China Universities on the Move

See also: The Fall of America's Universities

If American universities are concerned about the rise of Asian and particularly Chinese higher education, it is in the scenic hills of Shantou, once one of China’s Treaty Ports, that they should look. A Guangdong Province city of 5 million people that failed to blossom as one of the original Special Economic Zones established at Deng Xiaoping’s behest in the 1980s, it is growing to become one of the powerhouses in the Chinese education system.

The university, established 28 years ago as a medical school, was boosted into the big time via an HK$3.1 billion (US$400 million) bequest from Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing. In particular, the school, with 17,000 students, is the home of the Cheung Kong Journalism and Communications School, named for Li’s flagship conglomerate.

Shantou itself is a component of a national university system kicked off in 1995 and called Project 211, partly as a reminder that it is a 21st-century development and partly because there are about 100 universities across China in the network. Project 211 grew out of concerns on the part of China’s Ministry of Education that the country, with 1.3 billion people, had only about 30 universities that could meet international research standards. Project 211 is designed to foster a high-level elite for national economic and social development strategy through common scientific, technical and other standards, according to an analysis of the program.

Shantou has grown away from its medical college roots to do inquiry-based education in engineering, digital technology, communications and applied sciences and math. It is now at the forefront of implementing those standards by reaching out to education partners worldwide, particularly western education institutions known for technical innovation as well as top tech companies like Apple Computer Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc., and by inventing their own open source courseware to facilitate e-learning and global exchanges of ideas.

The Cheung Kong media school has been working since 2008 to launch the Chinese version of the Apple Authorized Training Center for Education (AATCE) program, put together by Apple for academic institutions to integrate certified professional training into their existing accredited curricula. The Shantou program is now the largest of its kind developed by Apple, training 160 students a year in design software that they will use in media production jobs. Apple has donated dozens of computers and helped the Cheung Kong school put up shop for digital media training. The students work on video editing and web design.

Li Ka-shing has continued to support the program as well through his foundation, sending three consultants to the school to do everything from tweaking the living arrangements model, to building better infrastructure and introducing accounting classes that move the school away from "cash accounting" to more global standards.

The Center's CTO, Jeremiah Foo, said in an interview that with the new equipment, Shantou has become the largest media training center in southern China, and that it trains more students than on any other individual platform run by the Cupertino, California-based company.

"The number of students for certification will grow," Foo said. "We will scale this university-wide first, then we will see how we can take the system elsewhere."

Foo is working with Yuen-ying Chan, the director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at Hong Kong University as well as dean and professor of the Cheung Kong school, along with her faculty and technologists to build a completely open-source online campus, called iCampus 2.0. Ying says she believes that they are on the frontier of the evolution of education in China. iCampus 2.0, Foo says, has caught the interest of several other departments. The school is working with Ying's program to build the open source technology platform into everything the school is doing. There are eventual plans to distribute this open source software to other universities as well.

Foo said he is also working with the founder of the Osaka-based Sharp Electronics, Dr. Tadashi Sasaki, to build a mobile front-end component for the open source back-end, which students use now to post interviews, assignments, blogs, and to check up on course work and teachers. Foo describes it as a competitor to Blackboard, a corporate course-wares solution that has been pitched to schools world-wide, but that his version is more open to Chinese.

That ease of entry with technology can be expected to help Shantou students' ambitions. Like some other schools in China, Shantou is aggressively looking to collaborate with schools in the West to provide their students better training at a lower cost. Mobile does that, but some current solutions for content sometimes do not.

"Developers in the West don't think like Chinese," Foo said. "We simplify everything into 'human level' language," he says. "Human level" is language and computer usage that is easy to understand for language-learners who learned their first language in character sets that are not Roman.

Don't expect the students to only speak in Chinese. They have already launched initiatives at the school that openly connect them to American issues in English. The school sent seven students to cover Obama's presidential bid. The Cheung Kong School has also established up arrangements with companies in Malaysia and with the Asia Society to do reporting for them by putting together documentaries for certain categories of topics.