Distance Education Opens Minds

Despite the Chinese government's commitment to education, "education for all" seemed an unreachable goal for the world's most populous country a decade ago. For millions of people living in remote, mountainous and poverty-stricken areas, even if there are schools to go to, there are no qualified teachers to give them a proper education.

Now the mission impossible has become technologically possible and the government has come closer to realization of its goal of education for all.

The miracle worker is distance education via the Internet.

Deemed as vital to building the country's education system for life-long learning in the 21st century, distance education via the Internet first caught the Chinese government's attention in 1994.

To provide an Internet infrastructure for distance education, the government began to invest in the construction of the China Education and Research Network (CERNET), one of the four national computer networks approved by the State Council. That was the beginning of the construction of a high speed transmission platform for distance education in China.

Now CERNET has 36 bytes linking 700 universities and research institutes in 70 cities. More than 200,000 servers are available on 3 million terminals nationwide. By the end of this year, most provinces and cities in the country will open high-speed transmission networks to link up with CERNET.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Educational TV network (CETV) is busily engaged in technological renovations. When the renovation is finished, hopefully by the end of October, CETV's satellite digital transmission platform will have dozens of digital channels, including eight VBI-IP channels and eight IP channels directly linked to the Internet.

Nicknamed the Airnet (the satellite TV network) and the Landnet (the computer network), CETV and CERNET will form a basic multi-functional platform for distance education in China, just as the government projected in early 1999 in the Plan to Revitalize the Nation with Science and Education in the 21st Century, which was initiated by the Ministry of Education. The central government earmarked nearly 10 billion yuan (US$1.2 billion) for the initiative to restructure the country's educational system.

The government has been promoting distance education because it feels that this method best suits the situation in China, according to Zhang Li, director of the China National Research Institute of Educational Development.

"As a developing country, teaching resources and school conditions in China are far from meeting the educational needs of the Chinese people," Zhang said.

"Distance education, characterized by computer networks and multi-media technologies, can provide educational services to all members of society by transcending time and space limitations that have been plaguing conventional education for years."

Due to inadequate resources and time and space limitations, several million high school graduates are denied college education each year and there are over 30 million adult illiterates in the country, said Wang Zhuzhu, an official with the Educational Technology Office of the Ministry of Education.

"But with distance education networks that take advantage of satellites, optical cables, TV and all kinds of two-way electronic communication technologies, things can be quite different," she said.

College education, for instance, will be available on the Internet, which will mean that universities do not have to provide accommodation for online students.

In September 1998, the Ministry of Education launched a pilot project to experiment with distance college education, said Wang.

Four universities (Tsinghua University, Beijing Communications University, Zhejiang University and Hunan University) were chosen to carry out distance education through computer networks. Early this year, Peking University was included as well.

The trial universities were quick to learn. Tsinghua enrolled 1,740 Internet postgraduate students in business administration, computer technology and civil and business law in 1999.

This year the prestigious university began to teach students over the Internet in 20 provinces and major cities. Zhejiang University enrolled nearly 3,000 Internet undergraduate students and 420 postgraduate students in computer, English literature and business administration courses in 1998 and 1999.

Hunan University not only enrolled 3,500 Internet students in computer and English literature courses, but began to teach its undergraduates on campus online.

At lower levels, Wang said, more than 800,000 computers have been installed in 70,000 primary and secondary schools. Over 10 million primary and secondary school students have learnt how to use computers to go online.

Wei Yu, vice-minister of education, pointed out in April that distance education has great potential in universalizing education and making it a life-long thing.

The rapid growth in the number of Internet surfers in China supports her view.

By the end of 1999, the number of Chinese Internet users increased to 8.9 million from 620,000 in October, 1997. By the end of the first quarter of this year, the number had jumped to 10 million and it is expected to reach 20 million by 2003.

To help them catch up with the developed areas, the Ministry of Education has allocated 80 million yuan (US$9.6 million) this year to the country's disadvantaged remote western regions to launch distance education projects.

In an effort to speed up basic education in these areas, the central government has invested 2.4 billion yuan (US$289 million) in the past three years.

While some people worry that distance education would reduce person-to-person interaction and therefore affect the cultivation of moral concepts and social ethics, the Chinese government is determined to make distance education a key component of its education plan for the 21st century.

The initial aim is to build a modern distance education system in China by 2010.

Many people support this government policy, as is shown by a survey of 100 education experts and 2,000 city dwellers in 60 cities. The survey, conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences early this year, shows that most people believe online education will play an increasingly important role in China's education.

(China Daily 10/30/2000)

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