MOOCs on the Silk Road to China

Opinion | MOOCs

MOOCs on the Silk Road to China

The meaning of "open" gets tested as edX and Coursera go east

By Christina Quattrocchi     Oct 29, 2013

MOOCs on the Silk Road to China

The Middle Kingdom is the center of attention for MOOC providers Coursera and edX. Each announced its own plans--just days apart--to expand their platforms in China.

According to statistics provided by Coursera last year, the Chinese audience is the fourth largest consumer of its free online courses, behind the U.S., Brazil, and India. But expect China’s ranking to rise.

On October 7, Coursera announced a partnership with NetEase, a Chinese Internet company and distributor of open education content. The partnership marked the launch of the Coursera Zone, a Chinese-language portal designed to make Coursera's existing content accessible to the Chinese audience through the use of volunteer translators. NetEase will host the video content in order to improve the video quality for users based in China, who previously had to use a VPN to access content.

This isn’t Coursera’s first deal in China. A month earlier it added Peking University as a partner. Prior to that it had also worked with prominent universities in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

But not to be outdone, edX announced on October 10 a partnership with the Chinese government to provide China with its very own MOOC platform, XuetangX. The platform is independent from edX and will feature courses from a consortium of a dozen Chinese universities, including prestigious Tsinghua University and Peking University.

The first series of courses on XuetangX started launched October 17. As of now the site has over 16,000 registered users. So far, the most popular course is ‘Financial Analysis and Decision Making’ with more than 4,500 students signed up. Other offerings include “Antiques and Cultural China” and “Architectural History.”

As MOOCs attempt to capture a global audience, it naturally raises questions about censorship in countries, like China, where freedom of information is a contentious issue. Will economic courses on communism, socialism and capitalism require pre-approval from one of China’s two million Internet monitors? What will happen if a course features politically sensitive stories about Tiananmen Square or Tibet?

While edX’s locally controlled platform leaves them free from maneuvering around China’s internet censorship policies, Coursera’s position is less clear. Based on the way its partnership is set up, it seems most of the filtering could be done by NetEase, leaving Coursera free from dealing with such messy questions.

As these overseas partnerships continue to form, questions like these will surely test the meaning of “open” in massively open online courses.

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