The Experiment of Tertiary Online Education in China:
Geographic Dispersion in China’s Mainland
Name of Province
Number of Approved Universities
Central & South
From the information in Table 1, it is obvious that the piloting online education institutes are geographically dispersed all across the Chinese Mainland.
Tertiary online education in China has seen a rapid growth. By the middle of 2004, more than 3,000,000 students were registered by the 68 tertiary online organizations, accounting for around 10% of the overall tertiary student population. The online institutes offered degree programmes at diploma, graduate, and post graduate levels, covering 153 majors in 10 disciplines. More than 6,000 local study centres were set up, among which 3,600 provided local support for the 67 online institutes and 2800 were affiliated with CCRTVU (Liu, 2005).
According to Zhang (2004), the growth of tertiary online education can be summarized as in Table 2-3 and Figures 1-2 below.
Overall yearly growth rate
Yearly growth rate
Yearly growth rate
Overall yearly grow rate
Yearly growth rate
Yearly growth rate
By comparing growth of enrolment and graduate numbers, it is discovered that CCRTVU admitted double the total enrolment of its 67 domestic counterparts by 2003 and graduated 7 times more students than from 67 online institutes in the same period. It is even more alarming that only the year of 2000 saw an explosion of student admission six times larger than that of 1999. The online institutes experienced a two-year over-heated expansion reaching a peak of enrolment 8.76 times bigger than that of 2001. The yearly growth rates for both the enrolment and the graduation were breathtaking. Taking the year of 2002, the overall growth rate was 60 times larger than that of 2001. CCRTVU alone mass produced more than 30,000 graduates in 2002. It was a nightmare given the fact that 2002 was the first year for CCRTVU to have graduates of online education. The outcomes, as can be envisaged, were multi-fold. Both the public opinion and the MoE policy demanded an instant slow-down for tertiary online education in China as the explosive expansion of tertiary online education was considered to have the tendency of bringing more harm than good to Chinese tertiary education in general.
China has built up the infrastructure, so-called “highways both in the sky and under the ground”, for modern distance education. CERNET (The China Education and Research Network) - - “the underground highway” was initiated in 1994 and has developed into an operative education network consisting of three tiers: a national level backbone network, local area networks (LANs) and campus intranets. On March 19, 2004, a CERNET 2 pilot project was officially launched in China, connecting dozens of universities in major cities (Li, 2004a; 弘成科技, December 29, 2004). With the help of adopting IPv6 protocol, CERNET 2 enjoys the transmission speed 1000 times faster than that of CERNET 1. Other promises CERNET 2 brings are its enormous space for storage, higher level of security, better quality of synchronous communication, and more convenience for end users. 2006 was the official start of the application phase for CERNET 2. CEBSat (China Education Network with Satellite) - “the over sky highway” plays its effective role by delivering courses via satellites. Among the 68 tertiary online organizations in China, some are still using satellites as the main means of communication. With the development of the Internet technology, more online institutes and organizations opt for the Web choice. The integration of CERNET and CEBSat, can serve as a good platform (MOE, 2004f), at least taken its face validity, for developing modern distance education in China
The Environment for development
Macro environment for tertiary online education in China
Tertiary online education weathered mixed attitudes and responses in China at both macro and micro levels. Compared with classroom-based education, online education, as a new-born baby, needs a more nurturing and regulated environment for healthy growth.
Generally speaking, tertiary online education in China experiences a change of perception by the general public, the home universities, or even the MoE from being “apple of the eye” (1998-2001) to “a monster” (2002-2004) to “a hot potato” (2005 onwards). The following sections analyse the macro environment for tertiary online education in China from the governmental, social, and financial perspectives.
Conceptually, Chinese government regarded online education at the outset as a panacea which could increase access to higher education for the general public, upgrade the educational level of the people, and achieve lifelong learning objectives. Given this understanding, China MoE set up an office of tertiary modern distance education to guide and supervise the development of online education.
As a new and under-researched mode, online education enjoyed a moment of being worshipped in China due to the lack of understanding of what it was really about. People wishfully believed that online education was the solution to realising their college dream. Chinese culture has highly valued education for centuries. However, only 21% of the population could have access to tertiary education due to limited resources. Without a rigorous validation and accreditation system, China MoE rushed to make a big campaign for piloting online education. Table 4 captures the growth path of the accreditation work (R. X. Zhang, 2004).
Table 4 depicts the sky-rocketing growth of online institutes during 1999-2002 when 67 universities were given the green light from the MoE. However, 2003 saw a full stop of the accreditation by only adding one more school to the list. Since then, the “honeymoon period” with online education was over. It is worth noting here that the explosive expansion of online education during this period had a national impact both geographically and educationally. All online institutes had their national network across China, collaborating with various organizations and schools. Any event concerning one online institute was not single or stand-alone. It had repercussions nation-wide.
Year of accreditation
Number of pilot universities
Number of local study centres (cumulative)
Following the “honeymoon period” was the “ice age” when many regulations were issued by the MoE to put out the “fire”. The regulations and documents released by China MoE can offer a lens to the ups and downs of the eventful growth of the “new born baby”. Below is a list of the most important documentations of China MoE since 1998:
the document on setting up a national committee overseeing the overarching design of modern distance education [关于聘请童铠等21名同志为教育部现代远程教育规划专家组成员的通知 教电函［１９９８］５号] (1998年6月25日) (MoE, 1998)
the document on setting up a national committee overseeing resources development for modern distance education [关于成立教育部现代远程教育资源建设委员会和教育部现代远程教育资源建设专家组的通知 教高［1999］6号] (1999年9月15日) (MoE, 1999)
the document on supporting the pilot of modern distance education at some universities [关于支持若干所高等学校建设网络教育学院开展现代远程教育试点工作的几点意见] A(MoE, 2000)
the document on initiating the project of an accreditation system for modern distance education [关于启动网络教育认证制度研究与实践项目的通知 教高司函132号] (MoE, 2001a)
the document on an urgent call for regulating enrolment of modern distance learners [教育部办公厅关于加强现代远程教育招生工作管理的紧急通知 教高厅〔2001〕9号] (MoE, 2001b)
the document on the guidelines for establishing local study centres for modern distance education [教育部办公厅关于印发《关于现代远程教育校外学习中心（点）建设和管理的原则意见》（试行）的通知, 教高厅〔2002〕1号] (MoE, 2002a)
the document on regulating tertiary distance learning organizations and enhancing quality control of online education [教育部关于加强高校网络教育学院管理, 提高教学质量的若干意见, 教高 8号] (MoE, 2002b)
the document on the list of the licensed universities piloting modern distance education [经教育部批准的67所现代远程教育试点学校名单] (MoE, 2002c)
the document on the guidelines for regulating local study centres of modern distance education [教育部办公厅关于印发《现代远程教育校外学习中心（点）暂行管理办法》的通知 教高厅2号] (MoE, 2003b)
the document on establishing the national association for online teacher education [教育部关于实施全国教师教育网络联盟计划的指导意见] (MoE, 2003c)
the document on approving of the establishment of Beijing Aupeng Distance Education Service Provider [关于同意申请注册"北京奥鹏远程教育中心"的批复 教高司函 35号] (MoE, 2003a)
the document on regulating admissions of distance education students in 2004 [关于做好2004年现代远程教育试点高校网络教育招生工作的通知] (MoE, 2004b)
the document on establishing the board of national examinations for modern distance education [教育部关于成立第一届全国高校网络教育考试委员会的通知 教高函10号] (MoE, 2004e)
the document on further regulation of electronic registration of distance education students [教育部办公厅关于进一步完善高等教育学历证书电子注册制度的通知 教学厅［2004］11号] (MoE, 2004c)
the document on implementing national examinations for modern distance education [教育部办公厅日前下发了对现代远程教育试点高校网络教育学生部分公共课实行全国统一考试的通知] (MoE, 2004d, March 2004)
the document on submitting self-examination report by all online institutes [教育部办公厅关于对现代远程教育试点高校网络教育学院开展2004年度、2005年度年报年检工作的通知] (MoE, 2005a)
the document on establishing the service providing system for modern distance education of CCRTVU [教育部办公厅关于建设中央广播电视大学现代远程教育公共服务体系的通知 教高厅2号] (MoE, 2005b)
the document on punishing some online institutes for their ill-practices [教育部关于部分现代远程教育试点高校违规办学问题的通报] (MoE, 2005c)
the document on the guidelines for organizing national examinations for modern distance education [全国高校网络教育考试委员会关于下发《试点高校网络教育部分公共基础课统一考试试点工作管理办法》的通知 网考委1号] (网考委, 2005)
the document on regulating admission of distance education students in 2006 [教育部关于做好2006年现代远程教育试点高校网络高等学历教育招生工作的通知] (MoE, 2006)
The attitude and policy shifts reflected in the documentations above ise summarized in Table 5.
Setting up Local Centres
Length of Study
All decisions could be made by the piloting institutes.
All decisions could be made by the piloting institutes.
All decisions could be made by the piloting institutes.
online students could not be taught on-campus full time.
all local study centres needed to be approved by the local government.
minimum length of study were set
The MoE prescription:
online students could not be taught on- campus full time.
all online students must pass national exams before graduation.
all piloting institutes could not open new local centres. Instead, they must use Aupeng system (affiliated with CCRTVU).
minimum length of study were set
From the above documentations, it can be inferred that China MoE dealt with online education soft-handedly at the very beginning without an integrated national plan, and then it was overwhelmed by and drowned in the sudden but unexpected happenings nation-wide due to the lack of an effective national regulating scheme. Since 2003, China began to prescribe many practices for the piloting organizations.
The upheavals of online education in China could be reflected through the cover stories of the Journal of Distance Education (the Information Edition) in China, a well-established journal on tertiary online education in China since its first issue in 2002.
The headline stories in Table 5 depict the eventful development of tertiary online education in China. Due to the lack of macro planning at the governmental level, tertiary online organizations in China experienced a “Warring States Period” (Ding, 2001) in the pilot phase. The manifestation is that each organization built up its own systems and there was little sharing among them in learning resources, platform design, credit transference, etc. To be more exact, there were 68 versions of modern distance education learning systems in China resulting from the lack of coordinated national approach. Confronted with the lack of national coordination, some online institutes initiated ideas of consortia and association. The first self-initiated consortium came into being on August 13th of 2004 when eight online institutes located in the south and east of China signed the Taihu Declaration. This historic moment made it possible within the consortium to increase sharing (Li, 2004b) in learning resources.
As a fairly new mode of learning/teaching, online education has been fighting an uphill battle in entering the mainstream in China. It still has a long march to make. Quality and the nature of the certification it grants to students have been the major concerns of the general public and employers. As with many other foreign counterparts, China MoE categorizes higher education at three levels: diploma, graduate, and post-graduate (master and doctoral) (MoE, 2005d). A certificate/degree can be granted upon successful completion of any level of the programmes. However, the certificates and the degree vary significantly in nature. Table 7 is an overview of the certificates and degrees of higher education in China.
Cover Story in China
Quality of Online Education
The Commercial Side of Online Education
A New Beginning
Embracing the Learning Society
Facing the Challenges
The SARS Test
Looking for a Role Model
A Year of Transition for Online Education
Getting Ready for Changes?
Foreign Education Providers Coming to China
Returning to Reason
In the Year of Readjustment
The First Consortium
The 25th Anniversary of CCRTVU
The Challenge of Integration
Making Changes in 2004
Quality Control Initiatives
A Survey Report on Local Centres
Online Education for Farming Areas
Partnering with Business
Looking for a Breakthrough
At the very beginning of the pilot, most of the online organizations granted the Certificate/Degree for General Higher Education, viz. the most prestigious among the three types above. Confronted with the doubts, complaints, and pressure from all levels regarding the quality of online education, most of the piloting universities changed to grant the Certificate/Degree for Adult Higher Education. With more and more online institutions decided to award the Certificate/Degree for Adult Higher Education to e-learners, online education has become a less attractive learning mode for the general public.
Type of Certificates/Degrees
Weight of Certificate/Degree by Public Opinion
Certificate/Degree for General Higher Education
students who passed the national college entrance examinations upon graduating from middles schools and successfully completed required course of study at university/college
Certificate/Degree for Adult Higher Education
students (a certain proportion are working students) who passed the national college entrance examinations for adults and successfully completed required course of study at university/college
Certificate/Degree for Higher Education
students (a certain proportion are working students) who passed the national examinations for required self-study courses
External funding was allowed to be introduced to tertiary online education in China. Investors, both foreign and domestic, could partner with the piloting universities by jointly setting up online institutes within the universities. By August 2004, a total of RMB1,840,000,000 as external funds was invested in tertiary online education (R. X. Zhang, 2004) and the total revenue generated reached RMB12,300,000,000 in the same year (iResearch, 2004), making it an attractive business for investors. Among the 68 tertiary online organizations, two business models emerged: “joint funding” (usually with domestic technological companies) and “sole funding”. The first type is the predominant form of the funding structure in China (R. X. Zhang, 2004).
Among the 68 tertiary online organizations, it was always likely that these institutes would be seen as mere revenue generators by their home universities. Given this prescribed role, some online institutes often found themselves sidelined, battling for university resources, long-term development policies, and more in-depth strategic plan within the university; in contrast, some other institutes even did not bother to consider strategic planning with all their resources devoted to short-term gains, viz. generating revenue for the university. The “second-class and non-mainstream” status of the online institutes within their universities hindered a strategic and long-term development of this new educational mode, thus harming its future growth in China.
Tertiary online education in China has made tremendous strides. The deputy minister of China MoE described the progress in this way (Wu, 2005):
Modern distance education has invigorated the reform of higher education in China. In the pilot phase, the online institutes have made innovative achievement in educational rationales, system construction, technology application, administration model exploration, service provision, quality assurance, resources development and sharing. In the fifth national achievement awards for Quality Teaching Outcomes, 18 of them were given to online education. To push the higher education further, online education still has a lot of work to accomplish.
Meanwhile, there are many good lessons to learn as well. “Ten challenges concerning tertiary online education await the Chinese government and the piloting universities to address: strategic national vision of elearning, government policies, relationship between short-term financial gains and long-term educational objectives, administration structure, relationship between cost and revenue, technology, standards for resources development and sharing, interaction, quality, and learner support” (Ding, 2002).
Having considered its scale, social and educational prospects, international influence, the China Experience in tertiary online education is worth researching both domestically and internationally.
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Tong Wang is an associate professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), China. She serves as Deputy Dean of the Institute of Online Education, BFSU, in charge of learner support and tutor support. She teaches and researches in the areas of online education and ELT (English Language Teaching).
The Institute of Online Education,
Dr. Charles Crook is Reader in ICT and Education in School of Education, Nottingham University. He is the chief editor of the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning and the co-director of the Overarching Research Programme under the eChina-UK eLearning Programme sponsored by the HEFCE of the UK and MoE of china. His research interests lie in the following areas: socio-cultural approaches to cognitive development; developmental psychology of collaborative learning; new technology in early education (computer-supported collaborative learning; interface and networking metaphors); new technology and informal cultures for learning in undergraduate education.
School of Education,
+44 (0) 115 846 6453
 This study is part of the eChina-UK eLearning Programme sponsored by the HEFCE of the UK and the MoE of China. The article limits its scope of analysis to the tertiary online institutions in Chinese Mainland. The author sincerely thanks Dr. Charles Crook for his guidance and support.