Facebook wants to get into China. Or, at least that’s what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has led us to think. On a recent visit to China, he declared, “If you want to connect the whole world, how can you leave out 1.6 billion people?” Well, Mr. Zuckerberg will have to find a way to crack the Great Firewall — the impregnable Chinese Internet blocking system in place. No Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube on the Chinese mainland. Because of social unrest in Xinjiang over a year ago, the Chinese government has put in secure measures to contain social media traffic.
But, as China looks to guard itself against intrusion, the country is also seizing on new initiatives to catalyze innovation through a drive to increase the number of patents, with the goal of 2 million by the year 2015, up from 300,000 applications in 2010. In The New York Times, David J. Kappos, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office explains: “The leadership in China knows that innovation is its future, the key to higher living standards and long-term growth. They are doing everything they can to drive innovation, and China’s patent strategy is part of that broader plan.”
Having just returned from China as part of the International Society for Technology Education led People to People delegation, which comprised thirty U.S. school and university educators, I was able to experience the limits of social media in China, and to see the engine of innovation at work.
I toured and visited schools in Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai, and saw primary and secondary schools, and universities. From the remote, rural Dongtun primary school, to the high tech, futuristic Shanghai TV University, I viewed a China as wide as the Mongolian steppe in terms of technology integration, access, infrastructure, and innovation.
At the Dongtun primary school, situated 90 minutes outside of Xian in central China, there was no heat (it was 20 degrees outside), and students sat in tight rows, doing recitation work. The students wore winter hats, coats, and gloves to stay warm, and while there was a coal burning stove in the corner of each classroom, it did not generate much heat. There is one computer for the whole village, and its use centers around increasing knowledge about agriculture for the farmers. The Chinese government has committed to putting one computer in every village, and the computer lives inside the home of one person. The purpose is to give access to agricultural information.
In sharp contrast to the rural schooling, the work at Shanghai TV University is visionary and accelerating at a fast pace. They took us into a surround vision room with interactive screens on the floors and walls. It was a stunning atmosphere, with touch screen, and holographic imagery. The Microsoft Envisioning the Future project is what comes closest to what we saw. Shanghai TV University claims that they are a year away from deployment in homes and schools. In our discussion with the Shanghai TV University educators, they expressed interest in learning about differentiated instruction, one to one computing, collaboration, and creativity. They want to begin to move away from textbooks, and exam focused teaching, to utilize multi-modal approaches to make teaching and learning more engaging. Interestingly, the day I left for China, international test scores showed that Shanghai students are at the top of the world in reading, science, and math. On The Program for International Student Assessment, a test run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Shanghai blew away the competition.
There will no doubt be continuing tension between new modes of teaching and attention to testing and success, as measured by performance on traditional assessments. In The Wall Street Journal, Chinese educator Jiang Xueqin, comments: “Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests. For that reason, they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.” Jiang goes on to ask: “But what about the entrepreneurs and innovators needed to run a 21st century global economy? China’s most promising students still must go abroad to develop their managerial drive and creativity, and there they have to unlearn the test-centric approach to knowledge that was drilled into them.”
The most interesting discussion occurred at the YKPao International School in Shanghai. We talked about a technology vision for the future, if given a blank slate, like the one YKPao has in starting its secondary program. YKPao is currently a K-6 school, but is expanding to add a secondary 7-12 school, on a separate New England boarding school modeled campus.
However, much of a new technology vision is constrained by government control of access to the Internet, blogs, and collaborative learning community models. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and objectionable content, like certain New York times articles, are all blocked. CNN is tightly controlled. When watching CNN at the hotel, the screen would go black for minutes at a time, and then come back on. YKPao and Beijing International School, another school that we visited, both expressed frustration with the censorship, and the limitations it places on their ability to open up access for their students.
The first item that rose to the surface in our discussion with YKPao educators, who were from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, was the issue of email and whether schools are doing a disservice in continuing to teach students with email. As many of us know, email is the messaging of last resort for students. Real-time communication in the form of chat, text, and video dominate their social interactions online.
A recent NYTimes article supports this trend. Andrew Bosworth, director of engineering at Facebook, comments in the Times article: “The future of messaging is more real time, more conversational and more casual. The medium isn’t the message. The message is the message.”
James E. Katz, the director for the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University, explains, in the same Times article: “It’s painful for them [the younger generation]. It doesn’t suit their social intensity.”
At Beijing International School, where many students stay for two to three years at a time before their families are relocated, the school creates digital portfolios with students, from application to graduation. Families want access to their child’s learning, as they migrate to different parts of the world. Everything lives in the Cloud. Every year is carefully organized, mapped out, and continuous, so that they also know their students really well. They have student led conferences where kids share their digital portfolios.
Beijing International School is hosting a conference on the Flat Classroom Project in late February. They have partnered with Katie Salen’s Quest to Learn School in New York City, using Gamestar Mechanic, which “was designed as a learning platform to foster the development of 21st Century skills while teaching the principles of game design.” Beijing students create and design their own games, and iterate through the process with students in New York City, testing prototypes and receiving feedback. They are using design thinking, and are intrigued by the opportunities with game design.
The two international schools, YKPao and Beijing International, are global in their outlook and approaches, and open and eager for innovation with technology. They are just further along than the Chinese schools that we visited, but the Chinese educators with whom we met share interest in innovation, collaboration, and technology integration, and appear to want to move at a fast clip, like Shanghai TV University, to catch up and even surpass U.S. educational approaches. Our tour guide in Shanghai captured the pace of innovation there when she said that she buys a new map every six months because the city is changing so fast.
I am fascinated to follow the direction that China heads in with technology integration, social media, especially if Facebook can gain a foothold in China, and education.