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Friday, September 08, 2017

How an Elite Chinese College Is Making Class Interesting Again | Sixth Tone - education

Photo: Ding Yan
"Shanghai’s Fudan University is pushing a policy of ‘blended learning’ to get students off their smartphones and engaging with their lectures" according to Ding Yan, deputy head of Fudan University’s Faculty Development Center and an associate professor at the university’s Research Institute for Higher Education.

Students use their laptops at a university library in Qingdao, Shandong province, April 22, 2014.
Photo: Liu Jishun/VCG)

Recent years have seen serious doubts arise as to the efficiency of traditional teaching practices in Chinese universities. Back in 2014, my team and I observed students in a political ideology class at Shanghai’s Fudan University. We discovered that, during class, there was always a significant number of so-called screen addicts hunched over their phones, browsing products on e-commerce site Taobao, texting friends on messaging app WeChat, and generally not paying attention in class. Using behavioral analysis, we were able to ascertain that about half of all students were screen addicts.

In comparison to students at American research universities, Chinese students spend more time in class, but they participate much less actively. Classes that do not emphasize student participation tend to produce lackluster results, both in terms of the students’ grades and the general atmosphere of boredom that suffuses the lecture hall.
In the last few years, we have also seen the emerging popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs) — web-based lessons that theoretically allow open access and unlimited student participation. Many of these are run by engaging teachers based at reputable foreign institutions: “Learning How to Learn,” a MOOC hosted on the website Coursera in partnership with the University of California, San Diego, is taught by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski, two renowned professors from U.S.-based Oakland University and Salk Institute for Biological Studies, respectively. To date, the course has garnered over 1 million enrollees.


Chinese universities have realized the vast potential of MOOCs to foster interest in courses and boost enrollment. As a result, they have entered into fierce competition with leading universities around the globe that run their own MOOCs. Their challenge for Chinese institutions, however, is making their classes engaging enough.

Since 2013, China’s leading universities have implemented a “blended learning” reform that seeks to combine online and offline education. By March 2016, Fudan already had about 30 such classes on offer, with attendance totaling around 8,000 students. Under this system, students first independently complete their chosen course’s online content. Then, during on-campus classes, teachers no longer merely stand at the front of the class and tell their students what to think; instead, they use interactive teaching methods and encourage open discussion to help students develop a genuine understanding of key concepts.

But how effective is blended learning? Let’s take the abovementioned class on political ideology as an example. Before my colleagues and I conducted our study, Fudan allowed students to choose between blended and traditional teaching methods. For the spring 2014 term, about 500 students chose the former, while close to 400 chose the latter.

At the end of the term, we found that the students who had taken the blended course achieved significantly better results than those who had done the traditional course: Nearly 40 percent of blended learners earned an academic distinction, compared to 32 percent in the traditional course. While the discrepancy may not seem high, the number of students who stood to benefit if blended learning was rolled out university-wide was significant indeed.
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Source: Sixth Tone


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