NEARLY 7m students began their courses at Chinese universities at the start of a new academic year this month. In line behind them, a new cohort is already cramming for next year’s university entrance-examination, the notorious gaokao. But some young Chinese see drawbacks in bricks-and-mortar tuition in China because of a rigid style of teaching, the funnelling of students into courses they do not enjoy, the cost and dim job prospects for many graduates. Small but growing numbers are considering options online.
Internet-based methods of teaching, known as Massive Online Open Courses or MOOCs, are already gaining in popularity in other countries. Typically, MOOCs offer students free access to instructional videos but charge for certificates showing satisfactory completion of coursework. In China, despite deeply ingrained reverence for traditional institutions, the trend is also beginning to catch on.
One startup in the field is a non-profit organisation in Beijing calling itself One-Man University. It is not officially recognised as a university, but it has gained a big leg-up with backing from non-state companies that see MOOCs as a potentially large new market. To attract viewers, 56.com, a video-streaming website, is distributing the service’s instructional videos without advertisements. Since it opened in 2011, One-Man University has acquired 130,000 registered members.
The organisation’s 27-year-old founder, Tong Zhe, studied physics at Peking University. He decided to offer online courses because he felt that the Chinese approach to higher education was too formulaic. Mr Tong’s 15-minute videos are prepared by professional teachers whose delivery is livelier than what is usually experienced in the dour lecture-halls of Chinese universities. Within three years Mr Tong aims to offer all university and high-school subjects. (The service’s name in Chinese, Wanmen Daxue, is a pun on the English that also means “ten thousand subjects”.)
Universities do not seem opposed to the idea. The principal of Southern University of Science and Technology, Zhu Qingshi, has said of One-Man University: “Education in the internet age can make everyone equal. I believe it will bring a revolution to education.” They are also getting into the business themselves. The government has allowed a first wave of open online courses—such as those provided by Xuetang, a MOOC supported by Tsinghua University—to be hosted on EdX, a non-profit platform, which is sponsored by Harvard and MIT. In May Chen Jin, Nanjing University’s president, said the university intended to work with Coursera, an American MOOC provider which has signed a deal with NetEase, a Chinese distributor, to host online courses.