuitive evaluation of the OUC’s teachers and students attitude toward the cloud platform.

Construction on the cloud classroom began in early 2013. Assistance to Xinjiang and Tibetan provincial resources served as the starting point for cloud classroom construction, which was gradually expanded to Qinghai, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia, and further to the central provinces of Hunan, Hubei, and Hebei. The initial experimental construction expanded to more than 300 cloud classrooms under joint construction, presently serving 22 branches. Today, the cloud classroom is used widely for teaching, research, and management.

Reshaping the “new ecology” of education is forthcoming

Jiang Guozhen stated that combining the “Internet + Supermarket” produced Taobao, the “Internet + Department Store” produced Jingdong, and “Internet + Bank” produced Internet finance. Since then, our way of life has changed. However, Jiang added, “The change of ‘Internet + Education’ is definitely not ‘Internet + Radio and TV University’ to us. We are building a new type of university, and our biggest obstacle is the conflict between building a new city and renovating an old city. We have spent too much energy on renovating an old city, and we must speed up construction on the new city.”

He said that information technology related to academic affairs, admissions, examinations, and the teaching process is the actual implementation of education informatisation, which means the application of information technology to each business. To him, the biggest change brought about by “Internet + Education” is an emphasis on service. Serving the students is fundamental to reshaping the flow of operations, and constructing the new ecology of an “Internet + Education” environment, which is the first thing the OUC wants to do.

The second thing is “integration,” promoting the “six-network integration” by “the three integrations of technology, data, and business.” This fundamental task will reshape the service-oriented new environment of “Internet + Education.” But, how to integrate all of the above? First, achieve integration at the technological level. Second, integrate data, something that has always been a focus of the OUC. They have solved a key problem of centralisation with cloud computing and big data. Next, integrate academic affairs, admissions, and examination data. After the centralisation and high degree of integration, the OUC will move forward with data integration. Integrated data will promote and guarantee “the six-network integration” in turn. The last step is business integration: prioritising interactions between technology and business. “Business integration, inferred another way, should be re-engineering the business process and reforming the institution, as well as breaking boundaries between admissions, examinations, learning, and other businesses.”

The third task is related to mobile learning. The mobile Internet in China is developing extremely fast; its growth is beyond imagination. The OUC’s farmer university student project in Hunan province has shown over the past year that those without computers, or unable to learn with computers, are doing well studying via mobile phones. Jiang Guozhen is convinced the OUC App in conjunction with the cloud platform will enhance future mobile learning.

The fourth item at hand is big data. “The potential of big data is great,” said Jiang Guozhen. First of all, big data has laid the foundation for teaching reform by providing a means for revealing the secret of human learning. We know how adults learn, and this is the very basis for reforming our courses and teaching. Next, big data improves management, and it provides services for management decision-making through the analysis of learning, teaching, and school conditions. Finally, data-based services can provide precise services to students.

The fifth item includes VR and AI. Despite the large input required, it must be accomplished. Otherwise, experiment and practical training will always be criticised.

“The stage has been built. The key will be who and how to give the performance,” stated Jiang Guozhen. “Internet + Education” has provided the basic conditions necessary for the innovation of teaching reform and talent formation. Once preparations are complete, administrators and teachers across the entire OUC system must make joint efforts to deliver a follow-up breakthrough performance.

By Liu Zenghui, E-Learning