Beijing—Fun-Den Wang, an emeritus professor and retired businessman, just wants to give away course materials—specifically, to translate the free courses offered by MIT and other universities in the United States into Chinese, and make them freely available online. But the Chinese-American professor has faced obstacles at every turn, and now the open-education group he started is facing its toughest challenge yet, as it tries to stay afloat once its grant money ends a few months from now.
Mr. Wang has a plan though—but like many things in China, it takes a bit of explaining.
Back in 2003, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced its ambitious project to give away all of its course materials online, Mr. Wang decided he wanted to help bring the lecture recordings to a Chinese audience. At the time, he and his wife were already running a small scholarship program in China, so he used his contacts to help organize a meeting of Chinese university leaders, MIT officials, and representatives of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
“At that time, China was expanding their universities at a very fast rate,” he told me. “This was a window to Western education.”
The meeting led to the creation of China Open Resources for Education, or CORE, which brings together 26 colleges and universities in China that are producing free course materials. CORE also manages a group of students and other volunteers to translate courses from MIT and other Western colleges into Chinese.
CORE won a grant from Hewlett, which has been its major source of income. But that grant is now coming to an end.
Because Mr Wang lives in America, where he is an emeritus professor at the Colorado School of Mines, he’s considered a foreigner in his native China—and that has made things difficult for the group. The professor says that the Chinese government is reluctant to give licenses to foreign NGO’s, so CORE eventually decided to register as a corporation instead.
So this organization devoted to free educational materials has found itself selling things. CORE is about to offer services around the free lectures, such as newsletters or supplementary materials that it creates. “The open courseware is free, anybody can see it, anybody can use it same as before,” said Mr. Wang, over lunch here last week. “But for the service-added activity, we’ll have to charge.”
The site will also ask visitors to pay an optional membership fee to support the organization. Mr. Wang said that the course materials offered through CORE now get about 10 million page views per year, so if even a small percentage of visitors pitch in, that might be enough to continue to pay the group’s small staff and operating costs.
What if that doesn’t work? Mr. Wang said he has a Plan B in mind. And a Plan C, if that fails. But the professor wouldn’t elaborate.
Over dessert, I asked whether he had any advice for foreign colleges hoping to set up operations in China.
“One thing is to establish long-term relationships and not expect to just come here to set up,” he said. “You need a lot of local help.”
“I had quite a few years relationship before CORE,” he added. “That’s why CORE happened.”
And even those connections are no guarantee, so it’s probably good to have a Plan B.