Beijing Visit, Day 1

After a long and tedious set of taxi rides and flights and security lines (24 hours end-to-end from Wuhan to Barcelona) I’m writing this entry on possibly the most beautiful train ride I’ve ever taken, from Barcelona to Valencia. It’s along the Mediterranean coast with views of the sea and many beautiful beaches to the left and the Catalonian mountains to the right. As difficult as it is to tear my eyes away from the window, I finally have enough rest (and enough space to open my laptop…coach seats on airplanes are not conducive to getting work done) to begin writing about our experiences in China.

When I say “our” I mean myself, Xingtang Hu from Indiana University and Melissa Zhou from Claremont McKenna college. Both of their institutions were kind enough to allow them to accompany me to China, for which I am very thankful. Without Melissa’s fluency in both Chinese and English I would have had a much more difficult time and accomplished much, much less. Without Xingtang’s ability to explain Sakai’s technical details in his native Chinese (and the audience’s questions in my native English) everyone we met with would have gotten much less out of our visit. Given the West’s general lack of ability to speak Mandarin and the highly variable English skills of the Chinese, we’re definitely going to need to be creative about how we work together. I’ll have more to say about this in a subsequent post.

In any case, our first full day was spent in Beijing visiting with Tsinghua University and Beijing Normal University. Tsinghua University is regarded as one of the best and most selective universities in China. It was founded in 1911 and has approximately 30,000 students. We met with a team, lead by Professor Zheng Li, that is responsible for their current Courseware Management System, which is homegrown. This was a constant theme on our visit. Almost every University we visited has its own homegrown system. This very much seems like the situation that the original Sakai schools faced in 2004 that led to the founding of Sakai. The opportunity for community cooperation here is ripe, certainly, although creating the conditions for true cooperation will be complicated, just as they were in the US.

In any case, Tsinghua has been following Sakai for a number of years and were quite familiar with many aspects of the technology. They gave us a presentation of their current technology, which was very impressive. They have a team of about 20 people who develop and support the system, so resources are not scarce and java is their preferred technology. Right now there isn’t an impetus to migrate from their current system to Sakai, but we left Tsinghua with the strong impression that the team would like to find such an opportunity. Instead, they are looking for ways to incorporate Sakai into their current platform or to integrate the platforms in some way.

Beijing Normal University also has it’s own homegrown system as well. BNU has a strong focus on educational technology and the only undergraduate degree in educational technology in China. This is rare in the United States as well. We met with the director of the educational technology academic department, Professor Ronghuai Huang, and some members of his team. While they are familiar with Sakai, it seems they are content with their own system for now.

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