Online learning shift contends with Chinese internet restrictions

Academics at overseas universities find it a challenge to ensure mainland students can access all course materials

April 15, 2020
Source: iStock

The world’s mass shift to online learning is shining a more intense light on the Chinese government’s tight internet controls and is spurring new efforts by academics to provide students with unimpeded access to course materials.

Many popular online platforms – including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and some Google functions – are largely inaccessible to teachers and students on the Chinese mainland. Meanwhile, domestic Chinese platforms have built-in filters to block politically sensitive materials and are often monitored.

Some foreign universities now find themselves unable to engage fully with students who have returned to mainland China during the coronavirus pandemic. Educators are scrambling to upload materials to whatever platforms they find handy and usable, and many lack experience dealing with Chinese internet restrictions, widely described as the great firewall of China.

The most common workaround is to have students in mainland China use virtual private networks, or VPNs, which redirect data away from users’ physical geographical locations. But even VPNs are not always reliable.

A staff member at a British university who coordinates between teachers in the UK and overseas students told Times Higher Education that the VPN provided by the institution for use in online classes was “not very effective in China”. Speaking anonymously, she said that many mainland Chinese students could not access materials via the VPN, although other international students could.

“Teaching online is quite difficult now,” she said. “Many [mainland Chinese] students need to search for paid and more advanced VPN services.”

While some companies and institutions have approved VPN usage rights in China, members of the public are generally barred from using the networks.

Katrin Kinzelbach, co-director of the master’s in human rights programme at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) in Germany, told THE that she welcomed the greater emphasis on digital education but warned that it came with risks.

“For example, it becomes very easy to record class discussions,” she said. “This might incentivise China experts to self-censor, and it could further expose Chinese students who study abroad.”

Professor Kinzelbach will teach a political science class on China next term, and she will deliver it digitally. “I am already thinking about how to deal with the possibility of being recorded, and how to manage student discussions online,” she said.

Masato Kajimoto, an expert in misinformation ecosystems at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, told THE that he used the open-source learning platform Moodle to ensure that all students in mainland China could access all course materials (Hong Kong is outside the great firewall).

“I upload everything that is blocked (or I suspect might be blocked) for the students currently in the mainland,” he said.

“For example, links to YouTube videos work perfectly fine for most students in Hong Kong, but not in mainland China. So I download all YouTube videos and re-upload them to our course page – to the extent legally allowed for educational purposes, of course.”

According to Dr Kajimoto, “Moodle is a closed platform, and the content won’t be accessible to outsiders.”

Asked if the great firewall could hamper the delivery of educational materials from outside China, he said, “My experience is actually the opposite.” In some cases, the shift online has given mainland Chinese students more access to materials from the rest of the world, it appears.

“I have seen some online courses featuring materials that may be normally blocked if they are published openly on the internet in the mainland, but [which are] actually accessible to the learners there,” Dr Kajimoto said.

Jing Liu contributed reporting.

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