By Professor Pei-kai Cheng
Director, Chinese Civilisation Centre, City University of Hong Kong
"So ancient, so modern" is how CityU President Professor Chang Hsin-kang describes the education mode practised in Chinese Civilisation Centre, one of the academic establishments he initiated. The niche of this approach lies in manipulating and developing the latest information technology as a medium for the teaching and learning of the time-honoured Chinese civilisations, and to provide solutions for problems confronting liberal education.
CHINESE Civilisation has been a required course for all undergraduates of the City University of Hong Kong - whatever their majors, the students must do a total of six credits in the course during their three years of studies towards a bachelor's degree. Offered by the University's Chinese Civilisation Centre (CCIV), the course can be taken in two modules, each worth three credits. Therefore, each semester sees around 3,000 students taking the course. How, you may wonder, does CCIV manage to handle the teaching load, given such an enormous number of students?
If carried out in a conventional manner, the task would require the joint efforts of a team of 30-odd instructors giving classroom lectures, which would in turn entail two big problems. Firstly, where can we gather over 30 instructors qualified and competent enough to initiate our students into the vast and yet delicate wealth of Chinese civilisation in plain and yet illuminating language?? And secondly, how can we relieve the instructors of the monotony of ever-repetitive lecturing which could easily lapse into casual and shallow talk, and then how can we spare the students the boredom of being spoon-fed with something so dull as to sound like political indoctrination??
Reluctant Teachers and Unwilling Students
Take a further look at the first problem. Would-be university instructors nowadays are trained as specialists and in fact, the training pattern is increasingly trained in an over-specialised pattern. Brought up this way, people holding a doctorate in arts or humanities have to struggle even to cover the topics of their own academic pursuit, thus hardly able or inclined to look beyond their own fields, let alone to teach Chinese civilisation as a liberal education course.
Some may suggest that, despite the inadequacy, such people could still teach in whatever way they please, since most of their students are science and engineering majors who know little about the subject. But that would amount to cheating, namely, offering a so-called liberal education course simply for showcase purpose, but what's the point of doing so?? If liberal education that aims to cultivate humanity and character in students could be taught in any way one pleases, with teachers and students conspiring to cheat at the game of earning credits, what would then be the value of a university education?? A university that condones such a practice might as well be renamed a senior vocational school, which issues Certificates of Completion of Training rather than university degrees.
By and large, university courses of liberal education today are often tangled in a situation: well-established professors disdain to teach, considering such jobs beneath them, while budding scholars are reluctant to teach, fearing to get distracted from their academic research. Instructors shun the teaching while students dislike learning -- what can be done about this situation?
Now, let's look at the second problem. Even if we can have a sizeable team of qualified and competent instructors who are highly devoted to the task, there yet remains the evil of repetitive lecturing. When course materials are harped on three or four times in a single semester, and for many semesters in a row, the instructors can hardly benefit from their teaching experiences as they ought to, and are bound to become jaded and uninterested. And so will become their students, who then will regard the course as "a necessary evil" that they had better get around as much as they can. What can be done about this situation??
In order to fight dullness and boredom of their programmes, some universities stress diversity and variety, adopting a laissez faire policy that allows departments and faculties to offer whatever courses they choose to. In the prevalent milieu of spreading commercialism where money talks, teaching courses of so-called liberal education becomes a livelihood for some people. It is therefore not surprising that in some cases students are simply treated like patronizing diners who are to be served with whatever dishes they feel like tasting. Students may feel happy then, but the essential principle of education is compromised. What can be done about this situation??
Modern Technology Plus Conventional Ways
To address these problems, a web-based, multi-media teaching platform has been developed for the Chinese Civilisation course as initiated by Professor Chang Hsin-kang, President of City University. As suggested by Professor Chang's favourite saying, "So ancient, so modern", this approach seeks to offer lessons in one of the most time-honoured civilisations by means of the latest information technologies, and to solve some problems confronting liberal education courses in general. The strength of such an approach manifests itself in several aspects.
Firstly, the use of state-of-the-art technologies helps students realize how ignorantly wrong their presumption is that the teaching of Chinese civilisation must be outdated and that an age-old civilisation is bound to hamper critical thinking for the modern mind.
Secondly, the web-based, multi-media way of instruction solves the problem of repetitive and monotonous lecturing featured by the conventional classroom teaching, and also it makes the course readily available to a large number of students. Thanks to modern technologies, essential source materials and class schedules are accessible online, the virtual classroom requires students to give feedback, express ideas, and compare notes, and online exercises alongside self-assessments require the learners to seriously study the essential materials so as to grasp the fundamental facts and ideas.
Thirdly, management-wise, the new approach is highly cost-effective because it concentrates our resources on a compact team of the best available instructors, who can work with the aid of well-purchased equipment in a well-planned environment.
And finally, the greatest benefit of web-based instruction lies in the collective wisdom of numerous specialists who contribute their expertise in various fields towards setting guidelines for instruction and designing course materials accordingly. Taking advantage of the large volume of information made possible by web-based teaching, we can provide students with courses that not only ensure their grasp of essential knowledge but also help them further pursue their interests. Starting from 1966, at the invitation of President Chang Hsin-kang, professors and scholars from Peking University in mainland China, Academia Sinica in Taiwan, and other institutions in several regions worldwide have been working together in laying down principles for our web-based instruction, and have accordingly designed and complied a set of course materials for Chinese civilisation.
As Director of CCIV of City University, my own part of the work, in helping to put this approach into practice, has been to map out four mutually complementing fields of operation, to ensure that our mode of web-based instruction surpasses the ordinary pattern of distance courses in that ours combines the benefits of both online teaching and conventional classroom lecturing. Accordingly, I have identified four major fields of application to the new approach complete with their respective objectives, namely,
Now, let me explain in more detail the first two fields, namely, web-based instruction and classroom tutorials. Personally, I am not much of an advocate of a pure brand of distance teaching. I have no doubt about the effectiveness of web-based technology in education, but I maintain that a mode of instruction is inadequate when deprived of face-to-face interaction between the teaching and the taught, particularly when the aim is to cultivate humanity in the educated. Direct interpersonal contact is essential not only for the passing of knowledge but also for the communication between human minds. In this way, those who teach and those who learn can stimulate and energize each other in the process, rather than each party playing its role as separate screws in a lifeless machine. Indeed, while developing web-based instruction, we have absolutely no intention of advocating the mechanisation or centralisation in education, which we believe would mould the students into faceless, standardised products without individual aptitudes or interests. With this in view, while offering web-based instruction to provide essential source materials, we have employed 20 instructors to conduct weekly tutorial sessions so as to give face-to-face teaching in small groups of 15. These instructors enliven the process of online learning and enrich the general-purpose source materials with their various specialised insights into the subjects, which help our students form their own independent and critical thinking.
Lectures and Art Demonstrations
The third field of our mode of instruction is made up of lectures and demonstration by guest scholars and artists. This is subdivided into two categories: lectures on various subjects of the arts and humanities (literature, history, philosophy, and art) given by renowned scholars, and demonstrations of performance given by accomplished artists and virtuosos.
For the former category, let's take the spring semester of 2002 for example. We organized quite a number of short-term serial lectures, like those on the tradition of humanism and modern culture given by Professor Leo Ou-fan Lee of Harvard University, those on unearthed ancient writings on silk which have updated research on ancient Chinese thought given by Professor Pang Pu of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, those on the evolution of economy in Ming and Qing Dynasties given by Professor David Faure of Oxford University, those on clashing between and merging of cultures Western and Chinese given by Professor He Zhaowu of Tsinghua University, those on European and Chinese philosophies given by Professor Ye Xiushan of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and those on classical Chinese literature given by Professor Tseng Yong-yih of National Taiwan University. Also, we had visiting professors who taught semester-length courses, each comprising many lectures. Four renowned professors and scholars, namely, Li Zehou, Liu Zaifu, Li Ling, and Zhou Zhiping, gave a total of 60 lectures in their respective specialised fields. Our students are required to attend a minimum of 2 such lectures each semester.
The latter category covers art demonstrations, mainly those of performing arts, including Chinese musical performances, Chinese operas, and dances, as well as lectures on Chinese calligraphy and painting. Our students have been impressed -- and stunned, so to speak -- by the demonstrations so masterfully performed by the guest artists in person. Most university students in Hong Kong have little experience appreciating high-quality performance of fine Chinese music, as they are mainly exposed to Western music or drama even though they frequent music halls or theatres. In Hong Kong's cultural environment, young people tend to have difficulty appreciating traditional Chinese arts, as their surroundings are full of Western influence wherever they watch movies, TV shows, or video tapes, or listen to music. Unfamiliar with Chinese art, they are not an appreciative audience. Now, the demonstrations given by guest artists, particularly when aided with easy-to-understand explanations, have shown them where beauty lies and turned them into willing receivers of Chinese arts.
Alongside these lectures and demonstrations, we have also organised various art workshops and invited Hong Kong-based artists and performers to come and teach those students who desire to further pursue their interests in art. Coaching is given in small classes on pipa (or Chinese guitar), ancient zheng (or Chinese zither), and traditional calligraphy and painting. While the lectures and demonstrations are required of all students, who are supposed to attend two sessions at least, these workshops are optional opportunities for the enthusiasts to develop their talent and nurture their taste in art.
Finally, the fourth component of our approach is field trips that take our students out of campus on tours of study. Mostly, the tours explore Hong Kong's historical sites, cultural relics, and settlements of earlier ages. It is generally assumed that, as an ex-colony, Hong Kong started its gradual growth under the British rule only after the Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1842, and therefore whatever historical remains Hong Kong now retains could not have existed before mid-19th century. But that is not true.
Hong Kong Linked to China Proper
Hong Kong is rich in archaeological findings, like the remains of early settlements complete with ancestral halls, where Hakka people from central China used to dwell, and well-preserved sites of their walled villages. We take our students to these sites, pointing to them the evidence that Hong Kong's civilisation is linked to that of China proper. In Lei Cheng Uk, Kowloon, there still lies a Han Dynasty tomb. Though a small structure, it dates about 2,000 years back, testifying to one of the origins of Hong Kong's early population. Such tours make our students realize that Chinese civilisation is so really part of their hometown, that it is nothing far and away but it lived and still lives near at hand.
In addition to these local tours, our Chinese civilisation courses feature medium- and long-distance field trips too. The medium-distance trips are guided by our instructors, with destinations in Guangdong Province just across the border. They are organised twice a semester, each time joined by 40 students only, because a larger group would be hard to manage. Such trips are combined with exchange programmes between City University and her allied higher education institutions in the destination localities. So far the medium-distance trips have taken our students to Guangzhou, Foshan, Chaozhou and other places. On the other hand, long-distance field trips are offered once a year during summer holidays in cooperation with our allied universities across mainland China. By comparison, these trips require larger funds and more time and energy. So far we have worked with Xiamen University, Overseas Museum of Quanzhou, Chinese Art Academy of Hangzhou, Nanjing University, Soochow University, and Yunnan University. We take our students to these institutions for a two-week stay, during which they attend courses and visit local sites of historical interest and relics.
Of all these field trips, the long-distance ones have been the most trying but the most effective for teaching purposes. As we have found, one such trip would suffice to entirely change the students' view of Chinese civilisation. They would confess that until taking the trip they had underestimated the depth and richness of Chinese civilisation, that they had been blind to how the civilisation is dear to them and how much they could love that vast land called China. In a word, they have come to identify themselves with the civilisation. Seeing this, as educators we feel our pains and efforts far more than rewarded. It is also rewarding -- and rewarding in the long run -- for City University, for Hong Kong as a whole, and for the promotion of Chinese civilisation.
Success of this new mode of teaching Chinese civilisation demands its four components coordinating and complementing one another. Students must satisfy requirements in all the fields of study activities before they can graduate from this university. Considerable flexibility is allowed, though. For example, of the 60 lectures available, students are required to attend two, and field trips can be local, medium- or long-distance ones as they choose. The design of courses may be complex, but requirements are clear -- students are supposed to acquaint themselves with Chinese civilisation through study activities in the various fields, or they will fail to receive a university degree.
In practising the new approach, we have come to strike a balance between web-based instruction and classroom tutorials. Yet we are always careful watching which way the point of equilibrium will shift, always thinking about how we can further improve the web-based materials and the face-to-face tutorials, and how the four component fields can better complement one another. In other words, we ponder on our teaching in a way different from the conventional fashion, thus making this regular reviewing a focus of attention in our new approach. Now, each week our instructors would sit down and discuss their work, testing their ideas against results of practical teaching.
Also, we have found much food for thought in the art lectures and demonstrations. We now see that, in the past, the teaching of Chinese civilisation ought to have laid greater emphasis on various subjects of art.
Lifelong Learning to Nurture Culture
We have found that art has been, and will be, an effective catalyst for arousing interest in Chinese civilisation. Many Hong Kong students are materialistically wise enough to care about their chosen subjects alone, reluctant to spend time on such useless stuff as Chinese civilisation. Unconsciously, they confine their mind and heart to a tight enclosure of knowledge, refusing to go beyond it. Very often art is needed to open up a window -- or even a door -- in their closed heart, through which their mind can look out into a fresh and broad horizon. They may not learn a lot right now, but once their interest is awakened they can go on to explore more. That, too, is part of our goal as educators, because the nurture of culture in the educated is a life-long process of learning.
Lectures at City University have also helped promote the cultural growth in the local community. Our campus is open to the general public, and many outside people come to our lectures. We believe this is what a university should do to help bring some edifying civilisation to the local community. Of course, attendance by outsiders is allowed only if it does not interfere with our students' study activities.
Currently we plan to build our web-based instruction into an outreach platform to spread Chinese civilisation to other parts of the world. Moreover, we hope to develop an English-language version of the courses to make the best use possible of our existing materials in print and in audio-video forms and, aided by web designing, build an internationalised instruction website.
What we have done so far is no more than experimenting and exploring. Much is yet to be done. We sincerely invite advice and feedback from all sources so that we can expect to improve our work constantly.