In 2013, the Open University of China (OUC) launched a series of special tasks, including the construction of an online core curriculum, the construction of an OUC learning network and application, and the construction of an online teaching team. Solid progress was also made in the reform of the “Six-Network Integration” learner development model. Why did the OUC introduce this reform? What progress has been made and how can the OUC promote its future development? Cheng Gang, deputy director of the OUC’s Learner Support and Student Affairs Centre, elaborated.

I. New Situation, New Understanding

In the process of transformation and upgrading from a radio and television university to an open university, we face great challenges in terms of content construction and quality development. When the size of the university and the number of professional courses have increased rapidly, the crucial issue is how to implement the teaching process and realise effective learning. If the number of students in the study centre studying a certain major don’t reach a certain scale, cooperative educational units are unable to afford the cost of hiring teachers, making it hard to provide fundamental teaching services. Against this background, integrating scattered students and cross-regional teaching resources through online teaching is the only way for us to guarantee and improve teaching quality .

With the rapid development of the Internet industry in China, the average age of students in open universities has gradually reduced each year and most of the learners are ready, willing, and able to study online. The online learning data of 55 online core courses studied by over 54,000 students in the autumn of 2015 indicates that 88% of students study online once in three weeks with the number of browses and clicks per course at around 70. 10% of students study online once a week, with the number of browses and clicks per course at around 350. A further 2% of students study online an average of 1.5 times per week, with more than 1,000 browses and clicks per course. This shows that a certain number of students do have a strong willingness to learn and have good learning habits. Through further analysis, we found that the degree of activeness in online learning has no significant correlation with major, class size, or locations (e.g. provincial capital cities or grassroots study centres). Rather, it strongly correlates with how much effort tutors contribute to online teaching. Factors such as the frequency and quality of online tutor-student interaction, up-to-date resources, the frequency and timeliness of correcting homework, and answering students’ posts all affect students’ level of activity in online learning. When students dispersed in different regions are effectively organised in one online course and necessary teaching services are provided by online tutors, most students’ learning performance can be significantly improved.

It has been proven that integrating scattered teachers and students through online means is a feasible way to implement the teaching process and improve teaching quality. Online teaching should be transformed from a supplementary teaching method into a mainstream teaching method. Online teaching will become an important way for the OUC to effectively coordinate teaching strength, implement the teaching process, control the effectiveness of teaching, and improve teaching quality.

II. Progress in the Reform of Online Teaching

In 2016, the OUC’s learning network was applied throughout the country. More than 140 core courses constructed by the OUC’s headquarters have been comprehensively applied in its 44 branches. The construction and application of courses developed by the branches in the new platform also accelerated. The number of online courses independently developed by the OUC’s branches exceeds 2,800. By promoting the application of the learning network, the Chengdu, Bingtuan, and Jiangsu branches have made innovative achievements in online course design, online teaching implementation, and online support services.

Through the trial operation of the online core courses and according to the needs of the reform of the “Six-Network Integration” learner development model, the OUC has developed a series of new norms, systems, and methods. The Online Core Curriculum Design Standard was formally implemented in the Spring 2015 semester, providing a unified specification for the overall layout of the courses, the key columns, and navigation methods. Since autumn 2015, statistical data on online teaching has been issued to each of the branches on a monthly basis, including more than a hundred statistical items about institutions, courses, tutors and students. Eleven key indicators were selected and incorporated as the assessment criteria for online teaching inspection, which, on the one hand, created more obvious effects in the process of inspection and supervision of the online teaching inspection, and on the other hand, helped educational units and teachers better adjust teaching strategies, management, and service models, and improve the effect of online teaching. According to statistical data on the new data report, many branches have worked out a standard for teachers' workload and students' average performance. The OUC, in accordance with the requirements of the new technology of the online teaching environment, have released some normative documents, including operational manuals for the administrator of the learning network, the course leader, and the course coordinator, to help teachers and managers at various levels better use the new platform to carry out the teaching work. In 2016, the click rate for teachers and students throughout the country more than doubled from 2015. The average length of online learning among students has also increased by nearly 50% and some key indicators, such as average number of resources browsed, activity participation and posts by students, and resources updated by teachers, have also increased considerably.

While paying close attention to routine online teaching work, the OUC has actively promoted the construction of an online teaching team. In autumn 2015 semester, it carried out a pilot programme for teaching team construction for seven courses, involving nearly 2,000 students across 10 branches. The results of the trial were clear. The average number of online clicks by students participating in the pilot programme is over seven times the national average. The satisfaction rate for teachers, students, and trial educational institutions engaged in the pilot programmes is close to 100%. Students’ scores for most of the courses have improved significantly. The increase in students’ learning achievements is particularly evident in the western region with a lack of teachers. Through the trial programme in the autumn 2015 semester, the team operation mode of one-stop online teaching based on the Moodle platform matured, laying a foundation for the construction of a larger scale network-based teaching team coordinated between the headquarters and the branches.

III. Thoughts on Future Development

Accelerate the construction of the network-based teaching team: For large and medium scale courses, the teaching team will adopt an operational mode integrating both the OUC headquarters and its branches. The OUC headquarters is responsible for the organisation of a core team to take care of the general design of online curriculum and teaching, and giving teaching research, training, and teaching supervision and guidance for the branches, while the branches are responsible for organising teaching teams, drafting and implementing teaching plans, and the implementation of the teaching process. Communication between the two teaching teams will be carried out through a mechanism of core members and course coordinator, who are to strengthen teaching exchange and guarantee teaching quality. For small scale curricula, the OUC’s headquarters is responsible for organising a one-stop network-based teaching team that will be operated with reference to the seven courses in the pilot programme in autumn 2015, which will coordinate teaching resources from all over the country and offer online teaching services for students. With regard to the courses built by the branches themselves, the construction of teaching teams should also be accelerated so as to gradually achieve the target for every student and each course to have a teaching team that can provide teaching support in compliance with the ratio of teachers and students.

Speed up the construction of non-academic support service standards that will support the construction of the network-based teaching team: It is necessary to gradually organise services such as management, technical services, and teaching/learning skills support that are related to online teaching, and standardise service subjects, content, procedures, and guarantees so as to help different offline support service links work closely and efficiently with the network-based teaching team and promote the development of online teaching work.

Promote data-driven teaching management and learner support service decision- making and achieve a combination of scale and personalisation: When a large number of teaching behaviours and learning behaviours take place on the Internet, we can gain more objective data for teaching management and learner support services. Based on these data, guidance, assistance, and learning promotion services can be developed more accurately and effectively, which will greatly enhance the effectiveness of teaching and the quality of service without an increase in the overall cost.

Strengthen communication within the school system and promote its application through demonstration: At present, the development of online teaching is obviously unbalanced, with large differences between different courses and branches. In the next phase, we will focus on strengthening communication and training between the headquarters and its branches, as well as promoting excellent case studies and experiences. We will use exemplary institutions, courses, teaching teams, teachers, and class teachers etc. to establish a standard image for the OUC, strengthen publicity, and expand the positive impact of the OUC. We expect that online teaching will become an important way of demonstrating the OUC’s educational quality, enhance the OUC’s social influence, and set up a brand value in the "13th Five-Year" period.

By Cheng Gang, OUC Learner Support and Student Affairs Centre