How Online Learning Takes You to Unexpected Places


Robert Ubell

| No Comments | | Leave a comment

In my recent article in EdSurge about satellite campuses abroad, I recalled my time, more than a dozen years ago, running a couple of branch campuses in Beijing. My story didn’t say how proud we were at Stevens Institute of Technology about what we accomplished, winning the Sloan Consortium, now the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), award as an Outstanding Online Program in 2007.

Designed to avoid investing immense sums required to set-up remote sites far from campus, the blended-learning solution we introduced in partnership with two notable universities in China—Central University of Finance and Economics and Beijing Institute of Technology—was a relatively low-cost option that offered Stevens Institute of Technology’s technical degrees in China by merging online delivery with face-to-face instruction, uniquely taught by both U.S. and Chinese faculty. The International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank, was so impressed with what we had accomplished, they invited us to deliver an address outlining what we achieved at a 2005 conference in Beijing.

While student cultural immersion is one of the principal objectives of opening international branches, it turned out that launching a remote campus 7,000 miles away from Hoboken, NJ—where Stevens sits on the Hudson with a knock-out view of glittering Manhattan skyscrapers—totally unexpectedly, our Beijing program opened an entirely new world for me.

Before I was recruited to run our sites in Beijing, China fell behind a dark curtain of my ignorance. Invisible to me were 1.4 billion Chinese and a grand cultural history of dynasties and revolutions going all the way back astonishingly to 2070 BC. By contrast, the Greeks go back merely to 700 BC. Compared with China’s ancient civilization, the West is just a toddler. The Shāng Dynasty alone lasted 554 years.

Robert Ubell Article - Satellite CampusesBefore flying off halfway around the world to negotiate agreements with peer institutions, I knew almost nothing about China. As a child in a leftist summer camp, we learned to sing, “Arise, ye who refuse to be bond slaves,” the opening line of the Chinese Communist national anthem. I could recall crumbs of recent Chinese history—Mao, the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four—but otherwise, like Mao’s Little Red Book, I remembered just a series of catch phrases.

Soon after we concluded agreements with our Beijing partners, I enrolled in a class in Mandarin at The New School. (Curiously, this fall, I will head a four-course online certificate at The New School, entitled “Designing Online Learning Programs.”) I became an obsessive Amazon consumer, clicking links to books on Chinese ancient and current history. In China, I’d frequent government shops, hunting for unusual objects. As I write this, a pair of antique Chinese tomb figures—that I guess are musicians serenading their honored interred master—are standing on my desk, watching my fingers tell this story on my keyboard.

Just like most things in life, you can never guess the consequences of your decisions. I never suspected, when I first agreed to go to Beijing that I’d pull aside a dark curtain in my own life, opening an unexpected fascination with a world I hardly knew. Of all of Confucius’ wise sayings, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance,” is perhaps the most profound.

I’ll be back in China in November, delivering a keynote address at an educational technology conference in Wuhan, happy to return to a country that continues to tantalize me.

You can never guess where online learning will lead you.

Robert Ubell ( is vice dean emeritus of online learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. He is the author of Going Online (Routledge, 2017) and serves on the Advisory Board of OLC’s Online Learning Journal. Ubell’s website can be found at

Leave a Reply