New Strategies and Advances in China’s Open and Distance Education

YANG Zhijian
(Doctor, President, The Open University of China, Beijing, 100039, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Ⅰ. The changing environment

1. Technology is transforming the world
Open and distance education is the product of continued socio-economic development, pedagogical improvement and technological advancement. Each new technological development moves open and distance education another step forward. China is an example. In the period dominated by print and postal communication, open and distance education was realized through correspondence education. In the period dominated by radio and television technologies, it took the form of radio and television education. With the advent of information and communication technology (ICT) in the 21st century, web-based education has emerged as the primary form of open and distance education.
Today, technology, especially ICT, is advancing exponentially at a mind-boggling pace. Developments in computing, communications, microelectronics and photonics, information security, smart technologies and software have far surpassed our imagination. These technologies are an unstoppable force that is penetrating each domain and aspect of our lives, and profoundly influencing and transforming our world. The globe has been flattened and shrunk into a village; the boundary between the virtual world and the real world has blurred. Digital existence, transcending time and space, economic integration and education internationalization have become a reality and continue to mature. Meanwhile, developments in ICT are also bringing revolutionary changes to education, including open and distance education.

2. “Web-based” has become the inevitable strategic choice
It is reported that the number of Internet users has reached 2.4 billion worldwide and 546 million in China alone. With the popularization of smart phones and tablet PCs, 3G, GPRS and Wi-Fi have become mainstream methods for accessing the Internet. The Internet era is transitioning to the mobile Internet era.
Bill Gates predicted in 2010, “Five years from now, on the web for free, you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.” Gates stated that the public should make better use of the various resources on the Internet regardless of their level of education. We see that his prediction is quickly becoming a reality.
Today, “web-based” has become the inevitable strategic choice for governments, organizations, companies and enterprises to move forward or even to survive. Of course, universities and other educational institutions are no exception. Education is also becoming increasingly web-based. The rapid growth of online educational institutions throughout the world illustrates this trend. According to a report by the research firm CB Insights, venture capitalists poured $1.37 billion into 235 educational technology companies in the United States from the second quarter of 2011 to the second quarter of 2012. Meanwhile, it appears that Internet users are increasingly willing to pursue online education or learning.
A representative example is Khan Academy, which was founded by a Bangladeshi-American named Salman Khan. Khan used video technology to revolutionize traditional teaching and produced over 4,300 video lessons on subjects including mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy from his home office. Worldwide, 56 million primary and middle school students watch his video lessons and over 6 million students log on to the website each month. One teacher, one computer, millions of students — he has truly become a legend in education.

3. Traditional universities are breaking down their walls
A close look at traditional universities reveals an interesting development: traditional universities are working hard to use technology to break down the walls they formerly erected. They are coming out of their ivory tower and moving from the edge of society towards the center of society.
Inspired by Khan Academy, Professor Sebastian Thrun from Stanford University in the United States made his graduate-level artificial intelligence course available online to the public in the fall of 2011. 160,000 students in over 190 countries registered for the free course. This kicked off the massive open online courses (MOOCs) movement worldwide.
In January 2012, Sebastian Thrun launched Udacity, an online education platform. It features dozen of courses that students can complete online at their own pace. In April 2012, two professors from Stanford University created the Coursera platform for the joint construction of free online courses together with 33 top universities, including Princeton, Stanford, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania. In four months, the number of students topped one million, and in less than one year, worldwide enrollment skyrocketed to 2.34 million.
In May 2012, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University jointly created the edX online learning project, which integrated the teaching resources of the two schools in constructing online courses and issuing certificates and scores to students who complete the courses. The debut course, “Circuits and Electronics”, attracted 120,000 students. By the fall of 2012, enrollment for the first set of courses exceeded 370,000. In May 2013, China’s Tsinghua University and Peking University officially joined the edX consortium. Both schools have recently opened their first online courses to the world.
In April 2013, the MOOCs website OpenupEd ( was jointly launched by open universities in 11 European countries: France, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Britain, Russia, Turkey and Israel. The website offers more than 40 different courses in 12 languages.
The impact of MOOCs on higher education as a whole and on traditional universities is so great that the president of Stanford University compared it to “a digital tsunami” sweeping across the world. Should there be a disruptive innovation in the field of higher education in the future, MOOCs will be the catalyst.