How an Elite Chinese College Is Making Class Interesting Again
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2017-09-07 03:21:30

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.

Classes that do not emphasize student participation tend to produce lackluster results and a general atmosphere of boredom that suffuses the lecture hall.

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.

In the past, students completed their compulsory ideology and politics courses by cramming at the last minute and forgetting what they’d studied the moment they left the exam hall. But the reform has made these courses more meaningful and relevant. For example, the new teaching model has considerably improved students’ sense of discipline, their independent learning and research skills, and their motivation and engagement in the classroom.

Follow-up questionnaires also revealed that students in blended courses put more effort into studying after class than their peers in traditional courses. On average, blended learners spent about an hour and 45 minutes per week engaging in independent, self-motivated study and a further 45 minutes on group study — significantly longer than traditional learners, who only spent an average of 56 minutes and 15 minutes, respectively, on each type of study.

Finally, our results demonstrated that traditional learners placed greater emphasis on revisiting concepts that they had already studied, while blended learners more enthusiastically sought out new knowledge. Meanwhile, as blended courses gave students fewer opportunities to receive face-to-face instruction, attendees were more willing to learn from their classmates as a means of staying up to speed. This, in turn, encouraged more independent, in-depth study as opposed to the passive, superficial study methods to which they were accustomed.

Yet although the reform has successfully raised the quality of students’ learning experiences, Fudan’s blended learning classes still have room for improvement. Student feedback on blended classes showed that overall satisfaction was highly dependent on who was teaching them. There was enormous variance in the extent to which students accepted the new teaching model, and many had to overhaul their study methods — an uncomfortable task that cannot be done overnight.

Many of the online components of blended courses still lack adequate interactive content and communication tools. In addition, the revamped classroom format — perhaps the most crucial element of the reform — has produced varied results, as certain teachers have little experience with organizing discussions and encouraging student participation.

Fudan has succeeded in maintaining 25 blended classes with an average of 30 participants each, but teachers and their assistants must take on an onerous workload to keep the content diversified and engaging, all while adapting their deep-seated teaching methods. This drain on human resources, funding, and time may yet prove an impediment to the continued development and promotion of blended learning.

Over the coming years, Fudan will continue to push forward the blended learning reform, for example through creating online components for many of the school’s general knowledge classes. But even as we broaden its implementation, we must not lose sight of the need to improve the quality and efficiency of blended learning. To compete strongly with elite overseas universities, we must make blended learning part of a systematic, institutionalized policy and ensure that our students are riveted to their classroom blackboards, not to their smartphones.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

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