The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project

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Informal interactions

During my total of seven months in China, I had a number of opportunities to learn more about the Top Level Courses Project through informal interactions with colleagues. A year prior to beginning my research, I attended a large Open Educational Resources conference in Dalian, co-hosted by China Open Resources for Education and the international OpenCourseWare Consortium. The contacts I made there were very useful to me in my later work. I later visited with professors and graduate students of education at South China Normal University, Minzu University of China, Tsinghua University, Beijing Public Security University, Peking University, Beijing Normal University and Shanghai Jiaotong University.

I was also invited to give a number of public presentations, where I presented my preliminary findings, and was able to test theories and ideas on an informed audience. I gave public talks at South China Normal University, Beijing Normal University (the Social Learning Lab), Minzu University of China, the Open University of China, the Educational Technology Research Summer School at South China Normal University 2009, the Educational Technology Research Summer School at Peking University 2010, Shanghai Jiaotong University and the Top Level Courses Project Resource Centre. All of these presentations, with the exception of the presentation at Shanghai Jiaotong University, were made in Chinese.

These interactions were crucial for developing my understanding of the Top Level Courses Project, guiding me to relevant literature I might have missed, and connecting me further to persons of interest that I could learn from. This experience also enabled me to prepare much better for the formal interviews which I would conduct later. During the research phase, I helped professor Han Xibin (韩锡斌) from Tsinghua University edit a short research note about the Top Level Courses Project for the British Journal of Educational Technology, and worked with professor Wang Long (王龙) from the Chinese People’s Public Security University to translate and edit a longer article about the development process of Top Level Courses. This intense interaction and collaboration with Chinese academics was very helpful in gaining a better understanding of my research topic, and in understanding Chinese higher education as a whole. The approach is also similar to that of O’Brien (2006) in his field work in China, where he would test his developing arguments directly on his interviewees during the course of the research.

At the conference in Dalian, I also met many of the key players in North American and international Open Educational Resources projects, and later attended a number of international conferences on this topic in the United States and Canada1. This helped me understand better both the organization and motivations behind North-American Open Educational Resources projects, and also how the Chinese project was viewed by non-Chinese.

Chapter 4: History 1949-2003


In this chapter I will review the history of higher education in China beginning with the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949, with a special focus on the curriculum development process and course evaluation systems. I will show how China began implementing a very rigid and centralized curricular system in the 1950’s, which they imported from the Soviet Union, and which lasted until the middle of the 1980’s. In that period, control over the curriculum was loosened up, and at the same time, we see the first traces of course evaluations.

I will argue that this history is crucial to understanding the factors that enabled the Top Level Courses Project to be launched in 2003. The history of government oversight over the curriculum, teaching teams and course evaluations in individual universities came together with a focus on selecting and funding excellent units, a focus on IT in education, and a desire to maintain or improve quality in the face of explosive enrolment growth.

Learning from the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union had already in the 1930’s implemented central control over the higher education curriculum, with the Ministry of Higher Education establishing a standardized academic calendar, curriculum, course schedule and detailed course requirements for all specializations. Every lecture course was given a syllabus with highly detailed prescriptions of ingredients (Korol 1957, 209, 329). The Soviet system was also based on clear specializations that began from the first year of study.

When the students from the 1919 May 4th reform movement in China were seeking foreign ideas, they looked to Japan, America and Europe, but also to Soviet pedagogy, and later the Soviet school system had a strong impact on schooling in the Communist base areas (Yang 2004). In 1945, Mao reaffirmed that China should use the Soviet Union as an example, and after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Vice Minister of Education stated that to learn from the Soviet Union should be the main direction of developing a new educational system (Mao and Shen 1989, 84)

The first Soviet expert groups arrived already in October that year, visiting Shanghai and Beijing, and giving talks on the Soviet system (Mao and Shen 1989, 83-86). Although the first few years were marked by a cautious approach, which rewarded existing universities that had a fairly liberal approach, and introduced a credit-system for choosing courses, this period of openness was short-lived. Before long there was a closer and closer identification with the Soviet Union, away from self-reliance and toward an all-out emulation of Soviet patterns and practices (Hayhoe 1996).

For higher education, two universities would serve as “beachheads” for integrating Soviet expertise and experience within the Chinese national context: The People’s University for social science, and Harbin Institute of Technology for natural sciences and technology. The People’s University was a brand new university, created on the model of Soviet institutions, and directly overseen by senior members of the government (Mao and Shen 1989, 89). This university was a huge investment for a young country, and in 1950, it represented 20% of the national educational budget (Cheng Fangwu, cited in Mao and Shen 1989, 90).

From 1950-1957, the People’s University hosted more than 98 Soviet experts, a larger number than any other university. These experts helped train teachers, conduct research on teaching and develop pedagogical theory, teach graduate students, and develop educational material. In 1954, a large national meeting was held at the People’s University to popularize the lessons learnt. The meeting was well attended, and because of the high status of the university, many other universities wanted to send teachers there, or to collaborate with the researchers at People’s University (Mao and Shen 1989, 92).

Different from the People’s University, which was created from scratch, Harbin Institute of Technology was an existing university that was chosen for its position in a border-region with Russia, where most students were Russian descendants and spoke Russian (Mao and Shen 1989). Originally called Harbin Sino-Russian Technical School, it had been established in 1920 as a Russian-language institution to provide personnel for the China Eastern Railway Company. Interestingly, the school was reorganized in 1922 in a very similar effort to the great national reorganization of departments which would come in 1953 (see below).

In 1935, the area where the school was located had become part of Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet-regime, and a process of Japanization changed both the structure and the language of instruction at the school (Otsuka 2001). This dual heritage of both the Russian system, and the rapidly industrializing Japanese system, made it a key institution for Russian technical experts. From 1951 to 1957, the university hosted 67 experts from 26 different Russian universities, which helped train graduate students, determine the educational plan for each specialization, and create models for undergraduate courses in technology and natural sciences (Mao and Shen 1989, 92).

Very little of the teaching material from before the founding of the People’s Republic of China was kept. Instead, detailed teaching plans were drawn up by the Soviet experts, and a large-scale program of translating Soviet material began. By October 1957, 1869 teaching publications and mimeographed sheets had been translated and compiled (Zhou Yuliang 1986, 448-449). Due to the strong centralization of the higher education system, also a lesson from the Soviet system, this material was in use at all Chinese universities. As Lewin et al. (2004, 147) put it:

The overriding characteristic of curriculum development in China since 1949 has been central control of a nationally unified teaching syllabus. What to teach in schools (educational objectives, content selection), when and how to long to teach it (timetabling), and, to a lesser extent, how to teach and evaluate students, have all been the subject of detailed central guidelines.

Zhou Yuliang (1986, 459-460) mentions Zhejiang Normal University as an example of how pervasive the Soviet influence was. In 1955, the university offered 153 courses. Of these, 41 were based on texts directly translated from the Soviet Union, and the other 79 had been developed based on Soviet models.

The Russian influence was not only limited to course materials, but extended to the entire organization of the higher education sector. The Russian higher education system was organized with specialized universities focusing on teaching, and with research happening mainly in research institutes, such as the Chinese Academy of Science (Hayhoe 1987). Universities were not all under the Ministry of Education, but rather were organized under, and funded by, their respective ministries. These were sometimes defined by product, as in the case of the Universities of Iron and Steel, which were administered and funded by the Ministry of Iron and Steel, and whose graduates would go on to work in the iron and steel industry (Hayhoe 1989).

The reorganization of colleges and departments in China (yuanxi tiaozheng, 院系调整), which was part of the first Five Year Plan (1953-1957), aimed at reorganizing the whole Chinese higher education sector according to this pattern (Hayhoe 1996). At the institutional level, the organization of curriculum by colleges, each with several departments, which had been common in the pre-1949 universities, was now cancelled. Universities had departments directly under their central administration, and specializations within departments now became the main organizing unit for the curriculum, with the credit system terminated, and each specialization following a uniform curriculum, and being given an annual quota of students.

The result of this was a centralized and rigid system, with very little freedom for students to choose their courses, and for teaching faculty or institutions to design programs of study, or determine the contents of individual courses. The rigid organization of departments and specializations meant that there was very little scope for collaboration, or even contact, across the disciplines.

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