Distance Education

UMass Touts New Online Courses for China, but Official Approval May Not Come Easily

April 04, 2008

In a splashy announcement this week, the University of Massachusetts extended an online hand to China. The institution announced that it will offer 40 online courses to students in China in the spring of 2009.

The university has some hurdles to clear first, though. The program hasn't actually been approved by China's increasingly cautious Ministry of Education, and college officials who have been through the ministry-approval process before say UMass probably has a long and bumpy road ahead.

There is high demand for officially sanctioned foreign higher education these days in China, as degrees are often required for plum jobs in state-owned or multinational companies. Many foreign universities have opened up shop in China, building their own campuses or sharing space with Chinese universities, and a few have ventured into online territory.

However, China's Ministry of Education has been slowing down approvals of foreign higher-education programs over the last couple of years in response to concerns about quality and cost (The Chronicle, July 26, 2007). The Stevens Institute of Technology, which offers blended courses in China, waited just six months to receive official blessings when it applied for its first three programs in 2002. But the college has been waiting over two years for approval of an additional program, according to Robert Ubell, executive director of Stevens's Institute for the Advanced Study of Online Learning and Professional Education.

Mr. Ubell said UMass may face additional speed bumps because the education ministry is often skeptical of online curricula and may also frown upon the fact that UMass is not forming a partnership with a Chinese sister college. UMass is officially working with only China's Continuing Education Association and the CerEdu Corporation (an education and research computer network in China), though UMass officials say it also has a "strong relationship" with prestigious Tsinghua University.

"This would be a triumph over history if they got ministry approval," Mr. Ubell said.

College leaders who have been through the ministry's approval process say UMass may be overly optimistic because ministry hosts are always so gracious.

Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, said that after his institution's first meeting with Chinese ministry officials, "we walked away thinking we nailed it. Then nothing happens, and we didn't know why," he said. "They don't want you to lose face. They don't want to insult the work you've done." After several meetings over a period of about two years, the university finally received approval for online MBA courses, set to begin this fall.

David J. Gray, chief executive of UMass's distance-education unit, UMassOnline, said the institution will select courses from its pre-existing catalog to submit for official vetting and recognition by the education ministry. These courses will probably be marketed for spring 2009 enrollment even if the university is still seeking ministry approval, Mr. Gray said. (Any of UMassOnline's 1,500 courses can already be taken by students in China, but the course credits are not officially recognized by the Chinese government.)

UMassOnline will seek approval for courses that are part of four certificate programs and one master's degree. The master's program is already chosen: a degree in instructional design, which will, appropriately, be an online course program for how to create other online course programs.

Courses in the other programs will be decided based on a survey of 6,000 Chinese, Mr. Gray said. UMassOnline and its Chinese partners will then select courses based on survey respondents' demand.

UMass will not change the content of the online courses, which are all in English. Mr. Gray said he hasn't broached the subject of censorship of these courses with Chinese officials, who are notorious for putting politically sensitive online information—including video streaming—behind the Great Firewall of China, as the country's barrier to certain Web sites is known by critics. Other American college leaders who have received ministry approval said censorship has never overtly come up, partly because foreign programs usually cover practical subjects such as math, engineering, and business.

At least one UMass professor, however, is hoping a sensitive subject he teaches will make the official catalog. "I think journalism and public relations," Art Clifford, an online journalism lecturer, said, "will follow that practical bent that they really need right now."