The Top Level Courses Project’s official title was “Project for the quality of teaching and reform of teaching in institutions of higher education, work on the construction of Top Level courses”, and was always meant to be a part of a larger project for enhancing quality and reforming teaching in higher education. In 2007, the State Council, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Finance officially launched the three year "Project for Reform of Teaching and Improvement of Teaching Quality in Institutions of Higher Education", usually referred to as the Quality Project (zhiliang gongcheng, 质量工程). The project launch had been preceded by more than a year of investigation, research and open meetings with stakeholders (Li Bin 2007).
This project targeted 1000 universities with 10 million full-time students, and was to cost approximately USD $365 million. The targets were as follows: Help 3000 professors and administrators to develop peer training exchanges, select 1000 national-level teaching teams, give awards to 500 top national teachers, develop 500 experimental teaching centers, 500 individual talent development and creativity areas, and 500 high quality bilingual classes (Jingpinke 2010). In addition, the project would restructure majors, publish teaching evaluations and data on teaching and learning, promote mutual assistance between universities in Eastern China and universities in Western China, and promote self-study, learning through research, and practical learning to improve initiative and creativity among students (Wen 2007).
As for the Top Level Courses Project, the first stage from 2003 to 2007 had produced 1,500 national Top Level courses, with the focus on commonly taught basic undergraduate courses. The second stage, beginning in 2007, had a target of constructing 3,000 national level Top Level courses. That year, the Ministry of Education also expanded the project to include online courses, and during the next three years of operation, evaluated 149 national level online Top Level courses. After this expansion, including online courses, and also courses from public security and military schools, the project covered a total of 700 institutions of higher education in every part of China. From 2003 to 2010, 3790 national level courses have been produced, including 2528 undergraduate courses, 1037 vocational courses and 209 online courses. In addition to the national level courses, more than 6000 provincial level courses, and a large number of university-level courses have been produced (NTCP 2010).
In addition, the 2007 stage called for the creation of an organized system for sharing the course materials generated, and supporting the development of software and portals that could facilitate this sharing (Wang Xueyin 2008). This would later become the Jingpinke.com portal, which will be discussed in a separate section.
This section will look at how universities carry out the Top Level Courses policy, and how it is perceived by academics who have had their own courses selected as Top Level. It is based on formal interviews with professors, academic affairs officers, and people involved with Top Level Course selections at a provincial and national level, as well as informal visits to several other universities, and some secondary literature.
University-level Top Level Course selection is organized and implemented by individual universities, based on their course development plans and the courses that are traditionally highly ranked internally. From courses that have already developed good materials, have distinguishing features, and can play an inspirational role for other teachers, the university administration will choose a certain number of courses, and invest in their further development.
University B has a long tradition for educational technology, and was one of the first universities to have a course designated as Top Level in 2003. The work on developing Top Level Courses, and the use of this process as a lever to improve the educational quality at the university, continues to have high priority.
The academic affairs office at University B is very concerned with whether courses are well enough constructed, so that they will have a high potential for winning in the provincial and national competitions. Their self-described strength is their “pre-application process”. All 20 departments in the university can propose courses, and these get a small amount of seed money for development. The courses that are selected for this internal process are courses that are already impressive, with many having gone through a period of more than ten years of development. However, they have to be updated, and they especially have to develop online material that reflect well on the course.
The courses are given 1-2 months for development, and after that, they create an expert committee composed of internal and external experts that begin evaluating the courses. The external experts come from other high-ranking universities in the region. This evaluation is based mainly on the available online resources, but a supervisory committee made up of very experienced and retired teachers also goes to listen in on classes, and solicit students’ evaluations of the teaching materials. The task of the academic affairs office is not to get directly involved in evaluation, but rather to coordinate the process.
The internal university committee discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each course, especially where there is a difference in opinion with the external experts, and the best courses are proposed as provincial and national courses. The teachers who have already had a course accepted as a provincial or national Top-Level Course also contribute to share their experiences of the process.
University B has an ambitious goal for developing Top Level Courses, they want 700-800 of their 3000 courses to reach Top Level status, which would represent 30% of courses. Their short-term goal is to get 500 Top Level courses between 2012 and 2015, which should include all obligatory courses. In addition, they are spending considerable energy trying to put up recordings for every single lecture for all their 124 existing Top Level Courses, to complement the requisite representative lectures. This focus on improving existing Top Level Courses is also reflected in their annual monitoring process, where all heads of departments sit around a table, display one course at a time on a projector, and check how much of the course contents has been updated.
When interviewing the person in charge of coordinating the development of Top Level Courses at University A, he put much less focus on the process of quality improvement. “Here the teachers and courses are already very good, so we don’t have to do too much work to improve them.” Mr. A0 believes that professors from University A have strong moral values, and would work hard on improving their courses even without such competitions, but he acknowledged that internal competition between colleagues in the same department can push professors to work harder on improving courses. Similar to the case at University B, most courses entered into the Top Level Courses selection process at University A are courses that have a long history of development as excellent courses, and were not developed specifically for the Top Level Courses Project.
Wang Xueyin (2008) has published a quite detailed case study from the development of Top Level Courses at Lanzhou City College, and their process has many similarities with the one at University B. After the province put out the call for Top Level Courses applications, the university began by calling a meeting with all the heads of departments, to ask them to identify top courses that had potential to become a Top Level Course. They then established a teaching committee to identify basic and specialized courses that were relevant, and brought the teachers of those courses together with personnel from the computer department to discuss how online teaching materials could be constructed. Like at University B, the school decided to provide some funding to construct the initial courses.
The main guiding philosophy was that the construction of Top Level Courses would support the improvement of quality of all the courses at the school, and ideally the courses that could have the most impact on the entire department would be selected. The university administration also underlined the point that the idea was not to simply recycle existing courses online, but rather to think through the design, and update the teaching methodology and content. When the course development was complete, the university organized an online blind peer-review of the course, and based on this, determined whether to award the university-level Top Level Course designation.
As we have seen from these three case studies, universities play a key role in the Top Level Courses Project, selecting potential candidates and supporting their development, until they can be selected as a university-level Top Level Course. Universities also have to submit an annual report about the construction and sharing of Top Level Courses, including
updating and keeping the resources available, students’ use and feedback, support from the school, the open sharing situation of the resource, amount of resources spent on developing the course, and how much the university is spending on supporting development economically and organizationally (Liu Zenghui 2009).
Promotion to provincial and national level
The announcement of university-level Top Level Courses is made public, and anyone can both visit the course website, as well as provide feedback. If there are no strong objections to the course during this period, the decision will be made to suggest the course for a higher level designation (provincial level, and then national level).
The first step is the provincial level. The provincial bureau of education is responsible for planning the distribution of provincial level Top Level Courses based on the provincial plan for educational development and course development. Based on this, the provincial bureau of education will ensure the completion of the provincial level project, as well as the suggestion of courses for the national level selection. The courses that enter the provincial level selection process must already have been designated as university-level Top Level courses. The province then organizes an online blind peer-review by subject specialists, based on provincial evaluation criteria, which may differ by province. The courses selected are made public, and awarded the provincial level designation, as well as a sum of money to support the further development of the courses.
The final step is the national level Top Level Courses, organized by the national Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education is the highest level organization responsible for the organization and management of the Top Level Courses Project, organizing the selection of different types of courses (undergraduate courses, vocational courses and online courses), providing guidance around the entire process of developing and evaluating courses, and supervising the annual evaluation and selection of courses at all levels. The selection of national level courses is similar to the university-level and provincial level process, however the requirements for each indicator (course quality, course evaluation management, financial support, quality control, etc) are much stricter.
From the description above, we can see that the Top Level Courses are awarded different levels of designations (which to a certain extent reflect their level of maturity). The financial support arrives after the course has already been developed, which means that the university first has to use its own money to invest in course development, before the course can receive additional support when selected to higher levels. This is congruent with the original intent of the project, which was to stimulate universities to invest more in course development.
The three levels in the selection of Top Level Courses follow similar processes, and in practice, to improve the linkages between the three levels, most university-level and provincial level selections employ the same standards as the national selection (Wang Long, personal communications). This also serves to raise the quality of courses at all levels. In addition, since the entire process of development, sharing, and peer-review of courses happens through the Internet, the educational technology demands are quite high. The focus on digitization of resources, teaching and learning in online settings, communication between students and teachers, generative assessments, etc., all help promoting the integration of information technology and teaching and learning in higher education.