The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project

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The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project
Using Open Educational Resources to Promote
Quality in Undergraduate Teaching

MA Thesis by Stian Håklev, University of Toronto, September 2010.

Creative Commons BY 3.0. Other formats, and supplementary materials available at

Chapter 1: Introduction

In 2003, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched its OpenCourseWare website, which eventually came to contain online resources for virtually every course taught at the institution. This received much media attention, and gradually a number of other institutions joined in by publishing their own courses. In 2005, the OpenCourseWare Consortium was formed, and it became independent in 2007. The consortium members from 24 different countries use similar software and organizing principles for their materials. If you look at a course in Japan, or in Saudi Arabia, you are likely to find the same elements: a course outline, a reading list, lecture slides and in some cases lecture recordings, and sometimes sample exams, or samples of student work.

If you visit Dr. Li Xuejun’s course on pharmacology at the website of Peking University, you will find the structure very familiar. There is an introduction to the course, a list of the members of the teaching team, reading lists, lecture slides, lecture recordings and even some exam questions. This course is one of more than 12,000 open courses that have been developed by faculty from more than 700 Chinese universities, as a part of the Chinese Ministry of Education’s National Top Level Courses Project, which started in 2003. Despite the large scale of this project, very little is known about it outside of China. Most of the English-language sources that mention it, assume naturally that it is another OpenCourseWare project, similar to those in Korea, Japan and Taiwan, for example, with roughly the same purposes and organizational principles as in the other 39 countries implementing MIT-inspired OpenCourseWare projects. MIT reports themselves frequently mention the Chinese project as one of the positive impacts of the MIT OpenCourseWare project.

I was first made aware of the existence of these courses in 2007, when I followed the open online course “Introduction to open education” by Dr. David Wiley. After finding the references in MIT’s evaluation report, both to MIT OpenCourseWare translated into Chinese, and to “homegrown” OpenCourseWare produced by Chinese universities, I became very intrigued, and decided I wanted to learn more about it.

There are different ways of analyzing this global spread of the OpenCourseWare concept. Meyer and Ramirez at Stanford University believe that higher education systems around the world are “converging”, and becoming more similar. The fact that universities in 39 countries should choose to implement the same system for sharing their courses online, would seem to be a strong case for this argument, with China making a very strong addition.

However, Steiner-Khamsi and Stolpe’s research on educational policy in Mongolia shows that the government would often adjust its terminology to match international trends and demands, thus placating donors and making it seem like Mongolia was headed towards convergence, while the actual situation on the ground was quite different. They believe that to ascertain whether something is truly a case of “borrowing policy”, or merely using similar words for different purposes, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of a country’s history, culture and institutions. Inspired by this, I decided I wanted to examine how the Chinese Top Level Courses Project was organized, and how it fit in with the larger trends in Chinese higher education.


Without understanding properly how the National Top Level Courses Project is organized, it will be very difficult for foreign organizations to engage and collaborate with Chinese institutions. In scope, this is by a wide margin the largest Open Educational Resources project in the world, and much could be learnt from the Chinese experience. It also presents a very fascinating platform for different kinds of research on the production, use and reuse of Open Educational Resources. However, none of this is possible without a thorough understanding of how the program functions, why and how it was initiated, and how it fits into the broader trends of Chinese higher education.

Thus my main objective in this thesis is to give a clear and succinct overview of the Top Level Courses Project, and situate it in the Chinese higher education context. I will also compare the project to the MIT OpenCourseWare model, and discuss the formation of international opinion about the Top Level Courses Project using theories of world institutionalism, and policy borrowing and lending.

Research questions

The first question I asked was “what is this program”. I wanted to understand all the details around how the program was organized, how courses are created and by whom, how the program is financed, and who uses the resources. The program began in 2003, so I also wanted to look at how it has changed through this time period. I then wanted to understand how it came to be launched at exactly that time in history, looking at the history of Chinese higher education for clues of trends that could have led to the program being launched. Finally, I wanted to know how different the program is from the MIT OpenCourseWare, and also how it became known among Western audiences. To summarize:

  • What are the purposes of the project, how does it operate, and how has it developed since it was launched

  • What were the historical circumstances that led to/informed the launch of this project

  • How is the program different from, or similar to, MIT OpenCourseWare

  • How was the international understanding of the project shaped?
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