Skip to content

A few thoughts on China and education

I just landed in Vancouver after a short trip to Shanghai to present at the IADIS conference hosted by East China Normal University. One of the faculty members (Ren Youqun, I believe) from this university translated Knowing Knowledge into Chinese. This is my second trip in the last three weeks – I was in Guangzhou at the end of November visiting South China Normal University and Sun Yatsen University. So, other than being rather irritable and jet lagged, I have a few quick reactions to share about my experiences in Guangzhou and Shanghai.

1. I’ve never been in a country with the optimism I found in China – the students I spoke with had a strong sense of China coming into its own. We are entering Chinese century (or several). By 2020, their economy (gdp) is expected to be about $20 trillion annually. This forecast seems to vary a fair bit, depending on how much the speaker or organization is trying to scare listeners with the west to east power shift. The faculty, students, and government officials that I spoke with are well aware that they are entering their destiny as a superpower. I met a few western researchers – who have worked in China for over a decade – and they described how China is becoming more assertive with partnerships and joint ventures. China is not willing to simply have their students poached by higher education systems around the world. China is experiencing rapid growth in the numbers of international students studying for a degree (rather than only spending a year for the “Chinese experience”).

2. My hosts were exceptionally courteous. I spoke at a K-12 conference in Nanhai District (just outside of Guangzhou). The program to kick off the conference included about 1 1/2 hours of greetings from various levels of government. Dinners and lunches included a stream of dishes that I simply couldn’t keep up with. The key, apparently, is to taste, not eat everything. Chinese visitors to other countries must feel like we’re a bunch of slouches – we simply don’t honour our guests the way they do.

3. The construction is astonishing. So is the smog. I’ve seen documentaries and read articles about both, but until you experience it in person, it’s not real. The construction in particular is mind boggling. Roads, buildings, railways, and airports are being built on a scale that I don’t think has ever happened in human history.

4. Social spaces are impressive. In Guangzhou, my hosts took me down to the Pearl River late one evening. The walkway and park areas were packed – people were dancing, performing, singing, or just randomly hanging out. The energy was contagious. I felt the urge to take up Thai Chi. Or singing. Or something artistic and social.

5. The internet in China is unusable. At least for me. Diigo didn’t work. Gmail was hit and miss. Twitter didn’t work. Niether did Facebook (but that’s not a loss for me, I’m rarely there anymore). My daily information habits (google reader, tag in diigo, tweet, etc) simply didn’t work. I do a fair bit of traveling and I’ve never felt as disconnected as I did in China. However, this doesn’t mean that they don’t use twitter-like tools. I came across this presentation – Social Media In China – that provides a good overview of the tools and technologies available. I’m starting to think that China blocks services less for censorship and more for giving their software companies an opportunity to gain traction.

6. I should learn Mandarin. So should my kids.

7. As polite, courteous, and attentive as my hosts were, they work their speakers like rented mules :) . Their culture is very much one of learning and wanting to glean what they can from others. The passion for learning is something I haven’t experienced as intensely elsewhere as I did in China. The day would start with a breakfast meeting, followed by two hour presentations, working lunch, afternoon sessions, travel to evening presentation, social dinner, presentations until late in the evening. At least this was the pace in Guangzhou. I’m told Shanghai has a less hectic pace. I was disoriented most of the time – English road signs are common – but I really was at the mercy of my hosts. There is very little I could do on my own. In Europe, I can get by with English. In China, I very rapidly discovered I needed translators. I couldn’t order a coffee (tea) or beverage on my own. Even hand gestures were futile. It’s quite a fatiquing process.

Finally, a few quick notes from the IADIS conference, particularly Prof Gao Hong Qing: Dean of Network Center, He Nan Normal University, China. He spoke on the topic of Cloud computing in China Education

Internet Stats in China:
457 million online
34.4% penetration
Over 300 million mobile internet users
73 million new users in last year alone (2009 to 2010)
78% access internet via desktop
66.2% mobile
45.7% laptop (but fastest growing segment (2010)
Time online: 18.3 hours per week (2010). Slight decrease from 2009.
Ages 10-29 largest users of internet

Learning online:
Growing rapidly (no stats given)
Open University of China – largest online university in the world
Modern distance education project in rural primary/secondary schools (all classrooms can connect to the internet).
Currently 2429 university/colleges linked to china education and research network. 64, 797 middle/primary schools.
IT needs to help universities address their “business challenges” of doing more with less, reduced risk, etc.
Cloud computing in China: 660 million yuan ($103 million) has been allocated for cloud computing research

The prominence of US-based tech firms was significant: Microsoft has a huge footprint. As does Cisco. The language of the presentations (especially on cloud computing) was indistinguishable from what I hear at western conferences.


  1. I am an e-learning professional like yourself and made my first trip to China in February of this year. My wife is Chinese and we were mostly in the Hong Kong/Shenzhen area in SE China with a one week excursion in western China. I just wanted to echo your comments about how optimistic, generous and courteous the people were. The construction is unbelievable, business is expanding at a dizzying rate, and this WILL BE the century of the Asian continent (and China in particular). These days, English is still the language of the world, but a hundred years from now, it could well be Mandarin!

    Sunday, December 11, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Permalink
  2. xiulizhuang wrote:

    Hi,George, so glad to hear you had a trip to China, hope you have chance to visit China again, i have been your blog reader for several years, almost ten years . i am from Beijing China. hope next time have chance to meet you and Stephen Downes. hope you keep in touch with the readers from China:)

    Monday, December 12, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  3. kevin huang wrote:

    Dear,George,thank you for your wonderful speech in SCNU,and hope you have a chance to visit China again,i am the student who ask a lot of questions during your speech in SCNU.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 5:19 am | Permalink