On 6 April 2021, the UNESCO headquarters in Paris officially announced that the Open University of China’s (OUC) “One College Student Per Village” programme was awarded the 2020 King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize for the Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Education (UNESCO ICT in Education Prize, hereinafter referred to as the King Hamad Prize). This is the highest prize for education informatisation in the United Nations system and the first time that China has received the prize.

The OUC is more than worthy of this brilliant accolade. The story of China’s poverty alleviation and reduction has finally succeeded in making it to the international stage after many twists and turns. As the person directly in charge of the project, Hou Songyan from the OUC International Department has experienced all of steps of the application and expended considerable effort.

16 years after the prize was founded, the OUC included in the selection for the first time

When COVID-19 broke out at the beginning of 2020, the OUC’s international cooperation and exchanges were severely restricted, but its advantages in online education soon became apparent. As a major force for online education in China, the OUC caught the attention of the UNESCO representative in China. UNESCO took the initiative to get in touch with the OUC, hoping that the university would provide online skills training to teachers in Mongolia. In the process of building itself into a world-class open university, the OUC has brought its superiority into full play, and volunteered to undertake its mission and responsibility. It signed a memorandum of understanding with UNESCO in May 2020 and a cooperation partnership was officially established between the two parties.


UNESCO Prize for the Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Education to Enhance the Continuity and Quality of Learning Open for Nomination

The King Hamad Prize then opened to nominations. The theme of the 2020 prize was the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the continuity and quality of learning.

Against the background of the education crisis caused by COVID-19, the theme is of special significance. In fact, the use of new technologies to cope with crisis not only shows the potential of said new technologies but also emphasises the need to support their development. Only in this way can new technologies help improve learning and promote inclusiveness. 

On this new international stage, Hou Songyan was responsible for various liaison tasks. Part of her job was to know what was happening at UNESCO. On 8 October 2020, Hou Songyan noticed that the UNESCO had announced the “UNESCO Prize for the Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Education to Enhance the Continuity and Quality of Learning Open for Nomination.” She said, “I carefully read through the full text, and became aware that the OUC was a strong competitor.” Hou Songyan reported this to the director of the International Department right away. After all, “information and communication technologies,” “learning continuity,” and “quality” are some of the OUC’s most significant characteristics. After consultation, the OUC made the decision to enter for the competition for the prize.

Analysed from a macro perspective, the OUC had unique advantages in applying for the prize, but to launch the application process, it also had to rely on a project of information and communication technologies in education. The International Department coordinated discussions with several projects, but none qualified for application. Just when the application team was at their wits’ end, Jing Degang, secretary of the Party Committee and president of the OUC, proposed that they apply for the prize with the “One College Student Per Village” programme. After that, an application team made up of the International Department, the Faculty of Agroforestry and Medicine, and the Information Technology Department and headed by Yang Xiaotang, vice president of the OUC presiding over work related to foreign affairs, was quickly put together to work on the application report.

As a first-time applicant, the OUC had to learn along the way. While making preparations, Hou Songyan learned that they had to pass the selection of the Ministry of Education’s Department of Science and Technology before they could apply for the prize. They couldn’t enter an international competition until they had received a nomination from the Secretariat of the National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO (hereinafter referred to as the Secretariat of the National Commission). “In fact, the projects for the prize had been collected from education departments or commissions from all provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the central government and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, as well as the Department of Higher Education, each year since the establishment of the prize. The OUC, being under the direct administration of the Ministry of Education, was not a qualified candidature, so it had never been included in the selection.” The application once again reached a deadlock. To find a way to break through the deadlock, the university actively communicated with the Department of Science and Technology, and succeeded in receiving qualification for application. The OUC was included in the scope of selection in China for the first time since the establishment of the prize in 2005.

The King Hamad Prize awarded to a Chinese institute for the first time in 13 years

After about a month of preparation, the Chinese report on the “One College Student Per Village” programme submitted by the OUC was examined and approved by the Department of Science and Technology. The OUC succeeded in defeating its domestic rivals and was included on the list of three nominations defined by the Secretariat of the National Commission.

Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the team made great progress on the application. After the OUC programme was included in the shortlist, Hou Songyan took the responsibility to write the English report. While writing the report, she repeatedly communicated with the relevant departments, made several revisions, and submitted the English report after a final check by Liu Zhanrong, director of the international Department.


Members of the project team working together to overcome difficulties

Just one or two days before the 18 December 2020 deadline stipulated by Paris, the Secretariat of the National Commission found that there were still some problems with the report. “We couldn’t waste the efforts of the team over the past two months. Every one of us, in the spirit of ‘never giving up,’ was determined to internationalise the “One College Student Per Village” programme and contribute the ‘Chinese model’ to the cause of international poverty alleviation and reduction.” With the coordination of OUC vice president Ju Chuanjin, the team members communicated with the Secretariat of the National Commission several times, and the OUC finally got a one-week grace period to readjust the application report. On 25 December, the team completed its submission to the online system of the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. With that, the preparation for the nomination came to an end.

Over the next two months, Hou Songyan paid close attention to the progress of the selection, keeping in constant contact with the Paris headquarters. The team members also sought to help wherever they could. Finally, news came from Paris that the OUC had first entered the shortlist of six candidates and then the shortlist of three candidates. In response to the final stage of the challenge, the application team worked day and night and to polish the materials. Wherever they were, they would act as required immediately as long as there were requirements from Paris.


Secretary Jing Having a Video Made for the Winning of the Prize at the Invitation of the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris

On 6 April 2021, good news came that the OUC’s “One College Student Per Village” programme and the Centre for Learning Analytics, University of Turku, Finland had received the 2020 King Hamad Prize from among the 80 projects submitted by 10 non-governmental organisations in 45 countries. From the beginning of October 2020 to the end of April 2021, the international competition for the King Hamad Prize came to an end. Just two days after winning the prize, the National Mission of the People’s Republic of China for UNESCO sent a celebratory telegram. On 23 April, the Secretariat of the National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO reported it to the Party Central Committee and got the approval of the top leaders. On 30 April, CCTV presented a 2 minute 15 second news report on the story of the OUC being awarded the King Hamad Prize.

Carrying on the struggle with expectations for future

Internationally, the OUC’s “One College Student Per Village” programme represents China’s contributions to China’s information and communication technologies in education. As Miao Fengchun, chief of Unit for ICT in Education, UNESCO, commented: “The ‘One College Student Per Village’ programme is a typical case of promoting education innovation using modern technologies. It is a vivid embodiment of the rapid development of information and communication technologies in education in China in recent years and the successful realisation of the goal of poverty alleviation... It is of great significance as part of the international community’s promotion of the implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.” The OUC has successfully promoted one of its high-quality projects on the international stage, enhancing and expanding its global influence.


Jing Degang and his team members

The OUC defeated powerful domestic rivals, fully demonstrating its unique advantages among its counterparts in the same industry in China, and the high expectations for its future.

Throughout the application, Hou Songyang gave full play to her language skills, made use of her experience of international exchanges and cooperation, and offered good ideas for the university’s development based on her own job position with a highly responsible attitude. At the same time, she also gained some experience of applying for international prizes.

“Receiving this honour is not the end of the OUC’s hard work. We should take this opportunity to sum up our experience, give full play to our advantages, and continue our new struggle.” After receiving the prize, the team members urged themselves to continue forging ahead and to do their best to make new contributions to building a world-class open university with Chinese characteristics.


By OUC News Network