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Examining Chinese and American Online Learning

By Francis Stonier, Geping Liu, Liang Yu / October 2020

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Online learning or distance education have facilitated e-learning in higher education for decades and in many ways redefined aspects of what higher education means [1]. However, this article is not intended to debate the merits, potential benefits, or difficulties of e-learning, but rather to offer a snapshot of what online learning may look like in two very different parts of the world. In 2018, 6.9 of 19.6 million U.S. students participated in distance education in degree-granting institutions [2]. Comparatively in 2018 China had nearly 45 million students enrolled in higher education [3]. The number of online students during this period was not available for comparison. Colleges and universities in the U.S. typically subscribe to a commercial product for their learning management system (LMS) platform; more than 90 percent of this market (more than 3,000 institutions) is controlled by Blackboard, Canvas, Desire to Learn (Brightspace, D2L), and Moodle [4]. Most online efforts in China appear to be toward establishing a MOOC network [5] available to the public and typically not subscribing to any commercial platforms for individual institutions to utilize. The two most established and robust national online course evaluation companies in the U.S. would be Blackboard and Quality Matters [6]. There is no national leader in this area for China.

For this comparison, online teaching experiences were discussed among two Chinese and one American professor. Online learning models such as the demand-driven learning model [7], ongoing program evaluation, adaptation and improvement, outcomes, content, delivery, service, structure, quality construct [8], technical system quality, pedagogical system quality, information content, service quality, and support factors [9] were all considered when deciding on what to include within. As only perspectives from the instructors have been shared—rather than student users—these models were deemed more appropriate over some of the more comprehensive models that would target user satisfaction and attitudes toward e-learning. It was decided that the learning management system itself, course design, autonomy, training, support, and evaluation would be the key aspects to address. Consistent with other research [10], both parties agreed with the need for initial planning and consistent online learning support throughout the process.

Each contributor has more than 10 years of experience with online education in their respective countries. The accounts shared within, focus only the educators’ firsthand experiences with online or distance education. Speculation was not provided toward LMS platforms, features, training, etc. where the instructors had no contact. Table 1 provides a quick comparison of the areas discussed further in this article. Areas of online learning that differed between the two experiences are bolded.

Table 1. Comparison of American and Chinese Online Learning Examples

United States



Commercial platform: Blackboard / Desire to Learn

Self-developed platform


Students, Teachers, Assistants, Distance Education Personnel, Supervising Teachers

Students, Teachers, Assistants, Educational Administrators, School Administrators, Learning Center Administrators


Receive notices, Discussion boards, Submit/receive assignments, Communicate with class;

Receive notices, Discussion boards, Submit/receive assignments, Communicate with class, Submit graduation materials


Edit courses, Issue announcements, Design assignments, Evaluate student work, Organize/participate in discussions, Answer student questions, Control of enrollment for students, assistants, and instructors

Edit courses, Issue announcements, Design assignments, Evaluate student work, Organize/participate in discussions, Answer student questions  


Distance and distributed education center

Online and continuing education college


Bachelor's degree, Master's degree, Doctorate, Certificates

Bachelor's degree


U.S. students, International students, No work requirements 

Chinese students, Students must be working and living off campus (for the full programs)


Select compulsory courses for bachelor’s degree

Select compulsory courses for bachelor’s degree


Typically < 35

Typically > 100


Almost total autonomy in course design and material selection (aside from key assessments and course objectives). Autonomy in teaching methods, assignments, and discussions.

Assigned teaching materials and syllabus. Autonomy in teaching methods, assignments, discussions, and supplemental materials


Training and certification could be dictated by department or pursued individually

Required training on course development and the use of the LMS


Contact by phone or e-mail

Contact through website or phone


Special support teams available

Special support teams available


Occasional stipends, Awards for excellence in online teaching     

Regular stipends and priority with instructional funding for teaching online


Additional online fees for students

No additional fees for online


Part-time or full-time faculty as instructors 

Only full-time faculty as instructors


Internal or external review that could be at the discretion of the individual instructor or department. Some external review conducted evaluation through Quality Matters, No Restrictions on courses being released.

Mandatory internal review consisting of or a team to assess quality of teaching content and a technical evaluation team. Courses released online only after passing evaluation. No external review.


Students complete a survey about the course and instructor

Students complete a survey about the course and instructor

Comparing the LMS

The U.S. instructor’s experiences have been with iterations of Blackboard and Desire to Learn (Brightspace, D2L) course platforms; they have seen D2L adopted statewide for public universities and colleges. A feature provided by D2L was to allow universities to rename/rebrand the platform to suit the marketing needs of the given institution. Primary users are students, teachers, assistants, distance education personnel, and supervising teachers. The Chinese university utilized a self-developed online teaching and management platform for use as their LMS. Users are students, teachers, assistants, educational administrators, school administrators, and learning center administrators.

The three educators shared their experiences with their respective online platforms and came to a consensus as to some of the key areas to identify. Both platforms offer similar features and offered tools appropriate for the needs of their students. For students, they could receive notices, assignments, participate in discussion, and communicate with the rest of the class. One feature the Chinese platform offered was allowing for the submission of graduation materials. In at least one U.S. example, this was completed through software external to the platform. As for instructor features, they could edit courses, issue announcements, design assignments and evaluate students’ work, organize and participate in discussions, and answer students’ questions. The US courses also allowed instructors some limited management over the enrollment of students, assistants, and other instructors.

Course Design

There were differences in the courses and programs offered. With the U.S. example, the respective colleges ran programs and the online classes platform was managed by the Distance and Distributed Education Center. As for the Chinese universities, the Online and Continuing Education College ran the online programs. All of the Chinese programs were fully online. U.S, examples had some online offerings at the bachelor level but typically compulsory courses or selected program courses. However, certificates, and master’s and doctorate degree programs were offered in an online format. In most cases, graduate programs were either exclusively face-to-face or fully online. The Chinese examples offered only bachelor degrees for fully online programs, open to students who are working as well as living outside the campus. Similar to the U.S., for onsite undergraduate students only select compulsory courses were available fully online. Class sizes vary. The U.S. courses could be as small as single digits as well as reaching the triple digits. The situation is very different in China; Chinese classes typically consisted of more than 100 students. Figures 1 and 2 share examples of areas serviced by online and distance learning.

Figure 1. Example of U.S. online course offerings.

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Figure 2. Example of Chinese online course offerings.

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The discussion also addressed instructor autonomy, training, and support. In Figures 3 and 4 it can be seen that both countries’ platforms provided a uniform access point for instructors and students. Figures 5 and 6 show examples of course layouts that are provided for both groups.

Figure 3. Example of landing page for U.S. courses.

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Figure 4. Example of landing page for Chinese courses.

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Figure 5. Example of course layout for U.S. courses.

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Figure 6. Example of course layout for Chinese courses.

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Aside from key assessments and course objectives that a program might require, in the observed examples U.S. professors had almost total autonomy in the construction of their course and the materials contained within. Chinese professors would write scripts for online courses according to textbooks and teaching syllabi, and record teaching video according to the scripts. So long as instructors were following the assigned teaching materials and syllabus, they had autonomy in teaching methods, teaching design, case selection, and supplemental materials. Figures 7 and 8 display examples of class discussions. Instructors would have the autonomy to make assignments and discussions as simple or complex as they saw fit.

Figure 7. Example of discussion topic in a U.S. course.

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Figure 8. Example of discussion topic in Chinese course.

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In the U.S. examples training and certification opportunities were entirely at the discretion of the department and in most cases the individual instructor. Training could come in the form of teaching support or course construction, generally provided through the institution via the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. As external evaluation was a large initiative, institutions provided optional training for instructors wanting to be more involved with Quality Matters. After being assigned an online course, Chinese instructors would attend two training courses. The first training was on course development. The second training involves use of the LMS and would follow after the online course is constructed and before the start of the semester. The Online and Continuing Education College would conduct the training. This is a significant departure from U.S. counterparts with the level of required training. However, this is consistent with findings that online instructors feel that professional development is needed in order to design quality online courses [11].

Concerning support, U.S. students could contact the Distance and Distributed Education Center through e-mail or by phone. Chinese students could consult online customer service staff on the website or call local learning centers if they had questions about using online courses. Aside from training, technical support was available during the construction phase of the courses or while the courses were already in session. Both U.S. and Chinese programs had special support teams to support instructors.

Some U.S. universities offer additional incentives for teaching online courses, but certainly not all. Examples have been seen where stipends could be offered for teaching online, some had additional fees for students, which could then become funds for the college, department, or even potentially the instructor. There were also opportunities for recognition in terms of awards for excellence in online teaching. In a similar vein, the Chinese university provides a stipend for those professors teaching online and gain priority for instructional funding. Also of note is that only general faculty teach online, no adjunct faculty. Students are not charged any varied tuition or fees based on the class format.

Both sides recognized the importance of course evaluations. Not merely student evaluations, but evaluations of the course design and content as well. Institutions have options in terms of internal and external review and even more so if considering commercial review options. Concerning evaluation the U.S. experiences were inconsistent. Evaluation (aside from student) was at the discretion of the given department and external more so at the discretion of the individual instructor. For instance one department might have a selection of online program courses undergo an internal review that might consist of subject matter experts, colleagues, and other university personnel. While other departments might forego internal evaluation altogether. Typically, the internal evaluation rubrics were modeled after established national level evaluation rubrics. The choice of an external review on the national level would often be up to the given instructor who had built the course. The U.S. experiences centered on external review through Quality Matters, which would focus on course construction not teaching quality.

In the Chinese example, evaluation of online courses consisted of the evaluation of the quality of course contents, construction, and teaching quality. An evaluation team composed of subject experts assessed the quality of teaching content. Concerning course construction and contents, an evaluation team composed of educational technology experts would conduct a technical evaluation. The online courses are released online only after passing the mandatory evaluation.

At the completion of each course students in both programs are given the option to complete a survey about the course and the instructor. This provides an additional avenue for the instructors to strengthen or maintain their courses though student feedback. In both cases, the estimated rate of return for student evaluations would be about one third.


There was one area where the Chinese platform might be slightly superior; there is essentially a single point for students to submit all work. Where in at least one U.S. example students were required to use external software for assignment submission. However, some of the more advanced course administrator tools available in the U.S. examples could give more seasoned educators a slightly higher level of control. Unfortunately, it would be too subjective for professors to come to a consensus on ease of use for their respective platforms, as there were language differences, experience with the platforms, external site access, and internet speeds that could greatly influence decisions.

When considering the variety of degrees, particularly graduate degrees, U.S. offerings were far greater than the Chinese universities. This is certainly an area to consider for further research, as it is currently unknown why the Chinese example has yet to include graduate programs. Potentially this could be related to how only working undergraduate students are able to enroll in fully online programs at the Chinese university. One of the greatest differences between fully online degree programs was with the restriction to only serve only students who were employed. This is a substantial difference in the way most U.S. colleges and universities offer online learning.

Concerning the evaluation of the respective online courses, the U.S. courses that opt for external reviews may experience reviews that are potentially more robust; however, those would be the exception rather than the norm as the pursuit is typically optioned by the individual instructor. The Chinese evaluations for online courses likewise involve subject matter experts, the larger distinction is that all courses undergo a required evaluation and are not released until they have passed the evaluation. Student evaluations in both instances were not mandatory, but still conducted, and the composition of both were relatively similar.

In the examples shared, it was evident that all universities involved were capable of servicing their online programs and targeted student populations. Whether online offerings were diverse or streamlined, as long as the needs of students and the university are met, then neither could be viewed as ultimately superior. U.S. universities seem to delegate more of the online load to the respective colleges that contain the programs, whereas the Chinese university essentially houses everything related to the online courses in a single college. These countries facilitate online learning through two very different models, though both appear to serve their purpose well.


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[2] National Center for Education Statistics. Table 311.15 Number and percentage of students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by distance education participation, location of student, level of enrollment, and control and level of institution: Fall 2017 and fall 2018. Digest of Statistics. U.S. Department of Education. 2019.

[3] Gu, M., Michael, R., Zheng, C., and Trines, S. Education in China. World Education News & Reviews. December 19, 2019.

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About the Authors

Francis Stonier, PhD. is an associate professor of the Faculty of Education, Southwest University in China. He holds nearly 20 years of professional educational experience primarily in the United States both with public schools and higher education. His research interests mainly include online/distance learning, using geographic information systems (GIS) to represent educational statistics, and promoting the use of STEM/STEAM practices in the classroom.

Geping Liu, Ph.D. is a professor of the Faculty of Education, Southwest University. He is also the head of department of Educational Technology. His research interests include Smart Education Environment, Online Learning System, and Policy of IT in Education. Recently, he has hosted more than 10 research projects from Ministry of Education of China, Educational Committee of Chongqing city, universities and enterprises. He has published more than 40 academic papers in journals of educational technology and international conferences.

Liang Yu, Ph.D. is an associate professor of the Faculty of Education, Southwest University. His research interests include online and distance education, computer supported collaborative learning, and education informationization. He has hosted nearly 20 projects from Ministry of Education of China, Chongqing city, universities and enterprises. He has published more than 30 academic papers in journals of educational technology.

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  • Wed, 27 Jan 2021
    Post by ashish godkar

    Thanks for great content sir. i will also share with my friends & Once again thanks a lot.