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On the digital Silk Road


THE NEW MEDICIS   (10 min)                                               

On the digital Silk Road

By Ian Lang

The Australian July 10, 201312:00AM

China's old Silk Road used to end in Venice. Today, Italy's floating city is still a destination for Chinese exports, but for a very different purpose.

The goods form China’s soft-power arsenal in the world’s most refined combat zone, the Venice Biennale of art that opened this June. The art – both official and not – asserts China’s modernisation to the world, making an early claim on developed-world status.

China’s reaches for that goal through soft-power at home too, leveraging e-learning to do it, and on the way, offering new e-learning partnership opportunities for Australia that may profoundly change education here too.

With big themes like ecological renewal and the breaking down of traditional east-west barriers, China’s official stories at Venice are creative and topical. Unofficial corollary shows at Venice include sophisticated work from independent Chinese artists too. They include a gritty polemic installation from Ai Weiwei – now almost an activist brand himself.

Dirty laundry is de rigeur at Venice, and another communist power steals the show this year with self-flagellating mastery. Russia’s Heath Robinson-style recycling affair showers pennies from heaven on women visitors only. Armed with umbrellas, they stoop to collect and keep the world turning.

In soft-power’s next away-game, Cannes followed suit a few weeks later, with the film festival’s US jury chair Steven Spielberg rewarding a script about corrupt Chinese bureaucrats called Tian Zhu Ding (A Touch of Sin). The film’s Shanghai state co-funder was big enough to say it may run the film in limited local release, but they lost the round on points. Soft-power fights top-bill countries before artists.

Shanghai’s response though, shows growing confidence with the foreign gambit of ennobling confession. Swallowing a little foreign friction abroad helps build moral authority, especially when attempts to silence critics only further fans the flames.

But for China’s increasingly valuable tourist trade doing the new world’s grand tour – amongst the few affording one hundred euro gondola rides – there’s a strong take-home message too. Don’t rock the boat.

Around the swollen canals of Shanghai and Beijing on the east coast and sometimes inflammatory regions of the west such as ethnically divided Xinjiang, the need to maintain social cohesion is paramount, complicated for government by some very developed-world issues.

A slowing world economy threatens jobs and the mortgages of China’s rising middle class. Traditional education is struggling to meet new-economy labor shortages. Foreign workers brought in to fill the shortages, cause new domestic tensions.

This is a new reality for China that with minor regional variation could just as easily describe the UK, USA, or Australia. But unlike western nations comforted by shared if episodically tragic scripts, China’s image of itself and its destiny is unique.

Maintaining China’s growth requires new international engagement that can erode national identity. Keeping China Chinese, is mission-critical.

While social adhesives like travelling Cantonese operas work for Hong Kong in an almost subversively traditional way, the range of relatively recent historical mainland narratives available for post-revolution repurposing slips before 1949, into the taboos of imperial imagery.

The only acceptable approach then is onwards to modernity, with deconstructors in hard-hats not berets. Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo for example – a reverse museum of tech-fuelled hope over history – still had tens of thousands of Chinese lining up for glimpses of better lives long after foreign pavilions had closed.

With the Three Gorges Dam completed, an equally immense project in social engineering awaits. Within the next twelve years, China has committed to urbanising 250 million peasants into new cities.

The move should create enough new domestic demand to prop China’s consolidating economy, provided local dissent is avoided. Chinese commentators like Renmin University’s Wen Tiejun and others argue for careful management saying that “rural land is the safety net of last resort”.

To make it work, China’s new Medicis are investing in a suite of updated social management tools, bypassing or radically renovating instruments like traditional higher education.

A key element is e-learning – and China has quietly spent more on it in the last few years than some neighbours spend on arms.

Centralised e-learning programs ensure standardised implementation of national regulatory reform from the top down. These are Chinese-only operations. Foreign universities seeking brand escalation through linkages with the tier-one Tsinghuas and Beijing Normals will not find influence in this space.

Localised e-learning programs tackle pressing health and community development training from the bottom up. With 86 million disabled people and the now world’s largest aging population, this is where there’s room for Australian and foreign partnerships.

As the only foreign face in a five hundred delegate e-learning summit in Beijing three weeks ago, the message from presenters was clear to an audience schooled to regard a previous century’s Opium War as recent history.

The west has many treasures, and even former enemy England’s Open University had been a good model for distance education, but much western education now fails its own. For hearts and minds stability, China cannot afford to leave people behind. There is no one left to copy from. China must fix this itself.

The Beijing e-learning audience was more interested in business than ideology though. Delegates split evenly between suppliers, and big government and corporate customers looking for off-the-shelf learning management systems or fancier tailored models.

“I’m surprised that e-learning is so advanced in schools, we want to modernize our own training” said Rugei Chiang, Executive Director of China Insurance Certification and Education, shopping for training programs to certify tens of thousands of administrators who manage front-line risk.

Knowledgeable about foreign programs but cautious of generic imports, Executive Director Rugei wanted locally sourced e-learning systems that could be continuously updated to keep up with the country’s fast-evolving regulatory systems.

Other local companies were doing vigorous import-export trade.

“We localize foreign e-learning programs, for Microsoft, HP, and John Deere. Not just for their staff in China, but for their foreign offices around the world. The speaker, Oscar Qu, is Vice President of Beijing Hilingoo Technology Co and he was there to sell.

“Change the language. Make the pictures local. Convert the currencies. We even localize the training packages for the customers to use tractors, use soft-ware, Africa, Asia, anywhere.”

At only twenty-nine or thirty, Mt Qu’s client list would be the envy of the world’s most established corporate trainers.

Perhaps it is China’s reinvention of its National Accounting Institute as a grass-roots corruption-buster that best indicates the scale of the mission.

Started in 1978 as a traditional face-to-face tertiary provider, the Institute’s remit broadened in 2004 to provide on line courses. Shepherded by popular anti-graft former Premier Zhu Rongji, eight hundred local and foreign experts were hired to develop hundreds of courses for accountants working in industries from real estate to medicine, engineering to international financing, and everything in between.

Shifting entirely to on-line delivery and minimising overheads, courses went live in 2008 and now serve a claimed 1,000,000 students nationally. With a mainly didactic lecture and automated test delivery mode, only ten on-line supervisors monitor programs.

The Accounting Institute’s Vice President boasts a whole-of-career relationship between the school and its professional students, with courses that respond quickly to industry needs. Institute executives claim that if more than three potential students express interest in a new course, due to changing laws or technology for instance, their developers will research it. If more than five express interest, the course goes live. Enrolment fees are affordable for students and sponsoring employers – and a fraction of the cost to study less relevant foreign content abroad.

For primary industries where e-learning has less penetration, presenters described how content optmised for mobile ‘m-learning’ on phones was being used in the field to retrain more than 10,000 gas and coal workers in new techniques. The Communication University of China has been instrumental in advancing similar sorts of delivery to China’s smart-phones that greatly outnumber desktop computers.

Traditional universities though, were almost absent from the conversation.

China’s current tertiary education system is hemmed by two factors that threaten national development of a higher value “Created in China” economy.

First, a limited period of only thirty years or so has elapsed since the end of the Cultural Revolution to build a rigorous peer-review community. Rapid higher-degree expansion has led to prolific width of sometimes limited depth and international impact.

The dangers for China in allowing a Japanese style of questionable medical research to flourish for example – a system that still sees Japanese researchers routinely claim miraculous cures on slim evidence– are not tolerable with huge populations at stake. Scientific reporting for the next avian flu needs to be made without fear or favor, to be worth state investment and continued researcher employment.

This is what has driven China’s government to construct a parallel e-learning system for professional training, and massive integrated hybrid tablet-delivery model for schools. Together they deal with paradoxical labor shortages in a country where there are still not enough university places for everyone who wants them, yet with every sixth university graduate now facing long-term unemployment. These problems at least, seem to be very first world.

The second obstacle is the thornier rote issue. Openly acknowledged especially by younger Chinese bi-lingual educators born since the 1980s, it is a pedagogy ideally suited to memorising China’s thousands of written characters, but less helpful in developing synthesis to solve novel problems. Even linguistically, it is not possible to invent entirely new words in Chinese, so continuing adaptation of some foreign expertise is likely.

Building synthesis into curriculum remains a challenge for powerful social architects like Li Wuwei lobbying for the development of China’s own cultural and creative industries. Through western amplification by his Australian editor Michael Keane, Mr. Li’s economic arguments press even more urgently than Richard Florida’s for Asian-facing Australian law and policy makers.

Governments have moved on from the first flush of excitement about the easy task of repurposing redundant industrial spaces as intellectual property labs, and now seek outcome pay-offs within the timing of their electoral cycles. For both China and Australia, the ability to develop most children’s inherent ability for creative problem solving, begins with behavioural reinforcement at home as well as schools.

Inculcating this behaviour, may depend on reinforcement tools itself like e-learning, with certain programs designed to attract and reward whole-of-family engagement, rather than just individual development that excludes care-givers and socially alienates learners.

Many western parents in the 1960s for example, felt left behind and unable to help their kids with  ‘the new maths’ adopted by schools then. Programs to engage families and communities, present and distant, may be used to avoid this and create catalysts for new conversations, not isolating aids to pass tests.

Incremental shifts to a more Socratic model of hypothetical questioning in the classroom are being made though, as increasing numbers of Chinese teaching graduates repatriate from western universities less able to offer employment and residency. This is reflected in e-learning systems moving to more participative models from the traditional pre-recorded lectures and tests of the Open University of China, distributed since 1979 by radio and television targeting rural areas.

For Chinese governments, the efficiency, scale, and speed of e-learning persuasively argues for a shift of resources from universities to private and other government providers to create a holistic national training system, with on-line accreditation records that employers universally understand and respect. 

It is an approach Australia’s Department of Innovation embraces too with its Flexible Learning Framework, allowing rapid updating of curriculum despite concerns from some over centralised control. It is first rate national policy but needs political will to make it work.

E-learning benefitting all Australians, helping Australian voices stay relevant in world conversations, is the real ‘killer app’ justifying Australia’s $44 billion broadband network. It had better be harnessed to “educate” as well as “inform and entertain” as television was hopefully chartered in 1956, as the NBN’s introduction will quickly dilute the value of Australia’s free to air television licenses. 

Further fragmentation of mass-audience will restrict the ability of any government to effectively speak to the nation as one. Co-ordinated curriculum may address this institutionally to hold national capital. The benefits for vocational training may be anything but national though, if both state and federal governments on razor-thin majorities cannot muster political and funding capital enough to nationalise grossly under-resourced state systems.

That leaves Australian universities and non-government providers to scale up their own e-learning assets into export earners that may replace diminishing foreign student enrolment at tuition fees, that precisely because of e-learning’s greater economies, the world is ever less willing to pay for.

Through a muddle of market forces and competitive rather than needs-based federal funding, Australia’s universities have incentive to individualise their profiles for often near-identical teaching programs to try and win survival funding and attract high achievers. For degrees that effectively confer graduates the right to professional practice– law, medicine, dentistry, architecture, accounting, and more – third party professional associations already mandate standardised curricula.

If little incentive exists for universities to present a united international brand, or rationally reward wide institutional co-operation in building internationally competitive and marketable e-learning programs, even less exists for powerful and conservative professional associations to do so.

“Given the long-standing success of Open Learning Australia, it can be argued that some Australian universities have learned early how to work together,” notes Professor Glyn Davis, President of Melbourne University and former head of the sector’s lobby group Universities Australia.

 “This is a conversation underway in many places, but it is offset by recognition e-learning is global in character, and the cooperation you mention is as likely to happen across global consortia as within nationally boundaries”, writes Professor Davis.

National e-learning cooperation seems unlikely to arise spontaneously in the sector.

Melbourne’s e-learning architect, Associate Professor Gregor Kennedy, describes a university-specific strategic approach based less on mass-economics, and more about enlarging study choices for students that can actually increase delivery costs. “The onus on courses we develop is to provide teaching and learning quality.” The numbers though are at boutique levels, to create greater international attractiveness for programs, rather than to exercise scales of economy in delivery. 

Associate Professor Kennedy admits though, there is no standardised agreement or plans to develop programs with other Australian universities with a rationale that “MIT’s value isn’t in the captured lecture – it’s in the dialogue”.

Students enrolling in an Australian university today would find just up to a third of their coursework is now on-line. The savings for universities in non-teaching campus overheads are substantial, shifted effectively to students obliged to pay third party carriage-cost themselves. Educating nations equitably may depend on managing telco costs as much as teaching.

Massive, rather than boutique e-learning programs, challenge teaching careers most. Western academic concerns over the career limiting effects of assessing MOOCs for cash were expressed recently by a majority of San Jose University’s professors in a public veto letter written to the Chronicle of Higher Education in May.

Ultra cheap yet credible US on-line degrees like Georgia Institute of Technology’s planned $7,000 Masters degree partnered with Udacity cause concern for Australian teachers too.  Busy learners with young families and not much spare cash may feel differently.

For cashed up learners, it is equally possible that premium priced programs featuring international stars could similarly sideline local teachers. Biology with Richard Attenborough for instance, or International Politics with Hilary Clinton personally writing an email to students would be competitive.

It is entirely possible that just like international sport, Hollywood style agencies will sign Nobel Prize winning performers and star teachers up. Like many big wholesalers, they may quickly become more powerful than the retailing universities themselves. Like other premium screen content providers, it may become an astronomically lucrative business for the few, but a bit drab for those who can afford only reruns.

None of which is likely to worry Beijing, with its own in-country issues to sort.

Although western foreign experts have long informed Chinese higher education, MOOCs – even with their domestic US critics – are, like Twitter, Facebook and Google, still considered American Trojan Horses. They are rarely allowed to hurdle China’s Great Firewall invented by Professor Fang Binxing. Professor Fang is principal also of Beijing’s University of Post and Telecommunications that since 2009 has partnered Australia’s CSIRO in the country’s largest wireless research project.

A reluctance to rediffuse MOOCs is unsurprising, given that China’s Communist Party even started their own dedicated ‘E-learning Academy for Leadership’ last year. It is unlikely to spread TED’s “ideas worth spreading”, although the government’s China Daily newspaper now routinely carries New York Times content.

Reciprocation in sourcing massive content may be the acid-test for soft-power. Would Australian universities be comfortable for example with China beaming its MOOCs to our students? Or despite frequent claims for closer educational exchange, would we take the Huawei option, and blackball China’s professoriate too?

Earlier this year the US followed Australia in banning China’s Huawei from providing national informational infrastructure on security grounds, although Prime Minister Gillard on a trip since the ban has visited the company’s Shenzhen headquarters to mend relations.

Huawei’s district of buildings resembles a large but internationally non-specific university campus. Flattering by imitation, the mock-Georgian executive wing of the second largest information technology company in the world is an exception. It looks like the US White House.

Once inside Building J, the training wing, my camera and digital devices are firmly but politely checked with security.

With 150,000 staff around the world and an average employee age of just twenty-eight, I’m here to find out how this work-force of young graduates has managed to develop an internal and global e-learning system in just three years that now delivers two-thirds of all staff training.

Huawei makes its own e-learning programs to ensure employees have access to the latest company data, and that non-employees do not. The platform is fully integrated to the company’s enterprise management system.

No university in the west or China for that matter, may easily afford or legally obtain data-sets this fresh to resell to students and researchers. US rival Cisco in the US runs similar in-house programs. ‘Graduates’ from either company’s effectively in-house post-graduate certification programs, earn job security and promotion opportunities very few university MBA programs can now compete with.

Status will still drive Chinese enrolments in the world’s top ten or twenty university business programs. Cutting edge leadership and creative problem solving still matter.

But as transnational companies quickly develop their own captive-enrolment ‘i-learning’ programs – as Huawei calls theirs – Australia’s tier-two universities will feel the pinch in enrolment quality and quantity. 

Although both Cisco and Huawei are heavily pitching new Software Defined Network technology that simplifies client upgrades, profits in hardware are slipping around the world, and perhaps like Sony, they will find content profitable. Huawei says it has no current plans to market its own in-house e-learning programs – currently a tiny element in its total operations¬ – but it has demonstrated in-house capability to so for others, if the margins were right.

How might an Australian university or smaller provider respond to such competition?

On a technical level, SDNs should make on-line servicing easier and cheaper for Australian providers where information management remains a cost rather than earner.

As universities explore options to further reduce costs by outsourcing entire information networks and storage to the cloud, the synergies possible between big universities and big networks makers may be even more attractive and radically restructuring than Georgia Tech’s partnership with Udacity.

Cloud storage takes a leap of faith though – often based on foreign policy as much as technological confidence. Australian digital and e-learning entrepreneur Mike Hall, based in Shanghai for the last four years, suggests while China’s Internet works well behind the country’s firewall, China needs its own cloud storage to move to the next level of partnerships.

“Japan invested in cloud servers early on and is Northern Asia’s main provider, but China is uncomfortable in banking their data there”, observes Mr. Hall. This political reluctance would apply by default to Australian partners in Chinese joint-ventures whose own regional data was also served through Japan.  Mr. Hall does use Japanese servers for large data applications, but notes that uncontrollable outages occur.

Different confidence issues have problematised India’s once popular low cost back-end corporate computing services, with reports of illegal aggregation and on-selling of western client data. With concerns over cloud security, smaller, direct to user e-learning partnerships using locally available technologies may be one answer for export providers.

Despite the scale of the market, smaller targeted partnerships in national priority areas such as health seem to have reached earliest penetration. Australia is privileged this way because the content, like Australian food, is regarded by China as clean and ideologically unthreatening.

Successful Australian ventures include Cochlear Beijing and its implant technology provider Advanced Bionics launching two new iPad applications to help adults learning to hear with implants, and to train hearing professionals working with children. Their CLIX application is the first in a suite of learning apps for implants.

Successful partnerships in rehabilitation have also seen non-for-profits like Melbourne-based Reality Learning (that I have provided curriculum consultancy for), developing on-line interactive rehabilitation training programs with The Hong Kong Rehabilitation Society.

Through high-interaction, real-time scenarios developed from emergency medical and international aid groups such as World Vision, Reality Learning programs are now used by hospitals in twenty-four mainland provinces, with doctors and nurses also being trained to film new on-line clinical scenarios themselves for sustainability and relevance.

In southern China’s busy Guangdong Women and Children’s Hospital, medical staff are keeping up with the latest western pediatric techniques through a partnership with The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network and Sydney University that grown from Hong Kong classes nine years ago.

Australian program leader Associate Professor Kathryn Currow is proud the program has received official endorsement from China’s Ministry of Maternal and Child Health, allowing it to be used in two hundred pediatric hospitals around China.

With an affordable fee structure of around one month’s salary for a Chinese doctor, learners take three DVD lectures and other materials per week for a year, blended with live video conference discussions with Australian colleagues and tutorials from Chinese in-country doctors. Awards include diploma and postgraduate certificates made jointly by Sydney and the Children’s Hospitals Network.

Dr Tina Wing He, Deputy-Chief Executive for the Guangdong Hospital studied originally with Kathryn in Sydney. One collegial connection has made all the difference to child-care in China.  Dr Wing He says, “About five years ago we found this program for our doctors. It not only improves medical skills, but English language too.

“Actually the e-learning is cost effective because we don’t have to ask the (teaching) doctors to come here”. Dr Wing He notes the programs time-flexibility for Guangdong staff means their medical staff can still cope with large caseloads, while improving in-service training.

This supports comments made by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evansat a Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences forum recently in Canberra, (Higher Education, June 26) with John Ross reporting Professor Evans saying "I've long had reservations about self-conscious general image promotion campaigns, which can consume vast amounts of resources for not very obvious returns.

Professor Evans comments that academic contacts – along with travel, business, the arts, sport, professional associations, service clubs and community action groups – were more important than diplomacy campaigns.

Australia’s attempt to win future regional influence through a reverse Colombo Plan is a start, but risks making us the catch-up nation. It faces serious competition from a host of nations now building comprehensive soft-power reach to the Asia Pacific.

Some like Germany and Sweden offer Chinese nationals effectively free tertiary education. The most influential partner however, will be the one whose services become regarded by China as indispensible, rather than optional.

From the outside, China seems government controlled. From the inside it seems more fragmented and competitive. China’s approach to e-learning at social-engineering levels has been enabled through testing regulatory restructuring of its powerful ministries of education, information and telecommunications.

This convergence provides unified standards and licensing oversight for a Chinese education market increasingly populated by private providers who operate by two major business models.

For the truly globally minded, e-learning is most profitable and socially escalating at truly massive scales of economy and automation.

For the specialists, e-learning works best at high levels of personal involvement and interactivity. Returns can be viable for lean players, where interactivity rather than pre-recorded data is the best protection against piracy. 

Both ends of the market are now forming, turning countries into nations. Greater national cooperation between e-learning providers will help Australia’s fortunes on the new digital Silk Road too.

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