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When Ji Xiaohua founded the website Guokr.com he was on a crusade. Tired of reading the usual mix of superstition, rumour and fake news that abound on China’s social media feeds and blogs, he wanted to give the country’s web users a place to go for empirical, rational, provable facts.
Take the headlines in China. Senior officials are being prosecuted left and right for corruption in the greatest purge since the 1970s. Guokr took the opportunity to run a series of articles on corruption from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology. “We want to give people a place to go for scientific information on the issues of the day” says Mr Ji.
Finding a pulpit from which to preach science was what he had in mind when he and some friends started a club soon after graduating in 2007 from China’s elite Fudan University, in Shanghai. Called Scientific Squirrel, because “the idea was to crack the nuts in order to find the delicious fruit inside,” as he puts it, it had fairly modest objectives.
But in 2010 everything changed following an injection of start-up capital from TBP, a Shanghai-based venture fund. Scientific Squirrel relaunched as the website Guokr.com — Guokr means nutshell in Chinese — with the goal of being the number one distributor of educational resources in China.
This is a tall order but a potentially huge market in a country mad about education, with an ever rising percentage of foreign exchange students.
The most interesting bit of the company is arguably the rapidly expanding Mooc (massive open online course) platform, which allows Chinese students a taste of a foreign university without actually leaving home.
Moocs have so far largely escaped the attention of Chinese censors and have opened up a whole new world for Chinese students who can now take history from Harvard, machine learning from MIT and politics from the University of Leiden. They also increasingly give provincial Chinese people access to classes from China’s elite universities, with Tsinghua and Peking Universities starting Mooc pilot projects.
Guokr Mooc Academy, the Mooc platform, was launched in July 2013 and today hosts more than 2,000 courses. The most popular provider, Mr Ji says, is California-based Coursera. Other partner platforms include edX, the Mooc platform of MIT and Harvard University which has around 2m registered users globally.
Mr Ji estimates that the 1m regular users of his academy per month are about 60 per cent of the Chinese total of those who use Moocs. But other sites have begun to compete, such as portal site Netease, which launched a Mooc platform last year.
For some Chinese users, Moocs are an additional credential which can set them apart from the pack of other job applicants — students can pay around $90 to receive certificates which are increasingly recognised by employers.
For other users, Moocs are an antidote to the hothouse of the Chinese education system, which allows no time for dabbling or whimsical curiosity. Most are after purely professional skills and credentials but some classes — like history, are there for the curious to branch out from official dogma and from the narrow tracking that occurs in the Chinese education system.
Moocs are also an access route to foreign education for lower income students. “All you need is a phone and access to the internet,” says Mr Ji, who saw traffic to his site quadruple in the last year.
Feng Yunpeng, a 20 year old student at Fudan University majoring in Chinese literature says she began using Moocs in January 2014 and since then has had a dizzying ride pursuing multiple interests. Among the eclectic batch of subject she has taken are: tang and song poetry, GPS, Google maps and spatial computing and data science.
The most popular Moocs on Guokr’s portal have been solidly in the realm of the hard sciences, economics, computers and finance says Mr Ji. In the past month, for example, the three most popular options were model thinking, offered by the University of Michigan, microeconomics from the University of Illinois and R programming at Johns Hopkins University.
Roger Peng, a professor who teaches the R programming course at Johns Hopkins, says the course was fashionable everywhere, not just in China, and has about 30,000 students each month join in online. “Its popular because it is a ‘hot’ programming language and because data science is the most important up-and-coming industry right now” he says.
“I taught my first Mooc in September 2012, called Computing for Data Analysis. I was blown away by how many people enrolled in the course, over 50,000, and how engaged the students were. After that I was pretty much hooked” he says. Prof Peng says most of the Mooc users are students who can’t find equivalent courses at their universities.
Kong Sultra took the R Programming course out of necessity in order to complete his thesis: “I have to use R programming and no one else in the research teams knows R programming very well so I had no choice but to pick it up on my own,” he says.
The class has now been entirely translated into Chinese and Mr Ji has put special emphasis on building up a crowdsourcing model for translating many of the other courses using English speaking volunteers.
Chinese academics say the intellectual freedom that Moocs represent has not been tested yet due to the lack of large numbers — few cared when Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter had a few thousand users, but now that social media have exploded, the China authorities have begun to crack down. As one Chinese professor says: “Its just a matter of time before someone teaches a course on the history of Tibet. It will be interesting to see how they deal with that.”
Guokr has managed to stay just inside the censorship line on most matters, and Mr Ji says they have had no official requests to stop offering access to any classes.
“It is sometimes hard to find the balance. It comes from experience” he says. For example, they removed a posting with instructions on how to make TNT. Other than that, “scientific topics are the least sensitive” he says. “We have no huge clashes in terms of values.”
“On some topics, like genetically modified foods, some even criticise us for having a position too close to that of the government,” he says.
Additional reporting by Ma Fangjing