Present and Future Education in China: Technological Advancement, Globalization, and Educational Liberation

Sang Xinmin
Nanjing University, China

The following text was adapted from a speech presented at the International School Connection, Inc. Annual Summit in Madrid Spain 2005.

China, a nation with long-standing and mysterious history and culture, has a social custom of respecting teachers and revering education. Over thousands of years, China has evolved a unique oriental cultural and educational tradition. Its emphasis on the unity of knowing and doing, and the integration of knowledge learning and ethics cultivation are the distinguishing features of this tradition. This has helped to keep Chinese society stable and harmonious for thousands of years, but it also brings conservatism and even constraint on human creativity and individuality.

The West greatly exceeded the old East in economy, science and technology motivated by the Industrial Revolution. The industrial civilization presented a great challenge to and made a strong impact on the eastern culture and education. China began to study western culture and education and launched a series of tough reconstructions in education from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The conflict and harmonization between eastern and western education pushed Chinese education to set foot on the long march of modernization, while some precious traditions and treasures in culture and education had been lost. These were obviously the costs that China had to pay during the process of modernization.

Nowadays, the world is rapidly stepping out of industrial civilization and walking into the information age. The current information technology is changing people’s ways of living and learning at a tremendous speed, and leading to the “cyberization”, virtualization, globalization, individualization of education in the developed countries and regions. Now the West is paying more attention to eastern cultural and educational traditions in order to get over the demerits that industrial civilization brought about. At the same time Chinas has also reconsidered the gains and losses over the past century. Under such circumstances, China has begun to study new cultural strategies and implement educational reforms since the turning of the new century, pushing its education into a fast lane of development with the opening and taking-off of its economy and culture.

Four things worth mentioning in the past twenty years of reform are:

1. China, a developing country with the largest population in the world, manages the largest education system in the world with limited economic support. Pressed by a large population, the Chinese government has successfully controlled the increase of its population, with combined forces of regime, policy, propaganda, and education. While population growth and control is not the sole responsibility of education, it does have implications for the conditions of education that must be addressed by the system. This is an important point for understanding the Chinese system, as well as for those who study the educational system and its larger context.

2. Starting from 1985, China spent 15 years to popularize compulsory education, which laid a solid foundation for the improvement of the population and the construction of a modern and effective educational system.

3. Since the 1990s, China has concentrated governmental resources and mobilized social forces to speed up development in higher education. In the past ten years, gross enrollment rates in higher education rose from six percent to nineteen percent, raising the popularity threshold of higher education. Table 1 illustrates this growth from 1995-2004. The top line represents the number of students in all types of higher education. The middle line represents the number of undergraduate students in regular universities and colleges for professional training, and the bottom line represents the number of undergraduates in adult higher education (separated from general higher education, and typically conducted through distance education models). Table 2 reflects the number of graduate students enrolled in higher education from 1995-2004, showing a steep increase over the years.

Table 1: Number of students enrolled in higher education at the national level from 1995-2004 (unit= 10,000 persons) *Data source. From the 1995-2004 China Education Yearbook, Hongkong, Macao and Taiwan were not included.

Table 2: The number of graduate students enrolled in higher education from 1995-2004 (unit= 10,000 persons) *Data source. From the 1995-2004 China Education Yearbook, Hongkong, Macao and Taiwan were not included.

4.In the last ten years, almost starting at the same time as developed countries, information technology was infused into the Chinese educational system with the development of an information infrastructure throughout the country. Since then, a nationwide education information infrastructure has been constructed, covering poor regions, and providing an important technological foundation for educational modernization in China. More significantly, it has enabled a contingent of teachers and students to be trained, who can understand, adapt to, and participate in “cyberculture”. It has been proved that information technology has not only brought changes in the way of education, but also brought profound historic changes in the idea, the model, and the system of education. Figure 1 illustrates the technological infrastructure that was built throughout the country.

*The picture is cited from professor Li Xing (the deputy director of CERNET, 2003). The Development of CERNET. At: http://cernet2003.ha.edu.cn/b1028/3/.

Implications for Educational Development

Intercultural communication and cooperation in the world is a trend of the global education development. In a world of educational globalization, collaboration, and information sharing, it is a common desire to increase communication and cooperation among education management institutions, educational enterprises, schools, and research organizations. However, the communication and cooperation faces many obstacles:

  • Language and culture differences;
  • Lack of experience in using information technology to learn and to communicate;
  • Teachers are only familiar with their subject matters and instruction, but are innocent of educational development and reform and international communication.

Meanwhile, the conditions for cross-cultural communication through the Internet are great, providing opportunities for growth and development. Moreover, the reality that all countries have great needs and strong desires to communicate and cooperate provides a stimulus to move beyond the obstacles mentioned above. Moving beyond the obstacles, and elevating individual dispersed communication to organized systematic cooperation and dialogue among researchers, teachers, and educational managers will greatly improve the depth, scope, and benefits of communication.

Transformed in the process are the pedagogical and didactical models that create greater space for individualized learning, dialogic instruction that is contextually derived and supportive of situated learning, and student-driven education. Through “self-education” students develop self-consciousness and personal mastery, which is the essence of learning and ultimate goal of education.

In the Information age, social life is becoming more digital, more networked, more global. With the popularization of modern educational technology, high technology will play an increasingly important role in education, and completely transform the old educational model, an inefficient labor-intensive model based on lectures and cramming methods. It will converge school education, home education, and social education, and realize a multi-level development and reasonable configuration of human and material resources. Only in this way can teachers’ productivity and teachers and students’ creativity be liberated. Only in this way can educational modernization be truly realized. Education is more than a science. It is an art as well.

Hereby I would like to end my speech with an essay I wrote at the turning of the 21st century for a piece of my digital photographic work. Mind is developed from nature. However, as mind becomes mature, it tends to forsake nature, transcend it, and even transform it and conquer it. Mind becomes twisted and alienated when it starts to plunder and destroy nature.

Today, mind and nature set their feet in a new era of digitalized survival. With the help of digits, mind is able to probe into nature and present it visually, or arbitrarily plunder it. There in lies the question: Are digits fortunes or disasters, joy or suffering to mind and nature? The answer lies not only in mind’s taming of digits, but also in its reflection upon nature and upon itself via digits. The spiritual reflection in the digital age needs artistic inspiration as well as philosophical wisdom. I hope, mind can take advantage of the incredible new developments and pursuits of digitalization to have a better understanding of nature, return at a more advanced level to nature and eventually find its original tranquility, and create truer, kinder harmony among nature, mind and digits.