Interview with CICIStudy: Chinese portal for OpenCourseWare courses

January 3, 2011, [MD]

I first became aware of the explosion in interest around foreign open courses in China when I was asked for an interview by a Chinese reporter writing about this phenomenon (interview in Chinese). Instead of the traditional 开放式课程 (kaifangshi kecheng) - quite a literal translation of "open courses / open courseware", the new term being used is 公开课 (public / open courses).

A little linguistic aside: Here is what the ABC Chinese Dictionary says about kaifang: "1) come into bloom 2) lift a ban/etc. 3) open to traffic or public use; open to the world 4) be turned on, be in operation 5) hand over a government monopoly to private operations". For gongkai: "V. make public; make known to the public. S.V. open; overt; public".

In addition to the above, my initial associations with the two words above (as a non-native speaker) is the following: kaifang was used a lot for the liberalization and reform movement in the 1980's and going forwards. It can also be used about people to mean that they are liberal, even loose, or "open minded". It has traditionally been used for open in OER, open source, open courseware, etc. Seeing the dictionary definitions above, it is something that "has been opened" as a conscious act, by someone. Gongkai to me seems to reflect something that is "public", almost by its nature, where access to it is almost a right.

Either way, there is now a very strong public interest in these courses, with this new catchy name, and a number of website portals have been created, which feature the video lectures from Yale, Stanford, MIT, etc.

While browsing, I came across CICIStudy, and found it to be a site with very clean design, and nice functionality. I was very curious as to who had started it, what their purpose was, etc., and sent an interview to the e-mail listed on their website asking for an interview - which they graciously granted.

I found their take on the developing interest in open courses in China to be very interesting, and I wish them the best of luck in the future!

(The original interview was conducted in Chinese, and the full text is available. I did the translation, and CICIStudy has not had a chance to review it for accuracy. Since the term gongkaike does not differentiate between OpenCourseWare and other open course projects, I have translated it as "open courses" below.)

1. Who are you? What is your background? What kind of an organization is CICIStudy? Is it a part of a larger company, or a company that was just started for this purpose? Or are you just doing it as a group? Currently our group is not part of any company, and we have not created a company ourselves, everything is in the beginning phase. But this doesn’t mean that it is difficult for us to create an excellent service, the members of the group have backgrounds from large companies such as Microsoft, and are extremely familiar with web development, which guarantees that we are able to effectively develop CICIStudy.

2. How did you first hear about, or get interested in open courses courses? Why do you think they are useful and important to Chinese students?

At the beginning of 2010, I had only barely heard about open courses, and watched a few course recordings. I though it was great, but didn’t pay that much attention. I had no idea that the phenomenon of open courses had grown so large in other countries. In April, I happened to watch a news report about open courses, and suddenly realized the importance of providing a local platform for these resources. That evening, I began to seek out resources, and plan the development of CICIStudy.

Three days later, I began seriously planning and designing the site. After launching the site, I began to understand open courses more in depth. Whether these courses are transmitting knowledge, or spreading moral values, they touch people profoundly.

So far, these courses have not been able to have a large impact on Chinese students – they might watch a lecture after they are finished repeating homework, going to class, and all the other activities of a university student.

However, the courses are still very important – being able to provide access to wisdom for students who seek it is already of extraordinary value. And the real value created is not just limited to students – from the feedback we have received to the site, we know that 60 year olds are equally interested in the courses.

3. What is the goal of CICIStudy? What kind of functionality do you provide? What CICIStudy wants to provide is a stream of information that contains condensed wisdom. The goal of the platform is for people to be able to very easily receive high quality education (unequal distribution of educational resources has always been a problem). At the same time, learners should be able to receive guidance and communicate with other learners, so that the learning becomes truly participatory, and not just limited to downloading and viewing.

This means that for CICIStudy, how to enable everyone to learn more effectively becomes the key question, and the development of all features must be centred around this goal. Also, we are not at all restricted to only offering open course resources, even if open courses are currently the best, and most attractive resources available, which is why we chose to present them as the main feature.

4. Lately, Chinese white-collar workers have taken an explosive interest in open courses, why? Open courses have existed since 2003, why is it only now that so many people in China became interested in them? I think it all began with some subtitling groups, which about half a year ago began to subtitle videos from Yale and other universities, on their own initiative. Since this had removed the language barrier that prevented Chinese net users from accessing the videos, and given the wide renown of the universities involved, this led to much interest, and extremely high download/view numbers from video sharing sites. This in turn led to the first newspaper article, which began a continuous stream of news coverage, only serving to increase the general interest in these videos.

In 2003, these special conditions did not exist. The scale and reach of subtitling groups was still very small, and video sharing sites and community portals were also in the very beginning of their development trajectory. At that time, there wasn’t the level of reflection around educational issues as there is today, and finally, the media was not as interested at that time, as they are today. All of these factors, as well as other direct and indirect factors, led the open course phenomenon to explode this year – it wasn’t random.

5. There are other websites that do very similar things to you, for example NetEase Open Courses. What is special about your site, how can you compete with these other sites?

NetEase Open Courses site is a part of the NetEase video site. Currently, they are focusing on how to overcome the linguistic obstacles, by hiring translation agencies to subtitle videos. CICIStudy is more concerned about becoming a platform that enables learning. Displaying the videos to the users is fulfilling one step of sharing open resources, but it’s not enough. It would be irresponsible to ignore the need for learner initiative and enthusiasm during the learning process.

We hope that the platform will enable us to explore and research effective ways of enabling all students interested in acquiring more knowledge to do so effectively with rich communication and collaboration. On one hand, virtualizing the traditional classroom with it’s socratic interactions provides an atmosphere of deep thought and reflection, on the other hand. On the other hand, utilizing the web’s potential for rich media and immediacy enables us to amplify the advantages of traditional distance education.

Currently, we are still very far from achieving our goal, but whether we will be successful or not, this kind of research is still very valuable.

6. What is your business model? Will you let people pay for accessing courses in the future? Open Courses are based around Creative Commons licenses, and so far the materials I have seen all require sharing to be in a non-commercial situation. How to find an effective business model in such a situation is still a paradox. We would like to be able to consult with the rights owners to ease the situation a bit, so that we could keep the site running. Of course, if there were foundations or other organizations that could provide financial support, that would be of huge help, but currently we don’t have any leads in this field.

One thing that is certain, is that there will never be a situation where people need to pay to be able to access resources on our site, they will always be freely available to anyone who are interested. Even if we acquired materials that we owned the copyright to, we would not close off access – that would go against our initial principles.

7. Foreign open courses use open licenses, so using them is not “piracy”. Is that important to you? How do you make sure that your website respects the requirements of these licenses? You are right, this is very important to us, we really hope that we are respecting the licenses properly. We show the CC logo and the fact that this resource is licensed under a CC-license on every video page, but there might still be some oversights.

From my personal point of view, the understanding of CC licenses in China is still very weak. We are still in the phase of stressing the importance of copyright protection, and the concept of the creative commons has not gotten wide recognition yet. People have not yet reflected much about the meaning of knowledge sharing, and abuses of open licenses.

8. What do you think about the Chinese National Top Level Courses Project? Are there excellent resources there as well? Will you consider including resources from Top Level Courses on your website in the future?

It’s very difficult for me to give an accurate assessment of the Top Level Courses, since I have not reviewed these resources systematically, although I am sure that the courses contain many excellent resources. I have never participated in the production of Top Level Courses at university-level, but I helped out as a student in the production of video courses at my high school. The teachers who were delivering the video lectures would spend a lot of time preparing, beginning almost a month before the lecture took place, and they made sure to use multimedia appropriately.

This left a deep impression on me, at that time I even created a Flash website as assist in the learning. The Top Level Courses Project probably also has a lot of really great websites that promote interaction. However, when I went to the main portal site, I only saw a point-based system for downloading resources, which limits the distribution of these resources.

In the future, if the licensing problem gets resolved, I hope that we can put these resources on our website and make them available to all of our users. There are many great lecturers in China, and their Top Level Courses can be great for learning. It’s a real shame that we are currently unable to share these courses.

9. What is your future development plan for your platform, and group? New features, contents, services? The development of CICIStudy has already reached milestone number 3, and between the 10th and 15th of January, we will release new functionality to the site. This will include taking course notes, and rating these among users, collaborative translation, search functionality, better organization of the lecture videos, etc. We are currently exploring and researching better and richer ways of studying.

Thank you very much to CICIStudy for generously agreeing to this interview, and for providing Chinese learners with more opportunities.

Stian Håklev January 3, 2011 Toronto, Canada
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