• An Eye-catching Platform in the Field of International Distance Education -Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of Shanghai Open University

Shanghai is a word for opportunity. In January 1996, the Asia-Pacific Office of UNESCO and the United Nations Economic and Social Council of the Asia-Pacific Region (UN ESCAP) co-held “Seminar on Human Resources Development in Distance Education in Asia-Pacific Region” in Shanghai. I was a representative of the Asia-Pacific Office of UNESCO at that time. Shanghai TV University introduced their initiative to adapt to the new circumstances of Shanghai’s reform and opening up at the meeting. About 500,000 people were trained to master computer application skills every year, meeting the urgent needs of Shanghai community for computer professionals and arousing the strong interest of representatives of participating countries. I discussed with peers in the UN ESCAP immediately and decided to organize field trips to the Shanghai TV University. This is my first contact with Shanghai TV University, which conferred “Silver Award for UN ESCAP Human Resources Development” in 1998.

UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Program is UNESCO’s main program to promote cooperation among universities in various countries. With the consent of the Chinese government, the approval of the Director-General of UNESCO, and the help of The Asia-Pacific Office of UNESCO, the presidents of Shanghai Television University, Korea National Open University, The Open University of Hong Kong and National University of Mongolia conducted the mutual visits. In August 1997, an agreement was signed to establish the UNESCO UNITWIN Network in Distance and Open Learning in East Asia. Shanghai Television University has been designated as the coordinating entity, becoming the first open university in the Asia-Pacific region. In the 23 years since the Network’s establishment, it has organized international conferences and training activities at different levels and exchanged and published papers and documents, of which the quantity, quality and effect are sufficient proof that it is one of the few most active networks among the more than 600 existing UNESCO networks/chairs around the world.

From November 28 to 30, 2004, Shanghai TV University hosted the 18th Annual Conference of Asian Association of Open University (AAOU) with an unprecedentedly grand occasion. More than 400 distance education experts and scholars from 32 countries and regions in Asia and other continents participated in the conference, including 80 principals and leaders of the International Council for Open and Distance Education and the Commonwealth of Learning. An important agenda before the end of the meeting is to elect members of the next Council by secret ballot. Unexpectedly, in order to ensure the election of Central TV University, Shanghai TV University explicitly announced that it would not participate in the re-election campaign, but it was still elected. I have never encountered such situation in decades when participating in UNESCO and many regional or international academic activities. It strongly proved the indisputable influence of Shanghai TV University in the Asia-Pacific region.

The international activities held by the Shanghai TV University and Shanghai Open University are always packed, and the achievements exceed expectations. One of the important reasons is that it boasts a high starting point in the theme selection, planning and organization of the activities, heavy investment and innovation. On November 6, 2003, Shanghai TV University and UNESCO jointly held the “World Summit of Mega-University” in Shanghai. The theme is “Innovation and Cooperation: Work Together for the Future of Distance Education”. This is the first meeting of presidents in mega open universities with more than 100,000 students in the world. The presidents of 17 mega open universities from Britain, Spain, the United States, South Africa, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Iran, South Korea and China were invited to attend the meeting and delivered speeches at the Presidents’ Forum. UNESCO rarely sent two assistant directors-general of education affairs and communication to attend the forum and give a speech. The meeting concluded with the signing of the Shanghai Declaration on Cooperation and decided to set up a global mega open university network. Shanghai TV University was elected as the first chairman of the network.

In the autumn of 2008, Shanghai TV University cooperated with the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) and UNESCO to organize the 2008 “ICDE Standing Conference of Presidents”. This is the first standing conference of presidents of the world’s top open universities held by ICDE in Chinese mainland, with the theme of “Build Learning Cities: New Challenges, Opportunities and Strategies”. The standing conference is attended by 60 principals or special representatives; about 400 people attended the Global Forum on Open and Distance Education, gathered elites from the open distance education circles around the world and leaders of contemporary trends. One of the major challenges as well as features of this activity is that the conference was held like an exhibition of distance education that was conducted by six domestic, regional and international activities and organized at the same time. The orderly organization reached or exceeded the scheduled goals of all the meetings, receiving high recognition.

The digitalization of economic development and social life, intellectualization trend and the digital gap therefrom are the challenges of the times. The popularization of relevant knowledge and skills for the public is the historical mission and advantages of Shanghai Open University. Shanghai Open University has a good record in this field and always adhere to and continually explore it, achieving great progress. UNESCO therefore set up the “UNESCO King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize”. Shanghai Open University took part in the competition in 2008 and got the top position among more than 100 competitors from all over the world after being reviewed by a panel of experts headed by former US President Bush’s science and technology adviser. This is the first time that a Chinese university and educational institution have won this honor. Surprisingly, Shanghai TV University announced that it would allocate 25,000 US dollars with the same amount of donations from the university to distance education in Africa at the award ceremony hosted by the UNESCO Director-General in Paris. The generosity of the university won a round of applause of envoys and celebrities from various countries attending the meeting, which also made Shanghai TV University the only TV university among China’s 25 non-well-known universities selected by the Ministry of Education to assist Africa.

The university holds a large international activity almost every year since entering the 21st century. From Shanghai TV University to Shanghai Open University, the leaders are alternated for several times, but it always remains true to the original aspiration and insists to hold the international exchange activities that serve to improve the quality of school-running, teaching and scientific research, and constantly make new breakthroughs. In 2008, it invited the international experts from the International Council for Open and Distance Education to conduct an international quality assessment of the school. The university successfully passed the certification and become the first “school that dares to eat foreign crabs” in China. Through extensive international contacts, it organizes its personnel in the field of teaching, scientific research and management, with the relevant questions, to universities in Britain, the United States, Germany, Russia and other countries to participate in exchanges, research and training every year. Since 2013, the scope of international exchanges has been further expanded with the addition of visiting scholar programs and international student exchange programs between open universities. In this way, the university has taken the pioneering role in the international distance education field. The school has also made use of its advantages in network, platform and resource to provide the services of Chinese language teaching and teacher training abroad, which is widely welcomed.

Lifelong learning is the only way for us to face with the challenges of digitization and intelligence in economic and social development. It is the basic concept of reform and innovation in schools of different types and levels, as well as the historical mission and strength of Shanghai Open University. In October 2019, on the basis of cooperation between the university and UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, the University signed the agreement and with UIL and a UIL-SOU Project Cooperation Office was established in the university in an attempt to promote cooperation in improving the capacity of implementing lifelong learning and study-oriented city construction strategy of UNESCO, implementing relevant research, building a global electronic resource bank for lifelong learning and learning city construction cases, and jointly carrying out capacity building workshops. This is the first time that the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning has set up a standing branch in universities around the world, which means that Shanghai Open University is on its way to the center of the international lifelong learning stage, and marks its international exchange and cooperation stepping into a new historical stage.

Shanghai Open University is on its way to a first-class open university with Shanghai style, Chinese characteristics and world recognition, and becomes an eye-catching platform in the field of international distance education.

by Wang Yibing

(Former UNESCO Expert in Higher and Distance Education and Researcher of National Center for Education Development Research)




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