Chinese Universities Turn To Tech Companies To Prep Their Students For The Real World

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As China’s tech scene continues to evolve at a rapid pace, Chinese universities struggle to prepare their students for the world outside of the classroom.

“We need to reduce the gap between the theories and concepts taught in class and the expectations and realities of the corporate world,” says Jianwei Jiang, the Vice Director of “the Office of MOOC” at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. “That’s why we have to take the knowledge and tools from the corporate world to prepare students for the future.”

Specifically, Shanghai Jiao Tong University wants MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that are designed by tech companies. On Thursday, IBM and Shanghai Jiao Tong University announced that the university’s online platform for free MOOCs,  CNMOOC (好大学在线), now features courses from IBM’s ‘Big Data University‘. IBM is CNMOOC’s first corporate partner and has contributed 22 courses on big data analytics topics, such as Hadoop, Spark, and data analysis with ‘R’, an open source programming language.

“In the past, all we did was computer science. Now, we need to learn about software development, because the way of working is totally different,” says Mr. Jiang. “You have to make sure that [your code] is usable, that your users won’t break your application.”

IBM’s courses follow Big Data University’s ‘5-5-5’ template: five lessons with five five-minute long videos each. In addition to course content, IBM has also launched a Chinese version of their ‘Data Scientist Workbench‘ platform, where students can use open source tools, like Python and R, without downloading any software. So far, not all of IBM’s Big Data University courses have been localized and translated into Mandarin.

IBM Big Data University’s “Accessing Hadoop Data Using Hive” course on CNMOOC.

Completing an IBM course results in a digital certificate, which CNMOOC hopes will give students a leg up during the job application process. At the very least, like other courses on CNMOOC,  IBM’s classes will count as school credit at the 66 universities currently partnered with the platform. These incentives are meant to keep students engaged, as MOOCs are notorious for high rates of attrition. In particular, big data analytics can require more patience on the student’s part than other tech topics, like app development. Leon Katsnelson, the Director and CTO of IBM Analytics Emerging Technologies, calls it “80% janitorial services – cleaning the data – [and] 20% analysis.”

In fact, most of Big Data University’s students aren’t university students, says Mr. Katsnelson. They’re IT professionals that want to pivot their career towards big data, such as former database administrators (DBAs) or IT professionals in the service industry. According to Mr. Katsnelson, Big Data University’s course completion rate is 40%, a high percentage that speaks to the professionalism of IBM’s students, not their discipline.

“When a student comes to take a course, the enthusiasm lasts for about fifteen minutes because then it becomes hard,” says Mr. Katsnelson. “If your boss says, ‘Hey, this is a great idea’, it’s a little harder for your interest to wane.”

That’s why tying CNMOOC to local curricula is essential, explains Mr. Jiang. “MOOCs are helpful, but they can’t replace the traditional classroom,” he says. Instead, local universities will use CNMOOC to revamp and supplement existing courses by integrating offline and online materials. That way, students not only benefit from face-to-face instruction and guidance, but they’ll also be held accountable for online coursework.

Though U.S-based MOOCs, such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity, have taken off, their Chinese counterparts have been less successful. In the past few years, domestic companies have received their fair share of limelight, like Uniquedu, which raised 300 million RMB (about $46.3 million USD) in 2015. However, a large number of Chinese students still opt for foreign MOOCs, some of which are actively targeting the Chinese market. In 2015, Coursera added Alipay as a payment option to its website, and on Sunday, Udacity announced the launch of “Youdaxue” (优达学), its Chinese equivalent.

Still, Chinese MOOCs have a unique advantage over foreign companies when it comes to integrating online courses with local schools and their curricula.

“Teachers can’t force students to take classes on foreign MOOCs,” explains Mr. Jiang. “There can be educational content on there that conflicts with our [political] system.”

Launched in 2014, CNMOOC is Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s initiative to open educational resources from China’s top universities to students all over the country. Other Chinese universities have created their own MOOC platforms as well, such as Tsinghua University’s Xuetangx (学堂在线), which is powered by U.S-based edX’s open source platform.

China’s Ministry of Education has treated the country’s MOOC movement with both support and caution, as MOOCs are another form of content that require supervision and monitoring. In 2015, the Ministry of Education announced that it would set up an inspection system to prevent “harmful information” from being disseminated by domestic MOOCs.

Update (4/22/16 15:41): This post was updated to clarify Leon Katsnelson’s position at IBM.