The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project: Using Open Educational Resources to Promote

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The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project:

Using Open Educational Resources to Promote

Quality in Undergraduate Teaching


Stian Håklev

A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements

for the degree of Masters of Arts

Graduate Department of Theory and Policy Studies

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

University of Toronto

© Copyright by Stian Håklev 2010

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project:

Using Open Educational Resources to Promote

Quality in Undergraduate Teaching

Master of Arts 2010

Stian Håklev

Department of Theory and Policy Studies

University of Toronto


The Top Level Quality Project (jingpin kecheng, 精品课程) is a large project in Chinese higher education which uses the production of Open Educational Resources to improve the quality of undergraduate education.

Widely understood in the West to be a form of OpenCourseWare inspired by MIT’s example, this thesis traces the roots of the project back to the history of Russian influence on Chinese higher education, the introduction of course evaluation systems in 1985, a string of large-scale funding projects to promote excellence in the 1990’s, and the massification of higher education from 1988 to 1998.

After a detailed description of the project, the thesis suggests that university teaching is conceptualized very differently in North America and in China, drawing parallels both to the historical French and German models of the university, and to the Chinese tradition of using “models” to promote virtue and excellence.


Although I had always been interested in open movements, I first began to learn about Open Educational Resources at the iCommons Summit in Dubrovnik in 2007, whose education section was very ably facilitated by Allen Gunn. Later, in fall 2007, I attended the incredible open course “Intro to Open Education”, taught by David Wiley, then at Utah State University.

Through this course, I heard about how MIT courses had been translated into Chinese and were used in Chinese classrooms. On the basis of this, I applied to Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), planning to research this further. I was incredibly lucky to have Ruth Hayhoe as a supervisor. Her deep understanding of Chinese higher education, and her emphasis on the importance of knowledge flows going both ways, and employing a historical approach to understanding educational developments, have been very inspiring.

I also got much support from the thesis group that Ruth organized, and want to thank all the participants of that group for helping me through the ethics review process, and supporting me along. Kirk Perris, in particular, shared much of his research on open universities in China and India, and helped me think through my research questions.

At OISE, I was also lucky to be part of a very vibrant and supportive community of internationally minded scholars. The Comparative, International and Development Education community became my home for two years, and through some of the early classes with Karen Mundy, Vandra Masemann and Sarfaroz Niyazov, I developed the analytical framework for my thesis. My second reader, Jim Slotta, has been incredibly generous with his time and ideas. Conversations with him have been crucial in helping me develop my understanding of Open Educational Resources, and he also included me in his research group, and invited me to participate in the Knowledge, Media and Design Institute community.

The Open Educational Resources movement has been very welcoming, and I have learnt a lot from participating in conferences, and through private conversations. John Dehlin, Steven Carson, Terri Bays and Meena Hwang from the OpenCourseWare Consortium have been very supportive of this research. Gary Matkin at University of California at Irvine gave me many initial ideas, and helped me apply for funding through the Hewlett Foundation. Thank you to the Hewlett Foundation for financially supporting this research, and also to Cathy Casserly and Victor Vucich for the interest and support you have shown!

Mike Caulfield at Keene State College inspired me to develop my four categories of Open Educational Resources. Alexandra Kuvaeva helped me research course design in Russian higher education, using resources that I did not have access to. Chen Bodong (陈伯栋) and Zhao Naxin (赵纳新), both at OISE, were very helpful in connecting me with scholars in China.

I spent about 7 months in total in China, visiting many universities and individuals to discuss my research project. First, I must sincerely thank all the individuals whom I interviewed formally for my thesis. I cannot mention their names, but they were all very supportive, and made an important contribution to my research!

I also made many informal visits. At South China Normal University, Jiao Jianli (焦建立), Zhao Jianhua (赵建华), Jia Yimin (贾义敏) and colleagues and graduate students were wonderful hosts during my several visits, and also invited me to participate in the National Educational Technology Research Summer School.

Yan Fengqiao (阎凤桥) was very helpful in facilitating my visit to the Department of Education at Peking University, where I also had inspiring conversations with Wang Aihua (王爱华), and other colleagues and graduate students. I very much enjoyed my interactions with the SocialLearnLab network (教育大发现), facilitated by Zhuang Xiuli (庄秀丽) at Beijing Normal University. Liu Meifeng (刘美凤) at the same university was also a great help in my research.

I had very useful discussions with Wang Long (王龙) from the Chinese People’s Public Security University, Han Xibin (韩锡斌) from Tsinghua University, Ren Weimin (任为民) from Open Education (奥鹏教育), Fun-Den Wang (王逢旦), chair of China Open Resources for Education, Xi Jianhua (希建华), editor of the Chinese Open Education journal, Yang Rui (杨锐) at Hong Kong University, and Duan Chenggui (段承贵) at HKU Space. Ju Feng (居烽) from the Top Level Courses Project Resource Center generously shared his understanding of the project, and the exciting work that his center is doing.

Carsten Ullrich invited me to Shanghai Jiaotong University to give a talk, where I also met Yu Jianbo (余建波), who told me about the local situation. Lee Haishuo (李海硕) from Taiwan OpenCourseWare Consortium shared his research on Asian OpenCourseWare.

I was very fortunate to find Wang Wenjun (王文君) at Northwest Normal University, who helped me locate Chinese academic articles that were relevant to my research. Janar at Beijing Normal University was helpful in transcribing the Chinese interviews I had recorded.

During my time in Beijing, Chang Yongcai (常永才) from Central Minzu University was a wonderful host, and I greatly enjoyed interacting with him and his students. Finally, Rahat was an incredible help and support in all my work in China, and I cannot thank him enough… Рақмет! He also introduced me to the Open University of China, where I was warmly received, and had very interesting discussions with a number of staff.

Through this entire period, I also had the strong support of my family, my wonderful wife, my roommates, and all my friends in Toronto, China and around the world. Thank you!

Table of contents

Abstract 2

Acknowledgments 3

Table of contents 5

Chapter 1: Introduction 8

Objectives 9

Research questions 9

Organization of the thesis 10

Chapter 2: Literature review 12

Introduction 12

Open Educational Resources and MIT’s OpenCourseWare 12

Typology of Open Educational Resources based on their purpose 14

World institutionalism and policy borrowing 16

Chapter 3: Methodology 19

Introduction 19

Secondary literature and online resources 20

Formal interviews 20

Informal interactions 22

Chapter 4: History 1949-2003 23

Introduction 23

Learning from the Soviet Union 24

From the Great Leap Forward to 1977 27

Cultural revolution 28

Continuity and change after the Cultural Revolution 29

The beginning of course evaluations 30

Course evaluation and quality assurance 32

Massification of higher education, and prestige projects 33

Preparing the way for the Top Level Courses Project 34

Chapter 5: Description of the Top Level Courses Project 36

Inception 36

Criteria for the selection of courses 37

Development of selection criteria 38

Two stages of development 40

Institutional perspective 41

University-level Top Level Course selection 41

Promotion to provincial and national level 43

Case studies of individual experiences with Top Level Course selection 44

The process of applying 46

Effects of applying for the Top Level Courses Project for individual professors 47

Effects of the Top Level Courses Project for institutions 49

How and by whom are the course resources used? 50

The portal 52

Commercial ecosystem 53

Critiques of the program in the Chinese literature 54

The future 56

Conclusion 56

Chapter 6: Top Level Courses and MIT OpenCourseWare 58

Introduction 58

Comparison based on typology of purposes 58

Transformative production 58

Resources shared 60

The impact of MIT’s model on the Top Level Courses Project 62

OpenCourseWare as a norm 63

Openness as a policy innovation 65

The perception of the Top Level Courses Project outside of China 66

The spread of an understandable myth 68

Japan 68

Taiwan 68

South Korea 69

A common East-Asian model 71

The power of personal relationships 73

Conclusion 74

Chapter 7: Conclusion 75

Two metaphors for professors and course delivery 75

The power of models and examples 78

Conclusion 80

Directions for future research 81

References 83

Appendices: Documents from ethics review protocol 92

Appendix A: Sample Questions for Open-ended Interviews 92

Have you ever used OpenCourseWare produced at any other institution? 92

Appendix B: Recruitment email sample for Ministry of Education official 93

Appendix C: Sample of Consent Form for Ministry of Education Official 94

Appendix D: Sample of Organizational Consent Form to Conduct Interviews at Universities 96

Appendix E: Sample of Consent Form for University Administrators 98

Appendix F: Sample of Consent Form for Professors 100

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