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China’s bid for world domination

China’s bid for world domination (a rather subtle, non-confrontational, non-fear inducing title) is a sign of the depth of global change in not just economics, but also education: “What defines a global “superpower”? In the past, it was the size of national armies or possession of nuclear weapons.
But now there is a more important (and peaceful) benchmark: the size and prestige of university systems…China is now the largest higher education system in the world: it awards more university degrees than the US and India combined.”


  1. So how does that speak to Sir Ken Robinson’s idea that degrees are relatively meaningless in a world where everyone has one? (See his TED talk.) I think he says that according to UNESCO, more people will become “educated” through tradional creds in the next 30 years than is all of previous history combined. Does that lessen the significance of this?

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  2. Hi Will…

    You raise a really good point…and pinpoint the source of the tension. I think Ken Robinson’s discussion on creativity – while very stirring to my educator soul – is an example of a viewpoint out running what is appearing in data/research.

    In terms of the “if everyone has one, it’s meaningless”, I’ll suggest oxygen as an example where everyone having it is not meaningless, but actually vital for each to have. I suspect the importance of formal accreditation (this, btw, may not occur through universities as we know them today. It may be through recognized peer-networks or even for-profit education providers) will continue to grow in prominence. A degree, after all, is simply a suggestion of competence. With global complex business climates, specialization will continue to be the trend. And formal education has long been about playing a specialized role in society.

    Another driving factor for education is degree-creep. A masters degree has been called the new bachelors. I know of numerous individuals well into their career – perhaps even at the end by traditional means – and are just now beginning a phd. In the last few months I’ve heard of numerous universities beginning to offer online phd programs in technology and education. Indications are strong that validation by degree will continue to grow as a means of reducing uncertainty for HR departments seeking to hire talent.

    And paradoxically, a knowledge economy requires more, not less, education. The recent ECAR report on undergraduate views on the use of technology highlighted high levels of learners (59%) desiring only moderate use of technology in courses. They prefer f2f contact with instructors (and presumably other learners). It leads me to the conclusion that we have partially misinterpreted what our learners want and need.

    Or, perhaps what is at stake is not the need for more education for a complex world…but rather that we are completely at odds with what that education will look like. We recognize the importance, but are unsure of how to achieve it through monumental challenges.

    I’m torn here. I advocate more informal approaches to learning…and yet every stat I’ve encountered in the last few years – from OECD, Carnegie, CCL, EDUCAUSE, etc. – suggests continued growth of higher education globally. In Canada, we are seeing a few provinces where enrollment is expected to decrease…and then others, such as Ontario, now considering building another major university to meet the forecasts of students seeking higher ed degrees.

    And yet, we have many – and I sit at least partly in this camp (though less so now than I have in the past) – stating that we learn more through informal means or through “just in time” learning. That may be the case in business environments, but this assumes we are first dealing with people who have some type of base in place in order to apply JIT learning. Plus, schooling/education has long been about more than simply producing employees. It’s also about producing people prepared to think about the complexities of society in a nuanced manner. It’s about transforming learners to embrace the future challenges of a world increasingly in turmoil. Just in time learning won’t do that. Deep learning offers more hope.

    I think of this often when I’m blogging, briefly interacting with a point of information and then moving on. Is that all that learning is today? No, obviously not. I need to take time occasionally and drink it in deeply. What do these changes mean? How are we to react? What is the implication of this piece of information? That type of understanding comes through conversation and reflection.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Great response that is making me think about a number of topics, but I find the next to last paragraph really interesting, George. And in there somewhere, I think, is a basis for a re-envisioning of what schools and teaching practice and even, dare I say it, degrees might be. JIT learning is possible now. We can learn on demand (with connections.) But, as you suggest, we need to contextualize or embed the literacies that go along with this new, on demand learning environment in the type of deep learning practice that we both want for our own kids. Are the two mutually exclusive? Right now, most curriculum doesn’t reflect the potential of the moment, yet our own practice, and in growing numbers, the practice of our kids is getting more steeped in those networked learning, on demand environments. (See my recent blog post on the 14 year old Korean boy who can text message without ever taking the phone out of his pocket.) Not to formalize “informal” learning, but isn’t it possible for us to “teach” our students how to think and learn deeply in other than traditional settings or programs? (Obvious ironies noted, btw…)

    Wednesday, November 28, 2007 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  4. Hi Will,

    No, I don’t think the two (formal and informal learning) are mutually exclusive. Lately, while trying to gain a sense of what’s happening and where we are going with education, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the current tension points will not resolve in the near future. By tension points, I’m referring to the whole sequence of events impacting education: open vs. closed, structure vs. unstructured, instructivist vs. constructivist, LMS vs. PLE, planned vs. unplanned, etc.

    We’re at a period of chaos, uncertainty, and complexity. And confusion is the result. Many ideologies (often embodied in technology) are at odds. Unfortunately, education – most strongly the K-12 sector – is the battle ground in which the ideologies are most in conflict. It is here that the social challenges, visions, idealism, and hope are expressed in policy. Social reformers – Spencer, Dewey, Freire, Illich – and recently special interest groups, seek to embed their messages in this system.

    The struggle is mainly about power – those who have it aren’t very eager to abandon it, and those who want it are rather motivated to continue. This mix of technological change, social reform, and power struggle set the stage for a protracted period of tumultuous change. To that end, I don’t think we’ll see very clear winners anytime soon.

    But hasn’t this always been the case? We see history as a point in time, even though it is a process. Many philosophers and visionaries do not see the fruits of their work in their lifetime. Often, it comes decades, even centuries later. History books create clear winners and losers. Reality doesn’t.

    What does this rambling have to do with our conversation? For myself, I need to rethink my expectation of how change will occur and what, if any, role I can play. I have my usual confused stance on this: 1) reform the existing system, 2) conceive and promote and entirely new system/approach/process. The former I try and do on a daily basis. The latter, I’m trying to still wrap my head around (and, from conversations we’ve had in the past, I’m guessing you’re still at this latter stage too!).

    In terms of deep-learning through weak connections (or fast-pace, or informal means), you are right about apparent ironies. Granovetter emphasized the importance of “weak ties” in finding work, etc. A loosely connected network has different attributes (and flows of information) than a densely connected network. Eric Beinhocker tackles the limitations of densely connected networks in Origin of Wealth…concluding that at a certain point, density is a detriment. To this end, weaker connections can bring in new ideas, information, approaches, and perspectives. But weaker connections are not prefaced on trust and established relationships/history. So we interact with nodes of weaker connections differently than strong connections.

    By way of a quick example. I follow numerous neuroscience blogs. I have a general idea of some of the key aspects of the field. I know a bit about brain architecture. And I’ve tried tackling texts and books related to neuroscience. But, I’m not fluent in this field. I have a growing understanding – fostered through my reading and blogs I follow. But I’m certainly not an expert. I use the key ideas I encounter to foster a deeper level of understanding how we should design classrooms, learning experiences, and the role of technology. But, I’m not able to function in the true spirit of the field and, if involved in a debate with someone who is an expert, I would quickly find my knowledge to be woefully inadequate. The weak ties I possess to the field are important in forming an understanding and awareness of issues related to the core of what I do in educational technology and advocating systemic reform and transformation.

    And that is the role of a weak tie – namely awareness. Strong ties, on the other hand foster deep understanding. To encounter important ideas and concepts without attendant conversation, dialogue, reflection, and criticism is to exist at a shallow level of understanding (this isn’t negative btw, we obviously can’t be experts in everything). To solve the big problems facing the upcoming generation, we need learners who possess weak connections to other fields of knowledge, but also have the capacity to think and understand deeply in their own field. I presented at a conference Robert Cailliau (co-invented the web with Berners-Lee, but didn’t hire as good a propagandist :) ) in Australia last year. And he presented Einsteins statement of “problems that we face can’t be solved at the same level of thinking we utilized when we created them” in an entirely new light. He suggested that the enormous problems of global warming, population, disease, etc. required advancement beyond where we are today. It required an entirely deeper level of understanding and perhaps even greater reliance on technology-augmented cognition. Does informal learning through blogs/wikis/podcasts/2L/etc play a role? Absolutely. A critical role. But these tools must also be used for strong-tie learning evidenced by deep reflection and thought, not only temporary interaction with information.

    Wednesday, November 28, 2007 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  5. Francis wrote:

    I am a bachelor degree holder from China. I’d comment from my own experience that the quality of higher education in China is far from the same level as other countries. It’s an unfortunate fact that it’s in fact a failure. Not only the higher education, it’s the whole educational system. A bit irony here, but you are using the quantity of the degrees to make inference about China’s educational power, maybe this is the disadvantage of weaktie? :)

    Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  6. and China is good business for all the UK universities, they spend millions on attracting Chinese students. Anyway I consider it very positive move by China to concentrate on education and even maybe trying to be an education super power.

    Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink