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Advanced Distance Learning
Liu Ji'an, China Education Daily

I. What Is Advanced Distance Learning?

Distance Learning refers to a certain kind of education in which academic courses are delivered to one or multiple sites outside the campus. Advanced Distance Learning refers to a certain kind of education in which academic courses are delivered to places outside the campus via voice, video (live broadcast or rebroadcast), as well as real-time and non-real-time computer technologies.

II. Distance Learning: Evolution

Distance Learning in the world may be traced back to 1930's, which, with IT evolution, especially with the advent of Internet, has upgraded to a brand new stage.

Before 1950's, Distance Learning (e.g. printer, radio receiver and TV set) featured one-way transmission from teachers to students, implementing limited communication between teachers and students but failing to implement inter-student communication. Moreover, the first generation of transmission was also a time-dependent technology (e.g. students could only listen to radio or teleview the programs at pre-scheduled time).

The second generation of Distance Learning technology came into being in 1960's, which significantly alleviated the time-dependent feature of the G1 technology. Emergence of video recorder and cable TV, which partially eliminated the time dependence in Distance Learning, delivered the recorded contents to students for reviewing at their will. However, compared with G1 technology, the essential feature kept the same: inter-student and student-teacher communications was still rather limited.

Since 1980's, PC began to take a hand in Distance Learning, then came the two-way video conferencing technology. Compared with its predecessors, G3 Distance Learning technology features higher throughput, enabling inter-student and teacher-student communications via e-mail, BBS and electronic bulletin board. Computer aided teaching, computer simulation, as well as electronic resources accessible via such media as disk, CD-ROM and Internet further exhibit the features of G3 technology.

The fourth generation of Distance Learning technology enhances the inter-student and teacher-student communications, significantly increases the quantity and varies the types of information communicable and shortens the communication cycle, alleviating time/space-dependence in Distance Learning and making it possible to implement virtual universities so called.

Advanced Distance Learning assembles the G2, G3 and G4 technologies.

III. Distance Learning: Highlights

Networked schooling (education) in Distance Learning is actually a virtual school featuring autonomous learning with students as the principal part, which is an emerging kind of fence-free school. Different from traditional broadcast/TV-carried education, it enables interactive teaching and leaning at any time and place in a network environment, providing an easy yet efficient access to education resources and obviously improving the educational quality. In the industrial times, education featured students-to-classes, while in the information age, it features classes-to-students. With evolution of advanced Distance Learning, educational concepts, contents, modes and structures will change significantly. Developing Distance Learning may provide more people with diversified educational opportunities, efficiently leverage legacy educational resources, implement sound resource allocation and improve science-culture quality of the nationality, accommodating the real demands of social economic and cultural development in China.

IV. Distance Learning in China: Milestones

Distance Learning in China has evolved through three generations: (1) Correspondence-based education, bringing up a big team of talents for China; (2) Broadcast/TV-based education since 1980's, an educational program known worldwide; (3) Advanced Distance Learning based on information and Internet technologies evolved since 1990's.

At the end of 1994, sponsored by the former Education Commission of PRC, Tsinghua and other 9 universities in China completed the China Education and Research Network (CERNET) Pilot Project, the first TCP/IP-based public computer network in China.

1996, Wang Dazhong, President of Tsinghua University, took the lead in advocating Distance Learning. 1997, Hunan University, through cooperating with Hunan Telecom, established China's first on-line university. 1998, Tsinghua University launched the on-line master programs.

September 1998, Ministry of Education officially entitled Tsinghua University, Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, Zhejiang University and Hunan University as the first batch of educational institutions pioneering Distance Learning.

1999, Ministry of Education promulgated the Comments on Developing Advanced Distance Learning in China, which expatiates the guidelines, aims and tasks of Distance Learning in China. As it reads, the guideline for Distance Learning development is "Overall planning, demand driving, expanding deregulation and improving quality".

August 1999, Beijing University and the Central Broadcast and TV University added to the pioneer list for Distance Learning.

September 1999, the "CERNET High-speed Backbone Project" approved, which, as planned, will be completed by the end of December 2000.

2000, a year of leaping progress of Distance Learning in China.

July, Ministry of Education released the Provisional Administration Methods for Educational Website and On-line Schools, exhibiting the jurisdiction of the Ministry over educational websites and Internet-based schools. Soon later, the Ministry granted the Distance Learning licenses to Tsinghua and another 14 universities, and expanded the pioneer list to include 31 universities and colleges. Then the Ministry promulgated the Several Comments on Supporting Some Universities and Colleges to Set up Internet Education Schools and Pioneer Distance Learning. In the light the comments, the 31 universities and colleges enjoy substantial autonomy in their Distance Learning initiatives--they may set the admission gateway and determine the admission quota; they may offer programs outside the subject catalogue; they may award degree certificates statutorily recognized.

July 31, the 31 pioneers assembled a consortium called "Coordination Team for Advanced Distance Learning in Higher Education", aiming at enhancing inter-pioneer communication and cooperation and facilitating exploitation and sharing of educational resources. September and October, some pioneers kicked off their on-line campus programs.

October 31, China Advanced Distance Learning Satellite Broadband Multimedia Transmission Platform got into operation, allowing simultaneous transmission of decades of video and multimedia channels at different rates. Moreover, the Internet access service provisioned on the platform enables high-speed interconnection with CERNET, forming a satellite-land consolidated bi-directional education network. Operation of this platform thoroughly changes the situation of one-way transmission over satellite TV network in China.

According to the latest statistics made by the Ministry of Education, up to present, the 31 pioneers have offered seats to nearly 190,000 registrants, most of whom are destined to degree programs.

At the same time, a tide of educational websites has been witnessed--many global players have been involved into remote education in China and set up their own Internet education platforms.

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