The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project

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Chapter 3: Methodology


Given that very little was known about the Top Level Courses Project outside of China when I began my research, my research has been mainly exploratory. Rather than defining my research questions early on, and testing very rigorous hypotheses, I have had to pursue the topic through a number of channels until I reached a better understanding of what I was researching. Indeed, I began with very different ideas about how the Top Level Courses Project functioned, and how it had come into being. It was therefore very important that my research be flexible enough to be able to change direction when new information came up and new insights emerged.

I used a number of different sources to triangulate information. My formal interviews took a disproportionately long time to set up, but were important in giving me access to professors who had produced Top Level Courses, but had no background in education or university administration. I then gained a deeper understanding through many informal meetings with colleagues in departments of education, and through testing my ideas through presentations given. I consulted a selection of Chinese academic sources, as well as government reports and news releases. And finally, the courses are all openly available, so I also spent time visiting courses online, and using the course portal.

I employed the following four categories of sources of qualitative data for this study:

  1. literature review of the Chinese academic literature, about the global open education movement in general and about the Chinese OpenCourseWare project specifically

  2. government reports and policy documents, also policy documents and evaluation reports from individual institutions of higher education

  3. open-ended key informant interviews conducted with three categories of people: a Ministry of Education official, people in leadership positions at institutions involved in the Chinese OpenCourseWare project, and professors who produce content for the Chinese OpenCourseWare project

  4. informal interaction with professors and graduate students, participation in conferences, and feedback from presentations about this topic by the author

Secondary literature and online resources

There has been very little written about the Top Level Courses Project in English. Usually, it is only mentioned as part of an article about OpenCourseWare or Open Educational Resources as an example of a large-scale project, but little is conveyed about the actual design, functioning, and purpose of the project (and indeed much that is conveyed is misleading, as we shall see in chapter six). In Chinese, however, there has been a large number of academic papers written about different aspects of the project, with the database China Academic Journals listing more than 3,500 papers directly related. It is a limitation of this thesis that I was not able to read a large number of these, nor did I find any good survey papers giving me an overview of the research and the field.

In my reading a select number of these papers, I considered them both as part of the general literature review that helped me find useful data and theoretical approaches, but also as “primary sources”. Given that many of the authors are academics directly involved in the production of OpenCourseWare, the literature can give insights into how they perceive the international movement, as well as the Chinese program, and what research questions they find relevant.

At the beginning of my research, I was fortunate to get help from a Chinese professor at Northwest Normal University in the same field. She helped me select a number of articles that were relevant to my research questions, and this was a great help in gaining an initial understanding of the project. In addition to academic papers, and some MA theses, I reviewed policy statements by the Ministry of Education, and press releases by individual universities. These are fortunately mostly all online, and searchable. Since the online course material that is the final product of the Top Level Courses Project is required to be open to the public, I was also able to visit a number of courses directly, and look at the material. This thesis will not look at the specific contents of courses, or analyze the courses pedagogically or otherwise, but this exercise was useful to gain a better understanding of what the project “looked like”.

Formal interviews

I spent three months in the summer of 2009, and another four months from December 2009 to March 2010 in China, collecting data for my thesis. I had originally planned to visit three universities, but due to time constraints and problems with securing institutional permission, I ended up visiting two institutions. My ethics proposal was only approved days before the summer vacation, so I was not able to conduct any of my formal interviews during the summer.

When I came back in winter, there were still several weeks of preparation at both the sites before I could obtain signatures for the institutional consent letter from the university vice-presidents that I needed according to my ethics protocol. I established contact with the two universities through the personal contacts of members of my committee, and in both cases received an introduction and support from colleagues in the department of education at the target university.

With significant help from my contacts in the departments of education, we managed to gather the necessary recommendations and signatures from other officials (such as the departmental party secretary, and the foreign affairs office), for the consent letter to reach the vice-president (or equivalent position). After having obtained this institutional consent, I had also asked for a list of possible interview candidates. In both cases, they introduced me to someone at the academic affairs office, and I received a list of professors that taught courses that had received a provincial or national Top Level Course award. I contacted these individuals myself through the telephone, and made it clear that there would be no negative repercussions for them in refusing the interview, and that I would not inform anyone else of whom I interviewed. Some of these chose to confirm with the academic affairs office whether I had really received permission to conduct interviews, before responding.

I then agreed to meeting the professors at a time and place of their choosing, often in their offices, and asked them to read through, and sign, the informed consent form. This form, like the institutional consent form that had been signed by the vice-president, had been translated into Chinese for easier understanding (these forms are all listed in the appendices). It was clear to me that Western research ethics procedures made things much more complicated in a country that is not used to such procedures. Most professors were very willing to speak openly about their experiences, but became hesitant when they had to sign a long legal-sounding letter. Most agreed to sign, but I was forced to decline the offer from one participant who would be very willing to speak with me, but was reluctant to sign the consent form.

All interviews were conducted in Chinese, and recorded using the open source software Audacity on a portable MacBook computer. I made sure that the recordings were made anonymous (no personally identifiable information was available) and sent the digital files to a professional transcriber in Beijing.

The consent form stated that all participants would receive a copy of the transcribed interview, and have six weeks to submit corrections, or entirely withdraw their participation. I made a mistake in not asking for the participant’s e-mail addresses on the consent form, but with their names and institutional affiliations, I was able to easily find these through the Internet. Three people submitted corrections to the transcript, and none chose to withdraw from participation after the interviews had taken place.

University A is a top-ranking national comprehensive research-intensive university in a major city. University B is a provincial level normal university in a different part of the country. At University A, I interviewed the person in the academic affairs office responsible for coordinating their Top Level Courses production (A0), as well as two professors, professors A1 and A2. At University B, I interviewed the head of the academic affairs office (B0), as well as three professors, professors B1, B2 and B3, one of whom (B3) is also involved in the provincial Top Level Courses evaluation process. Additionally I interviewed someone on the national evaluation committee of the Top Level Courses Project (C0).

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