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Jing LEI and Ruhui NI

Propelled by the demand for higher education, advances in technologies, and government support, distance education has become one of the most rapidly growing areas in the field of education in China. Understanding the development history of distance education in China can help to examine current practices and major challenges in this field, and to better inform a discussion of the future of distance education in China.

Distance education, an approach to learning that uses the power of advanced information and communication technologies (ICT), has the potential to revolutionize education. It is one of the most rapidly growing areas in the field of education in China, and advances in ICT are constantly transforming it. China is using a range of technologies appropriate in a variety of circumstances to improve education, teacher development, and technological infrastructure. It has made substantial progress towards these goals, thanks in large part to the flexibility distance education offers.

Stages of Development

Distance education in China goes back to the early 1950s, when the establishment of a modern postal service made correspondence-based education possible. Advances in ICT have shaped its development continually since it started. With the wide adoption of radio and television technology, “radio education” and “television education” became available to learners, and since the 1990s the Internet and other digital technologies have greatly enhanced and enriched distance learning. The more recent forms of distance education supported by digital technologies and the Internet are commonly referred to as online education, online learning, e-learning, web-based learning, or web-based education. China has experienced all the three phases: correspondence-based education, radio and TV-based education, and ICT-based and online education (Ding, Niu, and Han 2010).

Technology is not the only factor in distance education’s evolution, however. In the past sixty years, the ever-growing demand for access to quality education and the financial and regulatory policies of China’s central government also have had a significant impact on its development (Ding, Niu, and Han 2010). The interaction of all these factors has created the landscape of distance education that we see in China at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

One: Correspondence

The Chinese government started offering correspondence-based higher education in the early 1950s to meet the growing demand for postsecondary education. It designated two universities—Renmin University of China and Northeast Normal University—to offer correspondence-based programs (Renmin University of China 2010). The postal service delivered the curriculum, syllabus, textbooks, exercise books, and any other materials to students, and teachers determined the pace of the courses and assigned homework. These were self-study classes, and students asked questions, submitted homework, and received instructions from the teacher through regular mail as well.

Gradually more universities offered correspondence-based education, and by the end of 1965, 123 higher-education institutions in China were offering 138 majors through these programs. The numbers of students enrolled reached 189,000, or 28 percent of the total for all regular higher education institutions. By 1983, the number of universities with correspondence-based programs had increased to 209, serving a total enrollment of 204,700 students (CustomEdu 2010).

In the twenty-first century, distance education tends to be provided through more advanced technologies, but correspondence-based education hasn’t faded away completely and continues to exist as a valuable complement to more recent forms of distance education. This is probably due to China’s vast size and large population. Economic development in different geographic regions has been uneven, and people’s ability to participate in distance education varies from region to region. In many underdeveloped areas, where advanced technology is less accessible or too costly for local residents, correspondence-based education is a reasonable alternative. Moreover, correspondence-based education no longer relies entirely on the mail; now locally established correspondence-education sites also provide learning materials, instruction, and administrative and management support.

A series of documents and acts issued by the Chinese central government and the Ministry of Education (MOE) since the 1980s show that correspondence-based education is still being promoted and supported. In 1987, the MOE issued Tentative Regulations for Correspondence Education in Regular Universities 普通高等学校函授教育暂行工作条例 to stress that providing correspondence-based education is a basic obligation of regular colleges and universities (Ministry of Education 1987). More recently, its Notice on the 2010 Admission Plans for Adult Higher Education 2010 年全国成人高等教育招生计划的通知 urged universities to improve the quality of existing correspondence-based education programs (Ministry of Education 2010).

Two: Radio and TV

The wide adoption of radio and television, coupled with a drastic increase in the demand for distance education after China opened to the world in the late 1970s, made radio and TV attractive options for providing distance education. Radio- and TV-based distance education has gone through two phases of development in China (Ding, Niu, and Han 2010). The first phase, characterized by city TV universities, is considered to be a very preliminary form of radio- and TV-based distance education. City TV universities emerged as early as 1960 in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities; their major task was to broadcast live classes to city residents.

The establishment of a national color-television network in 1978 marked the start of the second phase of radio- and TV-based distance education in China, with a system, headquartered at the China Central Radio and TV University (CCRTVU 中央广播电视大学), based on the new national TV network. The CCRTVU—now the Open University of China (OUC)—has played a major role in offering radio- and TV-based distance education since its founding, and it was the only player in distance and online education in China until 1999 (Zhao, Zhang, and Li 2006). Until the middle of the 1980s CCRTVU used the China Central Television Network (CCTV 中央电视台) to broadcast TV courses, but in 1985 China Education Television 中国教育电视台 was established and became the main broadcasting channel. In 2000, China Education Satellite Television Network (CESTN) completed its digitalization of satellite television transmission, making possible the transmission of learning materials and resources in digital format (Ding, Niu, and Han 2010). Subsequently, the OUC has moved away from TV broadcasting to e-learning (Gao and Zhang 2009; Ding, Niu, and Han 2010; Ding, Guo, and Zhu 2005).

Three: E-learning

The rapid development of advanced ICT, coupled with the Chinese central government’s determination to create lifelong-learning programs for everyone in this learning-oriented society, has resulted in a dramatic growth in distance education in China since the 1990s (Wang 2008; Ding, Guo, and Zhu 2005). Although education that uses digital technologies is sometimes referred to as web-based or online education, the technology being used is more than just the Internet and computers. E-learning is a widely recognized term that is probably more descriptive of distance education at this stage, which integrates computer network, Internet, satellite TV transmission, and other telecommunication technologies to deliver instructional information, learning materials, and unprecedented immediate interaction between teachers and learners. Moreover, while distance education at the earlier stages in China focused mainly on serving higher education, at the e-learning stage it has been expanded to include students at the primary and secondary levels. The first K–12 online school enrolled its first student in 1996; by 2006, the number of K–12 online schools exceeded 200, with a total enrollment of nearly 600,000 students (Chen, Chen, and Wang 2009; Chen, Wang, and Qiao 2009; Yu and Wang 2006).

Since the late 1990s, the huge demand for more and better access to postsecondary education has stimulated the emergence of Internet colleges in China. In response to the Action Plan for Invigorating Education toward the Twenty-First Century 面向21世纪教育振兴行动计划, the MOE launched the Modern Distance Education Project in 2001. As part of the initiative, the MOE authorized four universities to offer online programs through Internet colleges (Ding, Niu, and Han 2010; Zhao, Zhang, and Li 2006). By the year 2000, there were thirty experimental universities offering online degree programs through Internet colleges; by 2006 there were sixty-six. In 2007, more than 1.86 million students were enrolled in national online education, annual graduates reached nearly 1.4 million, and the number of students enrolled in online education for academic degrees was about one-third that of traditional higher education (Ding, Niu, and Han 2010). As of 2009, sixty-eight colleges and universities offered distance education programs (Ye, Su, and Yan 2009) with a total of 362 subjects and 2,071 programs covering ten disciplines (Ding, Niu, and Han 2010), including engineering, management, medicine, literature, sciences, agriculture, education, law, and philosophy.

Current Practices

China is using a combination of technologies to meet the needs of individual areas and overcome disparities in infrastructure where they exist. Although its online distance programs focus on degree education and professional development for teachers, an important part of distance education in general is to narrow disparities among different regions, particularly between coastal and inland areas.


China’s online distance programs place a heavy emphasis on degree education (Ding, Niu, and Han 2010; Ye, Su, and Yan 2009). Three types of programs are currently offered: (1) three-year undergraduate programs for high school graduates, (2) four-year undergraduate programs for high school graduates and for graduates from two-year or three-year colleges, and (3) graduate programs (Lei and Fan 2007; Ye, Su, and Yan 2009). Most distance learners are adults.

A major part of online distance education is providing professional development to teachers (Liu 2009). For example, the MOE organized by and established the China Teachers’ Education Online Association (CTEOA 全国教师教育网络联盟) in 2003, with the aim of making continuing education available to teachers through a lifelong online-education system (Ding 2003; Ye, Su, and Yan 2009). Another program, the Strengthening Capacity for Building Education in Western China (SCBEWC 加强中国西部基础教育能力建设), is funded by the Canadian International Development agency and uses distance education to provide teachers professional development with a focus on student-centered learning (Crichton and Kopp 2006).

An important element of distance education is its goal to narrow gaps between the western and central areas of China and its coastal regions, particularly with respect to teacher quality. To this end, the European Union-China Gansu Basic Education Project (EU-China GBEP 中国欧盟甘肃基础教育项目) provided professional development to over 100,000 rural teachers by using the 4As Framework: availability, access, adaptability, and acceptability (Robinson 2008). The Ministry of Education, the National Development and Reform Commission, and the Ministry of Finance jointly organized and implemented the Schools Modern Distance Education Project 现代远程教育工作计划 at about the same time, investing more than 11 billion yuan from 2003 to 2007 to help develop rural education (Wang and Li 2010).


China is a vast country with regions at different economic development stages and thus very different technology infrastructure. Three major types of technologies are being used to give teachers and students in rural areas resources that are already available in urban schools (McQuaide 2009) and to meet local needs when providing distance education (McQuaide 2009; Yu and Wang 2006):

  1. Stand-alone technologies. Technologies such as CD-ROMs, DVDs, and TV often are used in rural schools with poor infrastructure and teaching conditions (Chen, Chen, and Wang 2009; McQuaide 2009).
  2. Satellite technology and cable television. In township and village primary schools, satellite channels frequently are rented for video conferencing and/or delivery of instruction. When satellite channels are not available, cable television is often used instead. Rural schools use an educational satellite-broadband network for transmission of educational resources, including course materials, lesson plans, special topic educational programs, and information on agriculture and science. In general, designated personnel at the schools are in charge of receiving and distributing these resources (Chen, Chen, and Wang 2009).
  3. Other technologies and resources. Computer labs, multimedia classrooms with computers, high-speed Internet, local area networks (LANs), and other peripheral technologies are used in urban schools and in rural junior-high schools as part of the instructional program (McQuaide 2009).

Distance-learning programs also use other technologies, such as phones and text messaging, to answer students’ questions, run class discussions, and to provide other services to students (Chen and Guo 2005).


Consistent with China’s tradition, most distance education programs use lectures as the primary method of instruction (Chen, Chen, and Wang 2009). The researchers Victor Wang and Peter Kreysa (2006) found that Chinese distance education instructors view themselves mostly as providers of knowledge rather than as facilitators of learning, that they often oppose collaborative modes of instruction, and that their teaching is characterized by rigidity and lack of sensitivity to individual learners.

Three forms of distance education exist in China—e-delivery, e-teaching, and e-education (Chen, Chen, and Wang 2009). E-delivery is the method schools and regions use to share resources. The Modern Distance Education Project for Rural Primary and Secondary Schools 农村中小学现代远程教育工程, which focuses on increasing the access to high-quality learning and teacher-training resources in schools in underdeveloped areas, is an example of e-delivery. The project was launched in 2003 with a five-year goal of providing all rural middle schools with computer labs, and all elementary schools with satellite-receiving facilities, VCD or DVD players, and related materials. E-teaching is a way to provide coursework for students. Most K–12 online schools use this form of distance educaition. These schools, which were initially intended to facilitate the sharing of instructional resources among K–12 schools, now use satellite TV and/or the Internet to deliver resources and courses directly (Chen, Chen, and Wang 2009; Chen, Wang, and Qiao 2009; Yu and Wang 2006). E-education is used mostly in higher education. It is the general term for all educational formats that use educational technologies and modern ICT for teaching and learning (Chen, Chen, and Wang 2009).

Current Challenges

As a comparatively new form of education in China, online distance education faces a number of challenges. The first and most critical challenge is the perceived low quality of education offered by distance-learning programs (Ding, Niu, and Han 2010; Zhao, Zhang, and Li 2006). There are several reasons for this perception. The admission criteria for online distance education are considered less demanding, and thus less rigorous. Cheating in exams is a problem difficult to deal with at a distance (Xin, Liu, and Han 2010). In addition, because universities do not necessarily assign the most qualified faculty to teach online courses, the quality of instruction is often questionable (Zhao, Zhang, and Li 2006).

The second major challenge is the shortage of qualified instructors (Chen and Guo 2005; McQuaide 2009; Zhao, Zhang, and Li 2006). Online distance education has grown very rapidly in recent years, but training has lagged behind in preparing instructors to teach effectively online. Using surveys, interviews, and analysis of learning products, Xiaoqing Gu of East China Normal University and three colleagues concluded that online instructors needed increased real-time support, more practical examples, extra support for online discussions and communication, and additional time (Gu, Zhang, Lin, and Song 2009).

A third challenge lies in the area of technology infrastructure and support systems (Chen and Guo 2005). China’s technology infrastructure is insufficient to support extensive online programs on a large scale (Zhao, Zhang, and Li 2006), and the problem is especially severe in rural and underdeveloped regions. In these areas network infrastructure is both insufficient and inefficient, making it difficult to provide distance education to people in the regions where alternative learning is most needed. In addition, most universities manage their own online learning systems. The development and maintenance of these systems consumes a lot of time and resources, placing a heavy burden on individual universities (Chen and Guo 2005).

Fourth, the lack of appropriate management poses another serious challenge for distance education (Wang 2008; Zhao, Zhang, and Li 2006). An article written by Yong Zhao of Michigan State University and two of his doctoral students points out that vast expanses and limited resources in China lead many online programs to rely on local institutions or agencies to manage students at a distance, often resulting in a lack of appropriate management and monitoring of their students (Zhao, Zhang, and Li 2006).

Lastly there are other concerns, such as the lack of technology standards, negative competition among Internet colleges, limited diversity due to the fact that only prestigious traditional universities are approved to offer online programs, the lack of non-degree programs, insufficient online learning materials, and competition from courses that can be purchased abroad (Chen and Guo 2005; Gulati, 2008; McQuaide, 2009; Wang, 2008; Ye, Su, and Yan 2009).

The Future

China’s distance education has experienced rapid development since the 1990s, especially at the higher education level. This rapid development has been propelled mostly by the increasing demand for higher education, the advances in information and communication technologies, and the central government’s financial and policy support in developing distance education. Distance education has become an increasingly important part of education in China. As a comparatively new field, however, distance education faces major challenges in ensuring quality, preparing sufficiently qualified instructors, expanding technology infrastructure and support systems, ensuring appropriate management, and addressing program and curriculum issues. Some of these problems are universal to all educational programs, and some are unique to distance education. Researchers, educators, and the government have recognized these challenges and are working to improve distance education by supporting and regulating distance-education programs and studying effective practices. It is reasonable to assume that the quality of distance education in China will continue to improve, and its use will continue to increase.

Further Reading

Chen Deren & Guo Wenying. (2005). Distance learning in China. International Journal of Distance Education Technologies, 3(4), 1–5. doi:10.4018/jdet.2005100101

Chen Li; Chen Huina; & Wang Nan. (2009). Distance education in China: The current state of e-learning. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 26(2), 82–89. doi:10.1108/10650740910946792

Chen Li; Wang Nan; & Qiao Ailing. (2009). K12 online school practice in China. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 26(2), 137–144. doi:10.1108/10650740910946864

Crichton, Susan, & Kopp, Gail. (2006). Multimedia technologies, multiple intelligences, and teacher professional development in an international education project. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 2(3). Retrieved January 16, 2012, from www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=39

CustomEdu. (2010). Correspondence-based education. Retrieved March 2, 2011, from www.customedu.cn/jybk/jycd/1091.html

Ding Xin; Niu Jian; & Han Yanhui. (2010). Research on distant education development in China. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(4), 582–592. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01093.x

Ding, Xingfu. (2003). On the organization of China Teachers Educational Online Association. e-Education Research, 10, 40–45.

Ding Xingfu; Gu Xiaoqing; & Zhu Zhiting. (2005). The Chinese approach. In Christopher McIntosh & Zeynep Varoglu (Eds.), Perspective on distance education: Lifelong learning & distance higher education (pp. 63–77). Vancouver,Canada: Commonwealth of Learning; Paris: UNESCO Publishing.

Gao Ping, & Zhang Ruling. (2009). Moving from TV broadcasting to e-learning: Contributions of distance education to teacher education in China. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 26(2), 98–107. doi:10.1108/10650740910946819

Gu, X., Zhang, B., Lin, X., & Song, X. (2009). Evaluating online solutions for experiential support of distance learning by teachers in China. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 25(2), 114–125. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2008.00291.x

Gulati, Shalni. (2008). Technology-enhanced learning in developing nations: A review. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(1), Article 9.1.4.

Lei, Q. & Fan, W.Q. (2007). The development of modern distance education in China. China Distance Education Research, 12, 44–50.

Liu Mingzhuo. (2009). The design of a web-based course for self-directed learning. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 26(2), 122–131. doi:10.1108/10650740910946846

McQuaide, Shilling. (2009). Making education equitable in rural China through distance learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(1), Article 10.1.8.

Ministry of Education (MOE). (1987). The tentative regulations for correspondence education in regular universities. Hengyang Finance and Industry College. Retrieved January 16, 2012, from http://jxjy.hycgy.com/zhengcefagui/20100804/2224.html

Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China (MOE). (2010). The notice of submitting the admission plan for adult higher education in 2010. Retrieved January 16, 2012, from www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/A03_zcwj/201008/xxgk_93890.html

Renmin University of China. (2010). Overview of the School of Continuing Education of Renmin University of China. Retrieved January 16, 2012, from www.sce.ruc.edu.cn/xygk_displaynews.asp?id=191

Robinson, Bernadette. (2008). Using ICT and distance education to increase access, equity and quality of rural teachers’ professional development in Western China. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(1), Article 9.1.5.

Wang, Victor C. X., & Kreysa, Peter. (2006). Instructional strategies of distance education instructors in China. The Journal of Educators Online, 3(1), 1–25.

Wang Zhuzhu, & Li Xin. (2010). Chinese schools Modern Distance Education Project in Rural Areas. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(4), 612–613. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01073.x

Yang Min. (2008). Rethinking lifelong learning through online distance learning in Chinese educational policies, practices and research. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(4), 583–597. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00766.x

Ye Lixin; Su Xiaobing; & Yan Hanbing. (2009). The development of the Distance Education College of East China Normal University: A case study. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 26(2), 108–113. doi:10.1108/10650740910946828

Yu Shengquan, & Wang Minjuan. (2006). Modern distance education project for the rural schools of China: Recent development and problems. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 22(4), 273–283. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2006.00174.x

Zhao Yong; Zhang Gaoming; & Li Ning. (2006). The life of “Internet Colleges”: Policies, problems, and prospects of online higher education in China. EDUCAUSE Review, 41(6), 48–59.

Source: Lei Jing, & Ni Ruhui. (2012). Distance education. In Zha Qiang (Ed.), Education in China: Educational history, models, and initiatives. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.