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MirandaNet Fellowship Casestudy
Experiences of working with China via the Internet
Year of posting: 2006
With nearly thirty years international experience under my belt you would think that I should have learned about the vast cultural differences that make our world so interesting. So when I began a project to promote the web site of a Chinese Middle School attached to Northern JiaoTong University in Haidian District, and then link them to Cheam School in England, I should have had all my intellectual bases covered. My subsequent experience of working with the Middle School, and visiting China itself, taught me that old dogs still have many new tricks to learn. The story began in London when I met Wentao Zhang at a Mirandanet reception where a Chinese delegation of educationalists presented some very impressive Powerpoint slides. From their example, and my own observations in country, I quickly learned that they have a natural sense of the aesthetic which they carry over into all aspects of their lives, even in he poorer areas. Wentao - alias ‘Jean’, her chosen western name – who was a teacher at the Middle School, presented a page about classical opera masks, costumes and characters. Although only a single page it contained all the menus of the site they ultimately intended to produce which made it clear that this was to be a major undertaking.
My wife, Head of Pre-Prep at Cheam, was also very impressed with Jean’s work and wanted a copy of her page to use with class projects on China. So shortly after the delegation’s visit Jean did indeed send the files neatly zipped but on second viewing I decided that they deserved wider exposure. So I offered to put their page onto the internet and Jean’s response was an enthusiastic ‘yes please’. Creating a web site, especially a personal one, is a daunting and exciting experience. The thought that people all over the world might be reading your material, sharing in your hobbies, or in Jean’s case admiring the graphical prowess of your students is guaranteed to bring a tingle to the spine. For a School in China who has had virtually no contact with the outside world the idea that people in the west would be viewing their work enhanced that feeling considerably.
I have a personal site already that contains all of my literary output so I decided to use some spare web space I had there to host the School’s page. I carefully uploaded the files, rejigged the html to make the graphics point to their new homes, and proudly emailed the URL to Jean so that she, her students and a friend in south east Asia could enjoy their new found fame. Lesson one – the Chinese authorities limit access to certain domains, especially those connected with major ISPs, so everyone else could see the page, but Jean and her students within China could not. At about that time the Chinese country domain ‘.cn’ was released and so I immediately registered my name domain with them and uploaded a complete copy of my site including the Chinese page. Success, the Middle School could now see their page, everyone in the world could see their page, and the email I received back from Jean was ecstatic.
The story continued because I noticed that the copy of their page in my web space was beginning to score between sixty and seventy hits per week. Clearly other people had seen the same value in their work and were using it as a means of learning more about Chinese operatic traditions. Within a relatively short period of time I was able to tell Jean and her students that their site had received a thousand visits and was still going strong – 1,630 by mid-April 2004. However, this all changed when, at the end of February 2004, they released the full English version of their site containing a mountain of information about traditional Chinese crafts in addition to the original opera content. I could see immediately why it had taken them over a year to produce and translate the site. But this release gave me a problem which needed careful thought. The existing page clearly had a loyal following and every day someone new was discovering it. Therefore I could not simply remove it in favour of the new URL, and I did not want to change their content into an auto forward page because the search engines would lose it. So I took the middle path which gave me a lot of work but was ultimately very successful in its execution.
The original menu on Jean’s page did not point anywhere, it simply cycled around the page. So I analysed their html code and replaced the internal links with pointers to their opposite numbers on the new site. This meant that anyone who had already added the page to their favourites could still access it, with the added facility of the expanded site. And new visitors could explore the new site transparently without knowing that they were walking through a virtual door. If this approach was right then I predicted that the numbers of visitors to the original page would plummet as they found the new home page and bookmarked that instead. I am pleased to say that I was proven correct and the visitor count to the original page reduced to about a dozen or so a week as soon as I made the coding changes.
While this was going on, the Art department at Cheam School saw the Middle School page and decided to show off their expertise as well. Not in terms of web building – yours truly received that privilege – but in terms of the work that their students had produced. Pages of material were gathered and a basic design produced by the head of department which I assembled into an Art and Design page within the Cheam School Pre-Prep web site. Having worked on both projects it was interesting to see the difference in approach between the Chinese and British designs. The Middle School used a highly contrasted colour scheme of white, black, blue and maroon whereas the Cheam School page used predominantly grey, blue and red. You will see this contrast reflected in everything China produces, whether it be printed, modelled or architectural. Primary colours figure widely and red has particular dominance because they believe it to be a lucky colour.
So how does this all fit into the world of eCitizenship? The answer is that it did nothing for students in this country other than to spur the creation of an Art and Design page which allowed some very talented pupils to show off their work to the global forum of the internet. What this project did achieve though was to show a class of students in a school thousands of miles away that they were not alone. And that there were other people in the world beyond the borders of their immense and once isolated country who were interested in what they had to offer. As westerners we are used to communicating in this way and relating to other cultures, even if it is by the simple medium of a holiday abroad. But for a country that has kept itself at arms length from the global community, whether by reason of distance or politics, this kind of exercise has, and will continue to help bring such people into the wider community and ultimately make them better World eCitizens.
China Middle School original page http://www.bardtoverse.cn/cfmu/cfmu.htm
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