Most Popular MOOCs in China? Think Modeling, Math, and Finance

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Coursera, one of the better-known providers of massive, open, online courses, or MOOCs, recently announced a partnership with a Chinese company, NetEase, a move that the Silicon Valley organization predicts will speed up the access that students in the Asian country have to its Web-based videos.

The online company’s courses are already available, albeit not at the speeds Coursera wants, to students in China, where a growing number of U.S. education companies appear to have found an attractive and burgeoning market. Some of Coursera’s online classes, in fact, already come with subtitles in Mandarin or are being taught in that language.

So which of Coursera’s classes are proving most popular in the country of 1.3 billion?

The following list, which Eli Bildner, Coursera’s project manager for international growth, provided to Education Week, offers some insights on where the demand for online materials is now, and where demand for education overall may be headed:

 1. Model Thinking

This University of Michigan course integrates algebra and other subjects, and, according to a description, will “provide a foundation for future social science classes, whether they be in economics, political science, business, or sociology.”

2. Introduction to Finance

3. Machine Learning

Defined as the “science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed,” this course promises a “broad introduction to machine learning, datamining, and statistical pattern recognition.”

4. Algorithims, Design and Analysis

5. Algorithims, Part 1

6. Game Theory

7. Probabilistic Graphical Models

8. Introduction to Interactive Programming

9. Think Again (How to Reason and Argue)

Students will learn “simple but vital rules to follow in thinking about any topic at all and some common and tempting mistakes to avoid in reasoning,” says the description of the course, created by Duke University faculty. “We will discuss how to identify, analyze, and evaluate arguments by other people (including politicians, used car salesmen, and teachers) and how to construct arguments of your own in order to help you decide what to believe or what to do.”

10. Introduction to Logic

The creators of the class say it offers a “novel theory of logic that improves accessibility while preserving rigor,” and is “laced with interactive demonstrations and exercises that suggest the many practical applications of the field.”


Most of those courses would seem to be directed at postsecondary students and adults, though a few of them might also appeal to advanced younger students, or to K-12 teachers, an audience MOOCs are trying to attract.

The partnership with NetEase coincides with the launch of Coursera Zone, a Chinese-language Web portal that Coursera says will offer resources to help Chinese users use the company’s platform, including synopses of courses, and testimonials from students.

Coursera officials decided to pursue the partnership with NetEase upon learning that the company had relatively few users in China, compared to the overall percentage of the population there that has Internet access, Bildner explained in an interview. The company was determined to change that.

The main advantage for Coursera in partnering with NetEase, which is headquartered in Beijing, is that it increases the speed through which users in China are able to load videos and other information. Many foreign sites in China tend to load slowly, which Bildner attributes to lack of tech infrastructure, more than attempts by the Chinese government to restrict information. Coursera hopes NetEase will increase speed for Chinese users by providing a reliable content distribution service—one that is based in China, rather than the U.S.-based one Coursera otherwise relies on. Even if Coursera materials were blocked by Chinese authorities, users in China would still be able to access those classes from U.S.-based servers, Bildner said.

Of all of Coursera’s university partners, a small number, fewer than 5 percent, have opted out of the arrangement, Bildner said, mostly citing concerns about lack of academic freedom or censorship in China. (Coursera would not identify the universities that have chosen not to take part.) In practical terms, those decisions means that Chinese students accessing video content from those universities will have video provided by servers in the U.S., not China, meaning the content will load more slowly, Coursera explained in a follow-up email.

Expect other online providers to take steps of their own to increase their reach in China in the time to come. 

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