Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

Great Firewall of China

I’m on research and study leave (aka Sabbatical) this year and I see that I have been ignoring my blog as well as a number of other “normal responsibilities”. But I have been learning and enjoying. After a 6 week road trip through Eastern Canada and the USA, my wife Susan and I  are just ending a 4 week visit to China.

Our VERY gracious hosts for this trip have been the faculty and students in Distance Education and Educational Technology at Beijing Normal University. Education universities here in China still use (in English) the rather old fashioned term “Normal University” – (not implying that other universities are not normal, nor that the education ones are more normal in the modern sense of the word). Beijing Normal University BNU was founded in 1902 and is China’s 2nd oldest and one of the 3 or 4 most highly respected Universities in China.

I was charged withdoing lectures in 6 classes for PhD and Masters students, 2 lectures for Faculty and students and along the way, accepted invitations to talk at 3 other Universities. In addition I was asked to do a literature review on Interaction in Online Learning. Given the overwhelming interest in various types and modes of interaction in online education in the literature and in my own career, I didn’t think this should be too great a problem. With the help of a grad student from Canada, we did Google Scholar searches for the 10 most cited articles in each of the past 10 years, that included the words Interaction and “distance education” or “online education” or elearning in the title. We then began classifying them by types of interaction (student-student, student content etc.), methodology, context and tried to get a sense of results of recent scholarship. To increase efficiency we stored our spreadsheet of results and first outlines of the paper on DropBox.

Well, major surprises when I attempt to to continue the work in China.  I had heard that some Google services weren’t available, so I changed my browsers to use Microsoft Bing for searches -which worked OK, but much less coverage from Google Search). But I began to realize how Gogglized my life had become. Fortunately Google Mail works most of the time, but Google Scholar was also disabled along with Maps, Image search, Google Books, Google Earth, YouTube and most everything else Google that I use.  Wikipedia lists 2,701 banned sites but I am told that sites come and go with irregular frequency and certainly no accountability. I was particularly sad to loose Google Scholar because I have it set to let me access all of the full text works from closed works that are not available on the Internet but are available to folks like myself with university access to a number of journal databases. I am able to logon to my university library account directly, but when this hotel internet, (shared with MANY University offices) gets used during daylight hours, Internet speed gets VERY slow.

I knew that Google and the Chinese government had a major dustup, but I was surprised to see how many other services were blocked. no Twitter, no Slideshare, No DropBox, No FaceBook,  and likely a number of other services. For the first week, I couldn’t access CBC.com but now it is available – perhaps the Chinese Government  has gotten over the outrageous behariour of either our Prime Minsiter or Jian Ghomeshi, even if I haven’t!)

I also came to realize how Googlized other aspects of my life have become. As Editor Erimitus of IRRODL.COM, I was very surprised to find that this open access journal is basically unusable here in China. We had installed an automatic translator app, in large part becuase of the growing interest in China and many other developing countries in distance education research. But I had forgotten that it used Google Translate (banned). Further investigation found that we used Google analytics, google API’s that are built into the Open Journal System we use and one other Google service – on each page view!  As result the IRRODL site works SLOWLY, one has to wait while it calls and eventually times out on 4 different calls to banned services, making it functionally useless. sigh…

Most of new Chinese friends are aware of the problem, but have a number of standard responses. First, the blocked services have invigorated a number of Chinese social networks and commercial services. Many of these web services such as wechatRenrenDouban  and Jiepang  have millions of users (they have achieved critical mass) and arguably are as good or better than English language services. Secondly most academics use their library databases and seem quite resigned (no protests in the streets here) to doing without some of the systems that have become part of my personal learning network. Finally, there are MANY services which provide services for $5-10 month. I asked a friend if they were not worried that the government would come down on them for bypassing their control systems. He was quite confident that the government didn’t mind, as they were doubtlessly monitoring his VPN access and getting the potential miscreants using fewer services makes their monitoring job easier!

So, it has a been a great visit to China. We’ve seen many of the top tourist sites, squeezed into quite a few over crowded buses, subways and elevators and had many conversations with fascinating students, academics and ordinary Chinese- well at least those who speak English.

I can understand the Chinese motivation to get out of the domination of new media by Western (and mostly USA) services. We’ve been struggling with that in Canada for decades. But heavy handed blocking seems to make academics compete in research endeavours with one English language arm tied behind their back!

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3 Comments

  1. Jo Ann Hammond-Meiers Jo Ann Hammond-Meiers
    December 13, 2014    

    Great Post Terry, Leaning a great deal about Google dependency is a bonus. I hope you and Susan enjoy the rest of your Sabbatical year. Wonderful!

  2. Bronwyn Hegarty Bronwyn Hegarty
    December 14, 2014    

    So Google hasn’t taken over the world yet! It sure makes it difficult to collaborate with scholars from China or to distance facilitate students I expect.

    I was working for a short while with a college teacher from Guangdong who visited Otago Polytechnic. He was excited by Google Scholar while here but had no clue how to search for literature. Having Chinese specific social networks is well and good but how can they expect to collaborate globally. Also, I wonder how much freedom do educators have to express their views?

    The question is, does inhibited access to worldwide networks lead to narrow insular thinking or does it preserve cultures?

    Thanks for sharing your experiences Terry. It helps to make us more aware of the aspects we need to consider when working with people from other cultures.

  3. Tore Hoel Tore Hoel
    December 18, 2014    

    You describe very well the situation I have been experiencing for some month now as a visiting scholar at ECNU in Shanghai. Thanks! The problem is not freedom to express one’s view (in an academic context), but the added burden to try to work in a language that is utterly foreign and burdensome. Google have the best tools for searching, translating, collaborative writing, etc, and when you don’t have access to them, you are working with one arm on your back, as Terry says. I know that as a Norwegian, having to work in English. Again and again, I see papers drafted in Mandarin and in the last minute translated to English. The result is often deplorable, as the languages are so far apart, also conceptually. It is no solution to establish international journals with Chinese editors and English as publishing language, when they put all this extra burden on bringing in the international literature one need as context.

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