The world is their oyster

Updated: 2012-09-28 10:32

By Su Zhou and Lin Jing (China Daily)

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The world is their oyster

Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, the founders of Coursera, at the company's office in Mountain View, California. Coursera is considering launching Chinese language programs to attract students in the world's largest Internet market in terms of users. Ramin Rahimian / The New York Times / via CFP

Chinese students head overseas in huge numbers, but some may no longer feel the need to leave home for education

Coursera, an online education platform that offers free courses from universities worldwide, is aiming to net some of the biggest consumers of overseas higher learning: Chinese.

The company, founded by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, computer science teachers at Stanford University in California, announced recently that 17 US and international universities will begin offering free online courses.

Ng and Koller say that as the site develops, more courses will be introduced in different languages, including Chinese. The founders are also seeking to team up with Chinese universities to achieve that goal.

There is little doubt that such courses have a huge potential market among Chinese, 158,000 of whom were studying in US colleges last year, accounting for more than a fifth of the overseas-student population there. Worldwide, about 340,000 Chinese were studying in overseas colleges as of May last year, accounting for 14 percent of the overseas student population, according to a report by the Social Sciences Academic Press in Beijing.

Ng says that even if someone wants to go overseas to study, the beauty of Coursera, based in Silicon Valley, California, is that students can, for example, "get to know what Princeton is like before they even go there".

And with courses in Chinese, students in China may not even need to leave home to obtain a world-class education.

Coursera says about 1.4 million people worldwide have used its services, more than 4 percent of them from China, since the website opened in April.

The website offers courses from prestigious universities and says it now has partnerships with more than 30 such universities in Australia, Britain, Canada, Israel, Switzerland and the United States. They include Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford and the universities of Edinburgh, London, Melbourne and Toronto.

Almost 200 courses in 18 categories are offered, including computer science, business, medicine and humanities.

Although more than 55 percent of the hundreds of thousands of students using the website are from outside the US, Ng says, most of the courses are taught in English.

Koller says that volunteers worldwide are helping provide subtitles of content for users who cannot speak English, but homework and slides are not translated, "which might be a barrier".

"So we are working on introducing more courses taught in foreign languages, for example, Chinese," she says.

One sign of progress, she says, is that an introductory course on computer programming, in French, will begin soon.

Online learning from international institutions is now becoming increasingly popular in China. Major websites and voluntary translators in the country have been promoting video courses from the likes of Harvard, Stanford and Yale, which in turn promotes a greater awareness of the possibilities of online learning.

Michael Sandel, a political philosopher and professor at Harvard, is widely known in China as a result of his course Justice: What's the right thing to do?

Students in China can now get access to billions of videos provided by local video-sharing sites, and some top universities in China have their own online learning websites.

Although many universities that Coursera has partnerships with are also working with other online-learning websites - for example Udacity, co-established by Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford - Koller says she is confident about her company's advantages.

Unlike other online-learning websites, Coursera is offering its students campus-style learning, she says.

The key difference is interaction, Coursera says. Rather than being limited to video courses, its students have to select courses, prepare for lessons, "attend" classes, do quizzes and puzzles, finish assignment from professors, get ratings from teachers and interact with other students on discussion forums.

"I think what we are doing is even better than traditional learning on campus," Koller says. "It is more like a small seminar which provides a better learning experience, compared with large classes with hundreds of people."

Gao Zhixin, a computer programmer in Beijing, is a Coursera student. He is doing a course titled Web intelligence and big data and is about to enroll in another, Probabilistic graphical models, both related to his work. Later he will do financial and history courses, he says.

"With my limited finance and time I cannot afford to study overseas. This way I can study wherever and whenever I want."

Though he likes being able to do courses in English, he says, it would be great if Coursera could offer local courses in Chinese, especially ones taught by well-known professors at Tsinghua University and Peking University.

Shang Junjie, dean of the educational technology department of the school of education at Peking University, says Chinese open courses, properly translated, can compete with their foreign counterparts to attract students.

Jeremy Scaramuzzi, a teacher at Tsinghua International School, says he likes to watch classes in Chinese on literature and poetry, as well as economy. "I am also interested in Chinese classes on political science, the subject I majored in the US," he says.

What intrigues him, he says, particularly from his perspective as an American, is how Chinese academics study different governments.

Over the coming months Coursera plans to incorporate what Ng calls more "social learning" into the site. Ng thinks students are not only studying by themselves, but also by interacting with other classmates.

"I think Coursera is different because we are not only putting videos online; we are providing real courses with which students can practice material by interacting with professors and millions of classmates around the world.

"Besides, students don't study by passively listening; they can interact with other classmates and get ratings from professors which are better than students' own judgments."

Matthew Jaskol, co-founder of Alpine, an educational consultancy in Beijing says that through such interaction Chinese students can acquire learning and communications skills in a Western educational setting, preparing them for international campus life.

"For example, Chinese students don't like to interact with professors and classmates because they think they can figure out a way to solve problems by themselves; they don't like to 'argue' either. They may not fully participate in local life," Jaskol says.

After raising $16 million (12 million euros) from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and New Enterprise Associates in April, Coursera got another $3.7 million investment from the two Silicon Valley's largest venture capital firms, the California Institute of Technology and University of Pennsylvania in July.

The two founders say courses will always be free and will not be funded through advertising. There are at least two ways that they can eventually turn a profit.

"What we are finding is that those students who did well in our courses tend to be very talented people, whom those American companies would like to hire," Ng says. "The plan is to charge employers for the introduction of those talented students who are looking for jobs."

That will only be done with the permission of the student, he says.

Another suggestion is to collect a modest fee from students once they have completed a course.

Ng says that US companies and colleges treat courses offered through Coursera seriously, so details of courses completed are likely to add weight to students' resumes and university applications.

"For Chinese students, such certificates may be a proof of their language skills. If they take some challenging classes and finish them very well, this can also prove their ability."

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(China Daily 09/28/2012 page20)