Editor’s Note: This article is contributed by Joey Dembs, an Associate Director at Flamingo Shanghai. Flamingo is an insights and strategic consultancy who understand people, culture and brands.

I recently signed up for my first MOOC.

I am taking a class called ‘Designing Cities’. This MOOC or ‘massive open online course’ as they’re commonly referred to, is being offered by the University of Pennsylvania, through the leading US-based MOOC website, Coursera.org.

Over 10 weeks, I’ll be offered access to free lectures from three leading design professors. There is a course syllabus, three major ‘homework’ assignments, and a recommended reading list.

It’s much like a normal class at a normal university. However, there’s no guarantee my work will be seen by any of the professors. No one is taking attendance. I won’t receive any accreditation or verification after completing the course.

I’m committing four to six hours every week largely for the pursuit of knowledge.

An idealist’s dream or a self-motivator’s nightmare, MOOCs offer anyone, anywhere an opportunity to learn and enhance their skills.

In a global society where access to higher education is transitioning from a privilege to a basic right, MOOCs present both a challenge and opportunity for students in developing countries – especially in China.

Refuting common Western notions of ‘online openness’, this concept of self-education and open, online access to knowledge has been available in China for almost a decade.

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Netease Open Courses

Leading web portal, 163, has long offered open courses and lectures on their website. This site collects famous overseas courses, Chinese university courses and even TED lectures, offering high-quality subtitles in a searchable and organized fashion.

MIT has long offered an open portal and source for Chinese translations of it’s popular courses on its open course website.

And on Douban, true to the nature of the website itself, a group of almost 90,000 Chinese users post events, lectures and open course recommendations for those interested in furthering their knowledge level in a MOOC style.

Guokr, a popular social networking portal centering on science-related news and information, recently signed a cooperation agreement with Coursera. Guokr will tap into its large network of dedicated translators, offering Chinese subtitles for some of Coursera’s most popular courses. Guokr will be able to leverage the global positioning of Coursera for increased credibility and site visitation.

Chinese universities are also seeking to tap into the world of MOOCs. Shanghai’s Jiaotong University recently held an international forum for online education, touting its leading position and commitment to offering several of its courses online and available to students around the world.

It’s evident that the there’s potential for MOOCs in China, but does it represent a new model for aspiring Chinese students, hungry for knowledge at a global level?

In the US, MOOCs are seen as an inevitable future for higher education and it’s likely more and more options will be available to students not only in the US, but around the world.

MOOCs face a perception challenge in China as it’s widely perceived that a top-tier education is obtained at the Harvard’s or the Oxford’s of the world – in person. This is largely based on ‘brand’ reputation and the opportunities offered following graduation.

However, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the growth of Chinese study abroad students is expected to stall in the next 5 to 10 years due to “a combination of demographics, better options at home and rising concerns about safety abroad”.

Further examined in the article, many top-tier universities such as NYU, Duke, and even the Juilliard School are opening regional campuses to attract local students to advanced graduate courses.

It’s possible then, that MOOCs in China will not supplant the higher education (or take away valuable revenue) but instead could be offered as a compliment to a domestic education in China.

John L. Hennessy, the president of Stanford, recently wrote in an editorial (and highlighted in this New Yorker article) about the benefits of both online / offline education paths.

While the gold standard of small in-person classes led by great instructors will remain, online courses will be shown to be an effective learning environment, especially in comparison with large lecture-style courses.

The market is ripe for MOOCs in China. There’s a foundation of existing platforms, dedicated groups of individuals helping translate and communicate Western options in China and a large top-down focus from international and domestic universities.

But will Chinese students buy into this platform as an effective outlet for knowledge?

The answer is likely yes, but it will remain small and niche.


MOOCs offer an educational outlet for those who are forced or coerced into choosing a ‘safer’ major or career path – it’s a way for an individual to pursue an alternative passion. But many students are so bogged down in their line of studies, taking time to watch passion or interest-courses is not likely a viable option.

MOOCs offer a different perspective and information level that students in China might not have access to or be exposed to due to restraints or suppression on certain viewpoints of information. But this in itself poses a problem as this potentially places international universities at risk of alienating the Chinese government by communicating sensitive information.

Choosing to study abroad is just as much about the social and personal development as it is about pursuing a higher-quality education. This level of development cannot be replaced by a MOOC, thus it’s unlikely a Chinese parent will also see the value in allowing their child to invest all his or her time and energy into MOOC studies.

One of the largest potential barriers for MOOC adoption is that there’s a gap in the learning structure between MOOCs and the Chinese school system. For MOOCs to be successful, this requires a habitual and societal shift in how knowledge is pursued. Learning in the Chinese school system is often a passive pursuit with all energy spent learning to pass exams and get into college. And even in college, where obtaining knowledge for the sake of knowledge is encouraged in Western universities, Chinese students have long lost the motivation for learning and are now focused on an education that will best find them a job.

Based on my own experience so far with MOOCs, it’s obvious they’re never meant to replace the entire education process.

A MOOCs role will always be dependent on the amount of energy the MOOC user wants to put into it.

The success of MOOCs in China will only happen if the user-base creates enough demand for it to happen.

Otherwise, MOOCs don’t stand a chance in China.

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1 Comment

  1. Agree. Currently Chinese students focus on passing exams and not pursuing knowledge for the sake of learning. MOOC is a very good resource for accumulating knowledge but it does not give the credentials that makes up the core essence of education system in China. I foresee that MOOC will be a great supplement for niche hipsters who are western-focused but won’t appeal to the mass students and parents.

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