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Naxin ZHAO

China has assigned educational technology a critical role in improving quality and equity in basic education, expanding higher education, and promoting world-class research. Its National Center for Educational Technology has narrowed the digital divide, the China Education and Research Network is advancing research, and OpenCourseWare programs have expanded access to the best courses. To capitalize fully on educational technology’s potential, however, China needs to look beyond application and embrace the insights that learning theory offers.

Educational technology began to develop in China in the early 1920s. Its evolution can be divided into four periods: the formative period (1920s to the 1940s); the primary development period (1950s to the early 1960s); a period of stagnation during the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976); and a rapid development period (1977 to the present). Educational technology was established as a discipline in China forty years after the United States (Liu 2003), but now has become a large-scale enterprise (Nan 2000) with distinct structures in education, research, and application.


In North America, educational technology programs are usually offered through a university’s education department. In many Chinese universities, however, educational technologies programs are taught by separate faculties in an educational technology department (or the equivalent). There are four levels of educational technology programs: diploma programs at the sub-degree level, bachelor’s degree programs, master’s degree programs, and doctoral degree programs (Nan 2000).

The first formal undergraduate program was offered in 1983. Beijing Normal University, South China Normal University, and Hebei University started to offer master’s programs in 1986, and in 1993 Beijing Normal University started the first doctoral program (Liu 2003). In 2008, a total of 44 colleges offered diploma programs in educational technology; 224 universities offered bachelor’s programs and 83 of these offered master’s programs. Eight of the latter—Beijing Normal University, South China Normal University, East China Normal University, Nanjing Normal University, Northwest Normal University, Northeast Normal University, Central China Normal University, and Southwest Normal University—offered doctoral programs as well, and the first six of these have begun to offer post-doctoral research opportunities (Xu 2009). Graduate students can choose to focus on areas such as educational technology theory, educational media technology, information technology education, educational software and knowledge engineering, and distance education (Huang and Sha 2005). The educational technology departments of some colleges and universities also offer computer animation, computer music, digital video, and commercial and advertising programs (Nan 2006; Ren and Zhan 2009).


China has entrusted educational technology with three important missions: ensuring the success of innovation in education, achieving quantum-leap improvements in education, and fostering equity in education (MOE 2010).

The government has established a network of centers to administer educational technology services for basic education. The National Center for Educational Technology (NCET 中央电化教育馆), which was established in 1978, is at the top of the pyramid (Wu 1994). At the next level down there are educational technology centers in every province, municipality, and autonomous region (Nan and Li 1998); each center at the provincial level has branches at the city level, and each city has centers at the district or county level. The NCET sets policy, plans educational technology projects, and coordinates research at the national level. The branches are responsible for practical implementation at the local level, and they develop multimedia materials to go with school textbooks, build resource banks for schools, plan and manage projects, coordinate research in schools and universities, disseminate best practices from research, train schoolteachers, and perform many other functions (NCET 2010).

This centralized structure has made it possible to implement nationwide educational technology projects (Nan 1999), although in the first decade of the twenty-first century the government has turned to the NCET to improve the quality—and equality—of basic education through educational technology. Because economic and social development has progressed faster in urban than in rural and remote areas, the development of basic education in rural areas—especially in central and western China—has lagged behind other regions. Consequently, many rural schools have not met national quality standards (NOMDEPRPSS 2009). To promote equity in education, the central government therefore is working with government at the local level to use information and communication technology (ICT) to deliver high-quality teaching and learning materials to rural schools. The goal is for ICT to make it possible for rural schools to share the learning resources that urban schools have access to (thus solving the problem of a lack of qualified teachers while improving the quality of rural education), to help teachers’ professional development, and to promote innovation in content and instruction in rural schools (NOMDEPRPSS 2009). To accomplish these goals, the Modern Distance Education Project for Rural Primary and Secondary Schools (MDEPRPSS 农村中小学现代远程教育工程) and a few other national projects have been launched in the central and western provinces (Guo, Wang, and Zhao 2010). These projects have improved the ICT infrastructure in schools: 70 percent of primary schools nationwide and 70 percent of rural secondary schools have Internet connection, while 264,905 digital satellite-receiving systems and 40,858 multimedia classrooms have been set up in rural schools (Wang and Li 2010). In addition, over 1 million rural teachers have been trained and rural schools have received large amounts of multimedia learning resources, allowing high-quality learning resources to be shared and narrowing the digital divide between rural and urban areas. Over 100 million rural students have benefited from these projects ( Li Qing 2009; Zhang 2009).

At all levels of education, use of the Internet has become important for both instruction and research (Liu and Wang 2001). In 1994, the China Education and Research Network (CERNET 中国教育和科研计算机网)—the first nationwide education and research computer network—was created (CERNET 2001). By the year 2000, around 400 universities had been connected with CERNET. Meanwhile, primary and secondary schools had purchased a total of 2,420,000 computers, and over 5,700 of them had set up their own intranets (Huang, Zeng, and Yu 2002; Nan 2000).

Internet schools are another way the Internet is used in education, in this case at the basic level. These schools are virtual extensions of secondary schools that have high student success rates in the National College Admission Examination (NCAE 高考). Internet schools provide videos of classroom lectures, explanations of subject content, online testing, and online questions and answers (Wang 2006), mainly to help prepare students for the NCAE and similar examinations. They used to be very popular in China—in 2000 there were about 200. Thirty-one of these were approved by the Ministry of Education (MOE) (Nan 2000). During the SARS panic (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003, Internet schools provided learning services to over 1 million students when many schools were closed down (Jiang 2003). Two major innovations in the basic education system since then have reduced the number of these schools. First, as part of a curricular shift towards student-centered, inquiry-based learning, provinces now are allowed to choose the textbooks used in their schools instead of having to use the standard national textbooks (Yu and Sun 2006). Second, some provinces have been allowed to use their own college admission examinations in place of the NCAE. These two changes have made the Internet schools less popular, since their instruction and course content may now differ from new local curricula (Yu and Sun 2006).

The Internet also is being used widely in Chinese postsecondary education. Distance education broadcast via satellite television became universal in the late 1980s (Nan and Li 1998) in the form of the Open University of China 中央广播电视大学 and its network of universities at the provincial and city level. In 1999, the MOE initiated the Modern Distance Education Project, which—among other things—combined the “space network” (satellite television network) with the “ground network” (Internet) to deliver content for higher education distance programs (Li and Ye 2003). The intent of this project was to fully utilize qualified universities and instructors in more developed areas to provide more learning opportunities for people in areas where education was underdeveloped, and to train the professionals that were needed in these developing areas (Ren 2000). The project has grown from four universities to sixty-eight certified by MOE (Lei and Fan 2007). Participating universities offer programs through their main campuses and certified learning centers; in 2007 there were 7,823 learning centers nationwide, one-third of which were associated with the Open University of China (Lei and Fan 2007). The Modern Distance Educational Project offers 172 degree programs covering most disciplines as well as some non-degree programs (i.e., graduate-level and continuing education courses). As of 2006 over 880,000 students graduated, more than 1,100,000 new students had been recruited, and nearly 2,800,000 students had registered for degree programs (Li and Ye 2003; Lei and Fan 2007). Despite these impressive numbers the project’s goals have not been fully achieved, in part because Internet services mostly are available only in big cities and people in developing areas still have difficulty accessing the Internet (Li and Ye 2003).

China’s higher education system has expanded very quickly since 2000, and ensuring the quality of that education has become an important issue. Inspired by MIT OpenCourseWare (Wang 2009), the MOE introduced the Online Excellent Courses Project 国家精品课程建设项目 in April 2003 (Gong 2008). These online classes are model courses, taught by the best instructor teams, with the best content, teaching methods, and textbooks, and administrated in the most efficient way (MOE 2003). Between 2003 and 2009, the ministry awarded the “excellent course” title to 1,727 courses at the graduate, undergraduate, and sub-degree levels in all twelve subjects in China’s classification of instructional programs, with 54 percent being in sciences and engineering (Gong 2008; Guo and Yuan 2009; Wang 2009).

The United States has had a strong influence on Chinese educational technology research. In the 1980s, instructional design theory was introduced into China and a wave of studying and implementing this theory followed. Two even bigger waves surged when constructivist theory (Jean Piaget’s theory of how knowledge is internalized) and AECT ’94 (the Association of Educational Communications and Technology’s 1994 definition of educational technology) were more recently introduced into China. Depending on Western theories without localizing and adapting them to Chinese norms, however, has not succeeded and has even caused confusion among Chinese scholars (Nan 2006). For that reason Chinese scholars have criticized Western researchers’ dependence on cognitive psychology and constructivist theory, their emphasis on students’ learning over teachers’ teaching, and their focus on learning processes and resources. They argue that educational technology research in China should focus on the application of modern educational media (He 2004; Nan 2009).

Chinese scholars have tried to construct a basic theory and a theoretical framework with “Chinese characteristics” for education technology (Nan 2006), and some researchers have had some interesting ideas. For example, Li Kedong and his colleagues have introduced a theory of instructional design with multiple media based on instructional design theory (Li and Xie 1992; 1994). It proposes analyzing learning content and goals to select the combination of instructional media most suited to achieving optimized teaching processes in classroom instruction.

Jījiàn 积件 (integrable ware) is another interesting concept. Early on, some companies in China developed drill-and-practice courseware to help students memorize content and improve their grades in examinations. The MOE also developed courseware for classroom teachers that followed the textbooks. Neither effort succeeded, however, since researchers and teachers realized that the courseware was not adaptable and couldn’t be reused in different learning situations. Li Jiahou, Professor at Shanghai Normal University, therefore introduced the concept of jijian, which he translates as “integrable ware” in English (Li 1997; 1998).Its fundamental idea is similar to the concepts of “interoperable ware” (software that allows diverse systems to interact) and SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model; a set of technical standards for writing e-learning software code so that is compatible with other e-learning software) (ADL 2010), but it emphasizes the construction of resource banks. A jijian system includes the resource bank—multimedia learning resources, microteaching units, and teaching strategies—and a platform that teachers and students can use to select elements from the resource bank and integrate them (Li and Wang 1997).

Over twenty educational technology journals or magazines are published in China, and these usually reflect the most current research activities. Six of them are core journals in the Chinese social-science journals catalogue: E-Education Research 电化教育研究, China Educational Technology 中国电化教育, Distance Education in China 中国远程教育, Open Education Research 开放教育研究, Modern Educational Technology 现代教育技术, and Distance Education Journal 远程教育杂志 (Nan 2009). Chinese scholars, however, strongly favor theoretical debate over analytic thinking (Nisbett 2003), and rely on personal experience, reflection, and received wisdom to produce new insights (Lei and Zhang, forthcoming). Therefore, few empirical studies of educational technology have been published (Xiang and Zhao 2008; Zhao et al. 2008) and few papers discuss the research methods used. Most published papers consequently do not meet the internationally recognized norms of academic writing. Other researchers (Zhang 2001; Xiang 2004) found that only a quarter of published articles included source citations, and that there were only an average of 1.34 citations per article. Many papers lacked a proper academic foundation (e.g., they were not subjected to expert review) and included citations that were inadequate (Xiang and Zhao 2008); readers also may have found very short reference lists (Jiang 2004; Yang 2005; Zhao et al. 2008) without corresponding citations in the text. These irregularities not only weaken the authors’ theoretical standing, but also demonstrate a neglect of copyright and ethical issues. The situation is improving, however. The number of articles that have an appropriate academic foundation is increasing (Xiang and Zhao 2008) and the average number of citations listed in published papers has increased each year, especially since 2000 (Xiang 2004).


Chinese experts in educational technology think that its development has been very successful so far; China has the largest educational technology enterprise in the world (Nan 2003). They project that educational technology programs in China will become more standardized, with uniform national standards, education plans, and course structures (Huang, Zeng, and Yu 2002; Xu 2009). Since it has become more and more difficult for graduates of these programs to find suitable jobs (Liu 2003), the programs will be structured differently and undergraduate educational technology programs will be eliminated.

Some Chinese scholars have noted that educational technology graduates lack strong theoretical backgrounds in education and psychology, and that there’s not enough communication between educational technology researchers and researchers from other areas in education theory (Liu 2003; Liu and Wang 2001). Both are results of the separation of educational technology departments and education faculties. Consequently, even though some scholars recommend completely separate educational technology and education departments (Nan 2009), many universities have been moving their educational technology programs into their education faculties (Ren and Zhan 2009). In coming years, it’s likely that few universities will retain an independent educational technology department, and as a result, study and research in educational technology generally will be better integrated with research in education.

Educational technology will continue to play an important role in stimulating innovation and promoting equity in education, and improving the quality of rural education (Xu 2009). China is planning to create a digital-services system that will serve all schools by 2020; it also plans to construct a new ICT infrastructure and improve current infrastructure in rural schools to narrow the digital gap further. Other goals include speeding up construction of the Internet2 network (a next-generation network with higher bandwidth capability) and educational TV satellite system, importing high-quality digital resources from Western countries, building its own learning resource banks, and developing more online courses to expand and improve education (MOE 2010). More effort also will be put into training schoolteachers to use ICT (Huang, Zeng, and Yu 2002). In higher education, improving the quality of distance education and online courses will be major tasks in the short term, so expansion of distance education will be limited. Current educational technology applications focus mainly on school education, but in the future they will be expanded to other areas, such as informal education, vocational education, and human-performance training (Xu 2009; Zhang 2002).

Chinese educational technology researchers will continue to track advances in the West but will emphasize the development of theoretical frameworks specific to a Chinese context (Xu 2009; Lei and Zhang, forthcoming). Some scholars in China think that they’ve succeeded already (Li, Z.Y. 2009; Nan 2009; Xu 2009), while others challenge this point of view (Chen 2003; Li, Z.Y. 2009; Ren and Zhan 2009). Since Chinese researchers focus on the application of modern educational media instead of education theory and resources, however, they have not made the intellectual distinction between the science of learning and educational technology that US and other Western researchers have, a distinction that has led to deeper research into using technology in education.

Finally, increasing awareness of weaknesses in research methodology and publications in the field of educational technology should lead to improvements in both, and result in work that is more grounded empirically, better documented, and with appropriate formatting of source citations. In that case, Chinese educational technology researchers likely will have more impact outside China as well (Lei and Zhang, forthcoming).

Further Reading

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