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Colleges test the limits of cloud

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During the twenty minutes or so it takes beads of moisture to evaporate from his lab tools in the drying oven, doctoral candidate Zhou Juehui might drop in on a lecture on Model Thinking out of Michigan State University, or perhaps something on management from L'Ecole Centrale in Paris.

More recently, materials science and engineering major at Zhejiang University has been attending an online course offered by Harvard taught by political philosophy professor Michael Sandel.

"I've watched the videos for the course twice and even bought the textbook," Zhou, 25, told CNBC via email. "This amazing experience made me want to take more open courses."

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Zhou is among a growing number of young Chinese who have signed up for MOOCs, or Massive Online Open Courses, from some of the world's most well-known universities. The courses distinguish themselves from conventional online learning with expansive multimedia content including videos and student blogs, interactive forums and opportunities for online discussion and collaboration.

Thanks to cloud computing software, colleges are now able to stretch the capacity of the virtual lecture hall to include thousands of students around the world.

"The cloud is critical to what we do," says Anant Agarwal, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and CEO of EdX, a nonprofit open-source platform for MOOCs founded by Harvard and MIT.

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When Edx launched two years ago, Agarwal expected 1,000 students to enroll in his course on circuits. 155,000 signed up. "Because of cloud computing, with a few keystrokes, we were able to scale up," he said.

The appeal in China

As with cloud computing more generally, China is the next frontier.

Stanford-based Coursera, a for profit platform using proprietary software, and Agarwal's Edx, a nonprofit, open-source collaboration between Google, MIT and Harvard, are both looking east.

Last fall, Coursera announced a strategic partnership with China's Netease to host video content. In March, former Yale President Richard Levin, who fended off protests to host President Hu Jintau in New Haven and expanded Yale's brand in Asia, was named CEO. For its part Edx is collaborating with China's top-ranked Tsinghua University to launch Xuetangx, a MOOCs platform hosted by Tsinghua.

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While just three percent of edX's two million students have enrolled through a Chinese server and just six percent of Coursera's 7.3 million have, demand ought to be robust. A third of international students in the U.S. come from China. Recently, more than 11,000 students signed up for a Chinese language courses out of the National University of Taiwan.

The popularity of MOOCs in China reflects a desire to learn and gain access to information in a country where the most prestigious universities still have propaganda departments and professors are expected to toe the official line.

On a trip to China this fall to speak at a conference on MOOCs, Eli Bilder of Coursera, was surprised by the turnout. "I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of Chinese students and their eagerness to get their hands on this material," he said.

The hurdles

While their popularity is growing, MOOCs still face two key hurdles in China: language and censorship.

Yolanda Ma, a 27-year-old media consultant has completed online open courses on social network analysis and data-driven journalism and is currently enrolled in several more. "You could say we are a self-selecting group," Ma said. "I went to a foreign-language high school and most of my friends are well educated and fluent in English."

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Potential MOOCs users like Ma are few and far between outside of China's major cities. Majority of China's 600+ million internet users do not speak English and have not been able to participate in such programs.

Internet regulations in China are another deterrent. Outside of China, many MOOCs post video content on Youtube, which, like Facebook and Twitter, has been blocked in China. Even through a proxy server, which can be expensive or technically intricate to obtain, download speeds are slow enough to deter would-be users.

It is unclear how closely MOOCs will be monitored. Last October, Peking University dismissed an economics professor who had publicly pressed for reform and democratization. In December another prominent university fired a legal scholar who had advocated for freedom of speech and constitutional law.

"Many countries want to own their students," said MIT's Agarwal, "What we are doing is extremely disruptive."

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However, according to Wang Xiaofeng, a market analyst with Forrester, online education content would be less closely-monitored than other Internet content.

"Because this is education content, I don't think they need to think that much about censorship," she said.

Furthermore, as Chinese video portals rush to distinguish themselves, specializing in free Korean soap operas, HBO shows and British period dramas supported by ad revenue, Xiaofeng thought MOOCs might be just the kind of content to draw the educated young audience advertisers crave access to.

"I know Chinese consumers spend more and more time watching online videos," she said. "There are some people who want to watch something more knowledgeable, to learn more. For platforms themselves, this is a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors."

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