The Daily Hampshire Gazette - UMass China venture on track

The Daily Hampshire Gazette - UMass China venture on track

By Kristin Palpini, Staff writer

The University of Massachusetts is on track to launch its online education program for the Chinese market in January.

If successful, UMass could be the first foreign university to offer an entirely online and sanctioned degree-granting curriculum to the Asian nation. Some other U.S. schools have sanctioned programs in China, but they include both online and in-class elements.

Through a memorandum of understanding signed in March by UMass and China's Continuing Education Association and the CerEdu Corporation, UMass will provide online education to the rising superpower's 1.3 billion people over the next five years.

For China, the appeal of the deal lies in expanding advanced education options in a nation that suffers from a dearth of colleges and universities.

There are only enough institutions of higher education in the Asian nation to serve about 15 percent of the country's college-age population, according to the American Council on Education.

"Access remains a huge problem there," said Joseph B. Berger, chairman of UMass' educational policy resources and administration department. Berger has also been on numerous trips to China with UMass to develop educational training programs for the nation's educational leaders. "There are so many more students that want to go to higher education venues."

Over the next five years, UMass will offer certificate and master degree programs online. The courses will be taught in English and selected from UMassOnline's existing 1,500 class options. While the initial program's roll-out will provide Chinese students with 40 class options, David J. Gray, CEO of UMassOnline, sees additional courses being phased in over time.

"We plan to scale it up over the next four years," said Gray. "We'll probably tweak and adjust (the program) through the first year."

Still, the UMassOnline deal with China is a bit of a pilot program. Within China, there are only 68 universities that have been authorized by the country's Education Ministry to provide online education.

Also, China is a technologically developing nation with only 20 percent of its homes hooked up to the Internet, Gray said.

Ministry of Education approval of the online UMass pact is still pending. Students can take UMassOnline classes, but without approval, their credits will not be officially recognized by the Chinese government.

Robert P. Connolly, a spokesman for the UMass president's office, said the university expects its application for accreditation will be approved.

To circumvent China's lack of home Internet access, Tsinghua University - the school through which UMass is offering its online programs - has established more than 100 off-campus teaching centers in 21 Chinese provinces. The centers contain Internet access for their more than 15,000 enrolled students.

While UMass may be the only foreign university offering fully online degree granting courses in China, at one time there were many outside schools providing programs to the Asian country. In recent years China has curtailed online American university influence, Berger noted.

"Early on, a lot of the efforts from American universities to go into China were just - they saw China as a cash cow," said Berger. "U.S. institutions were trying to get into the market, but not developing relationships and partnerships, and that's important in China, you have to build relationships."

UMass has spent more than 30 years cultivating a relationship with China.

This relationship has intensified over the past four years, through increased international meetings, negotiations to establish higher education facilities and partnerships, and the creation of a five-year program in which teachers from Shaanxi Normal University, in Xi'an, China, will study at UMass.

In 2006, the university established a Chinese culture and language center in Boston, called the Confucius Institute. Last year, UMass opened a technology base at a university in the Hebei Province of the Asian nation.

Although UMass has plans to launch its online program in China in six months, the course list is still being decided.

Classes will belong to four certificate programs and one master's degree program. The master's program has already been chosen.

It will be a degree in instructional design, an online program on how to create other online programs.

UMass is conducting a survey of 6,000 Chinese citizens to better understand the country's higher education needs. At least two certificate programs will be chosen as a result of the survey.

Berger said that in China, there is a demand for professional education in fields such as business, education and engineering.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@gazettenet.com.

Date: 06/30/08

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