China’s Limitations on Distance Education

Joyce Lau:

Many popular online platforms — including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and some Google functions — are largely inaccessible to teachers and students on the Chinese mainland. Meanwhile, domestic Chinese platforms have built-in filters to block politically sensitive materials and are often monitored.

Some foreign universities now find themselves unable to engage fully with students who have returned to mainland China during the coronavirus pandemic. Educators are scrambling to upload materials to whatever platforms they find handy and usable, and many lack experience dealing with Chinese internet restrictions, widely described as the great firewall of China.

The most common workaround is to have students in mainland China use virtual private networks, or VPNs, which redirect data away from users’ physical geographical locations. But even VPNs are not always reliable.

A staff member at a British university who coordinates between teachers in Britain and overseas students told Times Higher Education that the VPN provided by the institution for use in online classes was “not very effective in China.” Speaking anonymously, she said that many mainland Chinese students could not access materials via the VPN, although other international students could.

“Teaching online is quite difficult now,” she said. “Many [mainland Chinese] students need to search for paid and more advanced VPN services.”

While some companies and institutions have approved VPN usage rights in China, members of the public are generally barred from using the networks.