The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project

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Commercial ecosystem

Over the years since the Top Level Courses Project was launched in 2003, an ecosystem of services and providers has grown up around it. The Ministry of Education organizes a number of conferences and training sessions, as do provincial boards of education. As described in the case studies, universities themselves will organize internal training, both bringing experienced course developers together with teams that are beginning to develop Top Level Courses, and also inviting external experts, and promoting exchange between different universities.

China Open Resources for Education, a non-profit organization that will be described more fully in the next chapter, has held a number of national conferences around Open Educational Resources and the development of Top Level Courses. There are also a number of commercial actors in this space, both providing web development and hosting services, creating Content Management Systems that are tailored specifically to Top Level Courses, and providing training for teachers in developing Top Level Courses.

For example, given that most Top Level Courses involve capturing lectures, AVA Electronics sells an integrated solution that can coordinate recording from several videocameras, capturing the presentation slides, and automatically publish this in an acceptable format. Similar lecture-capturing platforms are well-known in North America, but the interesting part is that this is being marketed as a “Automated Top Level Courses Recording System” (AVA 2010).

And when it comes to specialized software, there are many options. For example, Hubei Huaqin Education Software Company, which markets a large number of specialized platforms for purposes such as “government news portal”, “membership management portal” and “online learning portal”, has a specialized portal software for applying for and promoting Top Level Courses. They also promote a portal for coordinating the work of evaluating Top Level Courses according to the changing requirements each year (Huaqin 2010). Tsinghua University has also developed a portal for Top Level Courses, which is widely used (Han Xibin, personal communication). There is even Skyclass’ “3D Top Level Courses portal”. On their website they warn that traditional course websites often make evaluators tired, having to flip back and forth between materials, whereas the 3D portal will encourage the use of the right side of the brain, and will leave a deep impression on course evaluators (Skyclass 2010a).

There are also many companies that offer to custom-build Top Level Course portals. One of these, a company called Five-Pointed Star Technology, proudly presents screenshots and links of already built courses that were successful in gaining the Top Level Courses designation on their homepage (Five-Pointed Star 2010). As for training, the Higher Education Institutions Teacher Online Training Center, a part of the Higher Education Press, offers more than 30 different fee-based courses on how to develop Top Level Courses. The courses last 2-3 days, and are held at various locations around the country, with some addressing general aspects of the development process, but most being discipline-specific (Jiaoshi wangluo peixun 2010). Skyclass (2010b) also offers a number of courses, primarily structured around their software offering, but also aiming to introduce the new Top Level Courses evaluation criteria.

Critiques of the program in the Chinese literature

Although most of the articles are written in a laudatory tradition that does not doubt the good intentions or the success of the program, there are some interesting dissenting voices. Many pick up on the ambitious name “Top Level Courses”. Lu (2008) states that from his experience, many top professors are not willing to share the materials that they have been teaching for decades, and that he also had this fact confirmed by the Ministry of Education. He therefore does not believe that the courses deserve to be called “Top Level”. This concern is echoed by Professor A1, who says that she did not want to release all of her material on the web, because she had struggled for many years to create it, and does not want others to simply take it. However, she still put up most of her materials, whereas she knows other teachers who put up as little as they can get away with.

Wang Xiuhua (2008) is sceptical about the commitment of producers of Top Level Courses, and believes that many simply “go through the motions” and do not take the opportunity to rethink their own pedagogical practices. Despite the rigorous evaluation criteria, he believes that many universities choose famous professors to “put their name” on courses. Many courses are not developed as part of an overall plan, but rather quickly put together in two months, to obtain "fame". Professor B3 is also worried about professors that enrol only to get recognition, and are not interested in continual improvement. These do not follow up constructive criticism of their courses, and after 3-4 years, their courses might not have changed at all.

Even for professors that are committed to improving their own courses, there is a sense that the Top Level Courses process does not always support their work. Professor B1 is mainly positive, and believes that most of the things required are things that should be present in any good course. However, she is sceptical about the very detailed requirements on the constitution of the teaching teams. For some courses that are very small, this is not realistic. When she sees course applications listing a large number of people, she often wonders if they are really all involved in the course, or just lent their names to the application. She believes the requirement should be to have a course team that is appropriate for the kind of course, instead of a fixed requirement.

There is also some concern about the increased formalization and bureaucratization of teaching. Professor B2 was very enthusiastic about teaching a few years ago, but now her enthusiasm is slowly disappearing. In addition to larger class sizes, she feels that she spends a lot of time on creating formalized lesson plans, and dealing with people who come to listen in on her class.

There is also a problem with course websites not being maintained properly. Lu (2008) found that according to this tests, of the 1,100 national level Top Level Courses, over half were unavailable for one reason or another. Another survey by Qin (2008) shows that only 10% of all the material published in the “early years” of 2003-2005 is still available, and that most webpages have errors.

Finally, there is the danger of focusing too much on the aesthetic aspects of the website, where some universities spend as much as 20-30% of the award money on hiring external web design companies, rather than focusing on the quality of the content (Wang Xiuhua 2008).

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