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Universities can boost China's soft power

This week, after many months of preparation, two of China's leading educational institutions, Peking University (Beida) and Tsinghua University, joined the Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-created EdX online educational consortium, by providing six courses available online for free. China now has officially entered the movement known as the Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOC.

The jury is still very much out on whether or not MOOC will be the predominant education model of the computer-centric 21st century. However, even if it is just the latest fad in education, there are many immediate benefits to China and its soft-power profile, as well as to Beida and Tsinghua in joining EdX.

Seeing is believing. Many people believe that Chinese education is all about rote memorising, and not about teaching critical thinking and creativity.

Now these Doubting Thomases will be able to observe firsthand the best of what the Chinese educational system has to offer albeit only if they know Chinese, as the courses will be in Chinese at first, with English and other languages to come later - so they can make their own personal judgments unfiltered by prejudiced pundits.

Competition is good. It should make the Chinese universities even stronger in competing with their EdX educational peers. While it seems every Chinese student is competing for a university place from their very first breath, maybe even before that - some parents play Mozart to their unborn child in the womb hoping to profit from the Mozart effect that posits that this music helps children become higher achievers and helps wire brain connections earlier and better - Beida and Tsinghua domestically are the new plus ultra.

Until now, they only competed with themselves. Now they are competing internationally with the likes of Harvard, MIT and Berkley. Even as they are forced to compete with Harvard and the others, Beida and Tsinghua will also benefit from rubbing electronic shoulders with their high level peers. Gaining admission to an MOOC consortium like EdX is like a Chinese student passing the national college entrance exam and getting into Beida or Tsinghua.

It puts these universities on the same lofty pedestal and gives them a platform to promote themselves, while at the same time enhancing China's soft power by making millions of people, many of whom are blissfully unaware of them, take notice of not only these two institutions, but also of China's rise - one star professor and one course at a time.

There is no business like show business. Assuming that the Chinese universities can match or outshine the other universities with their offerings on the platform, EdX can serve as a marketing and public relations tool. This is not only true for foreign students who might never have considered applying for admission to them, but for potential visiting scholars as well.

Done correctly it may help promote a better balance to the outflow of Chinese students going to the United States and other countries for their higher education, and the comparatively fewer foreign students who come to study in China.

The Confucius Institutes, now numbering more than 400 in more than 90 countries, have been one of China's best soft power investments, but they are not in the same league as Beida, Tsinghua or the other EdX institutions.

Moreover, they emphasise personal attendance so they exclude many people who are curious or interested in Chinese culture. MOOC offers an excellent opportunity to promote Chinese culture at a high level and in a depth not previously available.

And this has the added benefit of cross-promoting the work of the Confucius Institutes for those who desire in-person course work as a result of their EdX participation.

With Beida and Tsinghua courses on the EdX MOOC platform, they are in many ways now competing with the Ivy League. No matter what the future of the MOOC concept is, this will be a win-win for all stakeholders, and provide a significant boost to China's soft power efforts.


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