The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project

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Organization of the thesis

I will begin by a literature review in chapter two, which will focus on two main topics. First, I will review some of the literature on Open Educational Resources, including the definition and a brief history of the term. I will also introduce some different types of Open Educational Resources from around the world, and a typology of Open Educational Resources projects, based on the purposes they aim to achieve. Then an introduction to the literature surrounding international borrowing and lending, including the theories of world institutionalism and global convergence by Meyer and Ramirez, and the focus on local meanings and practices in the work of Steiner-Khamsi and Schriewer.

In chapter three, I will discuss my methodology, which was a qualitative iterative process. I conducted 8 interviews with university professors who had produced Top Level Courses, people from the academic affairs offices of two universities, and one official related to the Ministry of Education. In addition, I had many informal conversations with Chinese colleagues, and consulted the Chinese literature widely, as well as the English literature regarding the history of Chinese higher education.

In chapter four, I will give an overview of Chinese higher education since 1949, focusing especially on the evolution of how courses were developed, and mechanisms for evaluating courses. The overview will also describe the large-scale investment in higher education through projects 985 and 211, as well as the explosion in enrolment from 1998 to 2008. I will show how internal course evaluations, and the focus on promoting excellence through peer-review and additional funding, as well as the strong focus on IT in education, were all factors that led to the creation of the Top Level Courses Project in 2003. This chapter is mainly based on Chinese and English secondary sources.

In chapter five, I will describe the Top Level Courses Project in detail. I will begin with the details around the creation and announcement of this project in 2003, and how it was defined by the Ministry of Education. I will describe how the project is implemented as a competition for the best courses, with three levels (university, provincial and national) and several types (undergraduate, online and vocational). I will also describe how the project developed from 2003-2010, with the biggest change coming with the renewal of the program in 2007, when it became a part of the Quality Project, and the national portal homepage was launched. I will then discuss the findings from my interviews with Chinese professors and administrators in detail. This section will draw on government reports, Chinese academic papers, formal interviews conducted with professors and staff at two universities and one Ministry of Education official, as well as informal communications with a large number of Chinese academics who research open education.

In chapter six, I will analyze some of the salient differences between the MIT OpenCourseWare project and the Chinese project, using the typology I developed in chapter two. The Top Level Courses Project has been described in Western academic publications as a form of OpenCourseWare run by an organization called China Open Resources for Education (CORE). I will explain the background for CORE, and how this image of the Top Level Courses Project was spread outside of China. Finally, I will revisit the discussion on borrowing and lending that was introduced in chapter two, and argue that a deep understanding of a foreign culture, as proposed by Gita Steiner-Khamsi, will often reveal that similar terms have very different meanings.

I will conclude by proposing that there is a fundamental difference in how university teaching is conceptualized in China and North America, drawing both from the historical French jand German models of the university, as well as China’s own educational history. I will then discuss what the West could learn from the Chinese project, and suggest some questions for future research.

Chapter 2: Literature review


In this chapter, I will first introduce the concept of Open Educational Resources, define the concept, and discuss the history of MIT OpenCourseWare. I will then develop a typology of Open Educational Resources based on their purpose, which will be used in chapter six to compare MIT OpenCourseWare with China’s Top Level Courses Project. The final part of the literature review will introduce the concept of world institutionalism, and a critique of the view that educational systems around the world are converging. This will also be further discussed in chapter six.

Open Educational Resources and MIT’s OpenCourseWare

Outside of China, the Top Level Courses have been widely understood to represent a form of Open Educational Resources, and in chapter six we will compare this project to the MIT OpenCourseWare project. To be able to do this, it is necessary to understand more about the definition and history of the concept of Open Educational Resources. In this section, I will also introduce a proposed typology for Open Educational Resources, based around their purpose, which will be useful for comparing the Top Level Courses Project to the MIT OpenCourseWare project.

Open Educational Resources (OER) is a term used for any educational material that is freely available over the Internet. The term was coined at a 2002 UNESCO meeting, and after several years of development of projects and ideas, the community’s understanding of the term was crystallized into the Cape Town Open Education Declaration in 2008 (UNESCO 2002; Cape Town 2010).

The term is commonly understood to mean that the material is also covered by an open license, usually a Creative Commons license, which specifies which additional rights users have to modify, share and reuse the material. This is related to the history of the concept, which came out of the Open Source movement, where programmers freely share the source code of their programs with each other and encourage hacking and improvement.

The free software movement began with Richard Stallman, who was one of an early group of hackers at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. The fledgling computer programmers freely shared code and their modifications with each other, and when commercial companies began imposing copyright on their software, and locking down the code, Stallman reacted by drafting the GNU Public License (GPL) and founding the Free Software Foundation. The essence of the GPL is that that you have the right to use the program, distribute it to others unchanged, modify it, and distribute (or even sell) your modifications – as long as you grant these same rights to your own derivative work (Xu and Stallman 2010).

Since then, the free software/open source movement has grown rapidly, with products like Linux, Firefox and Open in common use, and participation by companies and governments around the world. Partially inspired by the success, and the idealist ideas of the free software/open source movement, there have been many initiatives to extend the ethics of free/open access to information into other spheres. This has given rise to a burgeoning free culture movement, based on the Creative Commons license written by Lawrence Lessig; the open access to research movement to promote free access to scholarly publications; and an open education movement.

One of the early attempts to apply these ideas to education was the idea of “learning objects”, discrete units of instructional material that could be reused and recombined for various purposes. This would allow a similar pooling of resources that had been seen in open source (Norman and Porter 2007). There was also experimentation with creating an appropriate open license for education and cultural works. In 1998, David Wiley announced the first open content license. This license was based on the premise that educational content should be freely developed and shared "in a spirit similar to that of free and open software" (Wiley 2003). Later, the Creative Commons license was developed, and is now used by almost all open education projects (Carroll 2006).

In 1999, Provost Robert Brown at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched a committee of faculty, students and administrators to “consider how MIT should position itself in the use of educational technology and distance learning” (Vest 2006, 20). After deliberating on the extant business models, and considering how MIT could make a unique contribution to the field, their recommendation to Vest was for all the material to be made freely available to the world. Thus, on April 4, 2001, Vest announced that within the next 10 years, nearly all of MIT’s courses would be made available on the Internet, and that this new program would be known as MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT news 2001a).

By 2007, MIT’s ambitious goal had been reached, and today they have published “core academic materials – including syllabi, lecture notes, assignments and exams – from more than 2,000 MIT courses” (MIT OCW 2007, 2010d). This very expensive undertaking – each course cost between $10,000-$15,000 to put online – was mainly financed by the Willam and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, through a joint initial grant of $11 million (MIT news 2001b). During this period, MIT worked together with the Hewlett Foundation, which committed to long-term funding of a range of Open Educational Resources, to spread the idea of OCW to other universities, and countries (Hewlett Foundation 2005).

The OpenCourseWare Consortium was formed in 2005 to promote the further spread and uptake of the OpenCourseWare idea, and to support the institutions that participate (MIT OCW 2010a; OpenCourseWare Consortium 2010f). It defines the minimum requirement for an institution to join the OpenCourseWare Consortium as a commitment to publishing ten courses online (OpenCourseWare Consortium 2010f). Although some courses include video or audio from the lectures, most courses are quite skeletal, and are not designed for distance teaching, but mainly for re-use by other educators and self-study by motivated students. This is underlined by the use of a Creative Commons open license, which allows anyone to redistribute and modify the materials, as long as they do not make a profit, and give the same reuse rights to their own derivative material (MIT OCW 2010c).

It is important to recognize that there is a wide variety of Open Educational Resources available, ranging from open textbooks projects, repositories of learning objects, collections of lecture videos, online virtual laboratories and virtual tutors, to databases of public domain works and academic blogs. In this thesis, I will focus mostly on the specific OpenCourseWare model, which focuses on making available resources pertaining to full university-level courses, because the Top Level Courses Project has often been compared to OpenCourseWare, and because their final products (the open courses) are structurally very similar.

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