ICETC in Changchun: International conferences in China

August 9, 2011, [MD]

While in Hong Kong attending CSCL, I was surprised to receive an invitiation by Professor Li Luyi at Northwestern Normal University in Changchun to give a keynote lecture at the upcoming International Conference on Educational Technology and Computer. Since I would be participating in the Beijing post-conference and doctoral summer school at the same time, I initially thought that it would not be possible, but we were able to arrange it in the end.

The conference

I would have loved to see more of Changchun, but it was a short visit. I landed in Changchun late in the evening, gave my keynote the next morning, and attended the conference during the day. I just had time to attend part of the banquet in the evening, before I was whisked back to the airport. I don't think I have ever flown somewhere for less than 24 hours, but despite the short time, the conference was full of interesting people and experiences.

The morning begun with myself, Dr. Wang Qiyun from the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and a professor from Bangkok giving our keynote presentations. We went back for the hotel for lunch, and then to another campus for the individual conference presentations.

Quality and pressure

China is pushing hard to expand both the "objective" quality of its academic output, and its academic standing in the world. Part of this process is attracting international conferences to China, and encouraging Chinese academics to publish in international journals, or present at international conferences. Often this pressure can be very strong, whether in the form of refusing any MA student to graduate, who doesn't have a certain number of publications, or offering monetary compensation, sometimes equivalent to several years' of salary, for a single publication in a prestigious international journal.

Some international journals prey on this pressure, offering easy publication with a steep publishing fee. Given the low price of publishing a poor quality online-only publication, most of the author-fee is considered profit, while the Chinese researcher gets a publication to list on their CV. The difficulty for many universities and department heads to sort out which international journals are reputable might be what has lead to the "cargo cult" around SSCI and SCI rankings - this means everything to Chinese academics, and they are often incredulous when I tell them that Western researchers might not be aware of which specific journals are or are not listed on the SSCI index.

The ICETC conference also showed some of these tensions. The conference had received many hundred submissions, and accepted more than 400 papers, which had all been printed in a gigantic proceedings (luckily, we did not receive a hardcopy each). However, many of the participants were quite happy to pay the few hundred yuan participation fee, and have their paper appear in the proceedings, so they did not show up for the actual conference. In fact, after lunch, when I was asked to chair a session, only four presenters out of 24 on the program showed up to present. Of these, the quality was quite poor, and one had not even been aware that he would need to present his paper.


The conference was billed as an international conference, supported by an international organization, and all publications and communications were in English. However, almost all participants were mainland Chinese, with the exceptions of a few visitors from Taiwan and Singapore, and the Thai professor. In my session, the papers were all delivered in English, but every single person in the audience spoke Mandarin fluently, and the question and answer sessions often turned into Chinese (which was much more productive, since the English levels of the participants were often not very good).

However, there was one unexpected "international" aspect of the conference: the local students. Unbeknownst to me, Northwestern Normal University has a large group of international students in education, many of which were present. I met a number of students from Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Columbia and other countries doing their MAs and PhDs at the university, often with Chinese state scholarships. (For example, China offers 50 PhD scholarships to Pakistan each year, which makes up a substantial proportion of all PhD positions for Pakistani students). Some of these students spoke fluent Chinese, while others were studying in English.

There was a large difference in the demeanour of these students to their Chinese counterparts. Many of them had been quite senior in their home countries before coming to China, and had much more "life experience", and they were not afraid to ask critical questions of the presenters. After my keynote, every single question that I received came from one of these international students, while the Chinese students and professors sat silent (of course, difference in English levels could also have played a role).

I have been aware of the case of international students in China for a long time - when I first came to China in 2001, I had several friends among the large group of African international students at Wuhan University, and already on my way towards China, I met a large group of Nepali medical students at the university in Cheboksari in Russia. However, through all my visits to top schools of education in China, I have not met any international students, so this was an interesting experience. It also points towards an alternative route for "internationalization", and it would be interesting to look at what effect a significant group of international students can have on the Chinese students, and on the atmosphere in the class.


As I mentioned above, the academic level of the conference was quite low, but I still very much enjoyed it. The organization was great, and I met a number of interesting Chinese and international researchers whom I am sure I will stay in touch with. I know this blog post might seem critical, but I am very appreciate of the strong efforts Chinese universities and individual academics are putting in to bolster the level of research and exchange, and I think even such a "not quite international" conference can be a great starting point for graduate students who have never attended a large conference before. I look forward to seeing ICETC growing and improving, and I am very happy that I had the opportunity to interact with the students and staff at Northwestern Normal University!


Stian Håklev August 9, 2011 Toronto, Canada
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