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IT and The Year of the Chinese Campus

Keeping IT services operational for a campus set in China requires more than just technical savvy.

The American contingent of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, China, wanted to improve its unique program and figure out which faculty members were having the most impact on students. After much debate, members of the Joint Academic Committee (made up of both Chinese and American faculty) decided to let students provide feedback about the courses they were taking. What the Americans had in mind was a rating system akin to; instead, they ended up with a system in which students fill out evaluations on paper, and other students gain access to copies of those papers in the center’s library.


For top tips for managing this long-distance relationship, read 6 Lesson Learned

So goes progress in one of the oldest programs that brings together an American university, Johns Hopkins (MD), with a Chinese partner, Nanjing University. While the approach taken may sound rather mild, the evaluation of faculty members by students was actually considered quite novel by Chinese standards, according to Carolyn Townsley, director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center’s Washington, DC, office. “Professors are more godlike there than here,” she quips. “The Chinese do not question their professors the way Americans do.”

And while the center’s American staff and faculty would like to take that instructor evaluation process online, admits Townsley, “We’re not there yet. This is baby steps.”


Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies
Run by: Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University
Who: 180 students (90 Chinese, 90 non-Chinese)
What: Yearlong certificate or two-year master’s program
Where: Nanjing, China
Top IT challenge: Cultural gaps between Chinese and American faculty can make for slow adoption of new technologies.
Culture clash: China doesn’t allow Facebook, which means international students go through withdrawal.

The lure of entering the China “market” has led numerous North American colleges and universities to open campuses or offices on Chinese soil—in anticipation of bolstering enrollment numbers, wooing a promising supply of Chinese students, and offering their American or other international students the opportunity to live and study abroad.

In 1986, two separate institutions, Johns Hopkins University and Oklahoma City University, pioneered new programs in China. The Hopkins-Nanjing Center brings together about 90 Chinese students (selected by Nanjing U) and about 90 American and other international students (selected by Johns Hopkins) to foster each contingent’s understanding of the opposite culture in either a yearlong certificate program or a two-year master’s program. The Chinese students take required classes in English; the international students are taught in Chinese (literacy in Mandarin is a necessity); and then both groups come together for elective courses given in either language. People live on campus—a Chinese student sharing a dorm room with an American or other international student—for the duration of those in-person courses.


Great Wall MBA Program Run by: Oklahoma City University and Tianjin University of Finance and Economics
Who: 45 students (35 Chinese, 10 non-Chinese)
What: 18-month master’s program
Where: Tianjin, China
Top technical challenge: OKCU can’t supply Chinese students with preloaded computers, making application version control a continual problem.
Culture clash: Techs in Oklahoma have become adept at working on Chinese students’ computers—even when applications come up in Chinese characters—because they know where the buttons are in the English versions of the same programs.

OKCU’s school of business joined forces with Tianjin University of Finance and Economics to offer a master’s degree, but there the similarity to JHU’s program ends. Initially, the Great Wall MBA Program catered strictly to Chinese students to teach them American business practices; in 2005, it was expanded to include students from the West in an 18-month residency. Cohorts, taught entirely in English, have about 45 students each year: 35 recruited from China by Tianjin U and 10 from the US or other countries, recruited by OKCU. The latter supplies all instructors from its full-time faculty.

As both institutions have learned, setting up and operating a joint program in the People’s Republic of China isn’t simple. On top of cultural, language, and regulatory barriers, there’s the question of how best to deliver technology that students and faculty take for granted in the states—or whether to offer it at all. One might think that having a China-based campus would be an occasion for glitzy technological solutions—telepresence, for example, or, at the very least, videoconferencing. But according to the people who run the Hopkins and OKCU programs, Skype is about as high-end as it gets.

State-of-the-Art Minimalism

In 2006, the Hopkins-Nanjing program opened a new 11-story building on the campus of Nanjing U that combines classrooms and libraries with staff and faculty living space, along with the kinds of offerings one would expect in a facility described as “state-of-the-art”: pervasive wireless access to the internet, an auditorium with smart classroom gear, an eight-computer lab, and full-building heating and air conditioning. Says Townsley, “If you know much about China you’ll know that’s a luxury in the Chinese community, particularly along the Yangtze [River]. Only a Western-style facility would heat or air-condition the building.”

According to Milo Manley, deputy director based in Nanjing, technology needs at the center are minimal. “We don’t deal with the sorts of things that a university IT department deals with,” he points out. “We’re a small, residential program. We have five classrooms, and only three are in use at any given time. Using the electronic reserve/course management system is optional; faculty can also post materials directly in their personal folders on a shared server. We don’t record lectures and we don’t do online courses.”

When network problems surface, the Nanjing U IT staff does the troubleshooting. To support equipment in use by faculty, students, or staff, the center has two people available. But when it comes to helping individual users, support services are limited. “Students and faculty with personal computer issues are assisted to the degree that the IT staff has time available; most people with serious computer issues—hardware or software—are referred to retail outlets in town for service,” says Manley.

One form of technology self-help that’s been a “wonderful” addition to operations, according to Townsley, is Skype. Long-distance calls between offices in the two countries once were cost-prohibitive, which meant real-time communication took place sparingly. Now the free internet call and video service enables staff to meet regularly (in spite of the 13-hour time difference), and allows students and staff to stay in touch with family and friends stateside. Plus, the center has begun using Skype for job interviews. “It’s not like having the [candidate] here,” she adds, “but it does help in preliminary situations.”

Everybody involved in the Hopkins-Nanjing Center is issued a unique JHED ID. This Johns Hopkins Enterprise Directory Identifier grants users entry into the university’s portal, which provides controlled access to applications and services—not just those offered specifically by the Nanjing program but any provided by the American university too, as long as the user can get onto the internet. Internet access itself is made possible through Nanjing U’s participation in the China Education and Research Network (CERNET). Comparable to Internet2 and National LambdaRail in the US, CERNET links most if not all of China’s institutes and universities.

Censorship—or lack thereof—is a sensitive topic for Hopkins-Nanjing. According to Director Carolyn Townsley, the center houses the only uncensored library in China.

The importance of this goes beyond simply providing access to course management applications or library resources. What the link to JHU’s portal provides is uncensored access to the web, something that’s taken for granted in the United States and that isn’t provided in China. “If students can get to the internet,” says Townsley, “they can connect back to Hopkins. It’s not an issue.”

Censorship—or lack thereof—is a sensitive topic for Hopkins-Nanjing, so much so that the original agreement between the two institutions spells out what the expectations are. Before the internet era, that meant protecting the integrity of the library collections, which contain both English- and Chinese- language resources. The center houses the only uncensored library in China, according to Townsley. “That was part of the original agreement made with Nanjing University,” she says. “It was of utmost importance that there would be free dialogue at the center, and we’ve maintained that through the history of the center.” She notes that other students at Nanjing U don’t have the same access.

No Time (or Staff) for IT Trouble

OKCU’s China program has an even smaller tech staff than Hopkins-Nanjing, consisting of a single person employed by Tianjin U who wears many hats. As Assistant Dean Jeri Jones explains, “That person recruits for us, takes care of all of our promotional materials there, assists the students in getting their visas transferred from a tourist visa to a student visa, and helps to coordinate the enrollment of the students in advising and other academic issues.”

The school’s contractual agreement with the Chinese university also specifies that OKCU has the use of two classrooms that nobody else can access. Each is equipped with a computer, presentation screen, internet connection, VCRs, TVs, and other technologies.

According to Jones, each class in the OKCU program lasts six weeks and consists of three two-week phases. During the first two weeks, the students work online within the Desire2Learn course management system (CMS) to get reading materials, tackle initial homework assignments, and take quizzes. Then an American professor arrives and teaches in person for a whirlwind two weeks, and after he or she leaves, the courses continue online.

Each phase has unique problems. For instance, says Jones, “The Chinese don’t care for online courses, because they want to practice their English.” But during the first two-week phase, each class relies heavily on the online CMS to communicate announcements, post homework assignments, accept homework, do threaded discussions, and host weekly quizzes. Jones notes that she also uses the CMS to provide audio instructions for her lectures, assignments, and feedback. Some faculty have also used video, but that can be troublesome because bandwidth on the receiving end isn’t always on par with typical American standards, especially if a student lives outside of a major city.

In phase two, the frantic face-to-face schedule poses a major challenge for OKCU’s IT organization. “When faculty arrive over there, they hit the ground running,” says CIO Gerry Hunt. With that compressed schedule, he explains, “they don’t have time to spend a day trying to figure out the technology.”

As a result, the more experienced faculty members have figured out that they’d better have backup plans for their teaching materials. Besides carrying her own laptop, Jones loads up her materials to StarNet, a university online collaboration and document management tool that provides storage space to users. She also typically e-mails resources to herself and keeps thumb drives handy. “I back things up all over the place,” she says unapologetically. “I’ve got multiple ways to access files and whatnot.”

Another common problem: Students often don’t have the software the faculty is expecting them to use. “For example, if instructors want something produced in PowerPoint, that expectation needs to be sent over to the students ahead of time so that they know they’re responsible for getting an English version of PowerPoint on their computers and are able to produce English versions of presentations,” says Hunt. That includes having the correct versions of the software, or at least the converters that will let them open Office 2007 and 2010 files if they’re running, say, Office 2003. Such version control problems have wreaked havoc on the tight timeline for classes because students haven’t been able to open the documents provided by faculty members and have been to shy to speak up about the problem.

What’s more, Hunt’s idea of simply providing laptops, preloaded with the preferred software versions, to program participants was nixed by the American vendors the school deals with. “Most vendors in the United States have strict policies against the purchasing and exporting of their products overseas,” he explains. As an example, he says, “Dell is our primary PC vendor, and it’s right on their page every time you make a purchase: a checkbox that says ‘we will not be exporting this equipment overseas.’ They’re recommending that the purchasing take place from the other end; but [the IT department is] here, so we can’t do it.”

The same goes with Microsoft products. Although every student and employee on the US campus is allowed to install Microsoft software as part of the university’s license, Hunt can’t make those licenses available to the Chinese students who are part of the program in Tianjin.

The licensing problem is exacerbated by China’s pervasive disregard for copyrights, says Jones. “Truthfully, everything out there is black market. How can you tell? You log on to the computer, and some of the program is in English, and parts of it are in Chinese.”

At the same time, not everything is available through black market channels, so faculty have to be tuned into the affordability of the resources they require for their courses. “Chinese students can’t pay $100 or $200 for a textbook,” Jones explains. “If we’re using some type of game simulation, we have to make sure that it’s affordable, so they can purchase it. They don’t have the ability to buy things on or Amazon.”

And forget about the use of digital books. While e-textbooks may be more affordable here in the states, Jones observes, “they won’t be as affordable as an international version of a printed book in China, because there’s not an international price for e-books that I know of in China.”

To overcome many of the small irritations and obstacles that beset his university’s efforts in Tianjin, OKCU CIO Hunt would like to have more visibility into the China program. But for now he has to settle for advising where he can, from his IT operations in the states. “Supporting technology overseas is indeed challenging, and I don’t know that we at Oklahoma City University have it any more perfected than anyone else,” he confesses.

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