During my research, I interviewed five professors that had had their courses designated Top Level Courses. Below, I will introduce their individual cases, beginning with the history of how their courses had developed before applying, and then discuss the process of applying, including the motivation for doing so.
An interesting finding from the interviews was that most courses had been developed for a long time before they applied to, and were selected as Top Level Courses. The macro-history of course evaluations in China that was discussed in the previous chapter is here illustrated through the personal histories of these individual courses, which often had been selected as excellent university courses. Professor B1 began teaching her course in 1991, when it was a voluntary course. Later it became designated as an obligatory course. The teaching team constantly strived to improve the course, applying to have the course recognized as an approved course, and later as an excellent course. Finally, it was even designated as a class directly sponsored by the Ministry of Education (jiaoyubu zhuban ke, 教育部主办课).
Professor B2’s course was started by the same person who set up the department where he teaches, a professor who was very well-known within China. He proudly notes that the textbook written by this professor has been published continually for 50 years, and had a huge national impact. Since he was such a leader in the field, the course is still today marked by his specific approach to the discipline, especially his emphasis on connecting theory to practice. Professor B2 is one of the students trained by him, one of many teachers in this department who are his students, and is proud to continue his heritage through continually developing teaching teams, teaching materials and courses. This course also received the excellent course designation from the university, before they applied to be a Top Level Course.
Both Professor A2, who began teaching in 1997, and Professor A1 have also taught their courses for many years. Professor A1’s course is an important obligatory course in the major, and one of the key courses at the university. During the years of teaching, a lot of emphasis has been put on developing teaching materials and course contents. Until 2007, the course was entirely lecture-based, but since 2007, they changed to include an internship where students can put their knowledge into practice.
Many of the courses had also developed web resources before the Top Level Courses Project. Professor A1’s course did not have an external website, but he had put many course resources on a campus learning management system (open only to registered students). Professor A2’s example is interesting – his course is also open to students from the Western province of Xinjiang, who come to the university as visiting scholars. In 2004-2005, their demand for more online resources after they had returned home provided the initial impetus to create a website, where he slowly began putting up recordings and other material, together with a discussion forum.
Professor B2 began developing a website for her course in 2001, which contained courseware, questions, descriptions of experiments and other teaching materials. Under a provincial program called the 151 Project (151 gongcheng, 151工程), she and her colleagues also developed a resource database, where they deposited a number of resources from the course. They also received requests from other universities for access to the materials, because the textbook mentioned above has been so popular and widely known.
The process of applying
Both Professor B1 and Professor A2 were relatively early in applying for the Top Level Course designation. In both cases, they realized that their existing material was a very good fit for this new program. Professor A2’s school began applying for courses in 2004, and when they asked who had courses that could fit, he volunteered, because he knew that the existing resources they had developed would be very appropriate for the Top Level Course requirements. He also believed that it would be an honor to receive the designation.
Professor B1’s story is similar, she applied for the university-level designation in 2005, and in 2008 her team applied for the national level designation. She says that they never applied for the designation excellent course because they wanted the recognition, but because they thought that through the process of applying they could provide a better course for the students. When the Top Level Courses guidelines came out, they realized that they were even more detailed and stringent than the university’s own excellent courses, so they decided to use the application to improve their course further. They also benefitted from help from the school of online education in creating the website. Although she said that getting the designation was not very important for her herself, she does mention that universities now take Top Level Courses into consideration when assessing professors for promotion.
Professor B2 also applied for the designation in 2005, but Professor A1 did not apply until 2008, five years after the Top Level Courses project had been launched. She said she knew about it the whole time, but thought that as long as others knew she had a good course, that would be sufficient, and did not consider applying for this designation. In 2008, her department began to put more focus on developing Top Level Courses, as part of a process of becoming an international first class university, and expand its influence. At that point, she decided to submit her own course for consideration. An added factor was that a new textbook, which she had developed, had won a national Top Level Courses price for teaching materials the year before, as well as the innovative adding of an internship to the course design.
Both Professor A1 and Professor B1 also mentioned planning for their legacy as factors in the decision to apply for the Top Level Courses project. Professor A1 retired in 2008, and had anyway been planning to make recordings and leave behind a memory of his teaching at the university. Professor B1 explains that she will retire in a few years, and needs to find some young professors that she can train to continue the courses. Building up the course teaching team through the Top Level Courses Project can be one way to further this goal.
When applying, many of the professors visited existing Top Level courses for inspiration, as well as getting support from their colleagues. Professor A1 visited other courses by people in his department, to see how they had done it, and the academic affairs office at Professor B1’s university organized for new applicants to learn from people with very good Top Level Courses, both from their own school and from the outside. Both Professors B1 and B2 also visited other courses online, and in fact Professor B2 is involved in the evaluation process for her discipline, and had the chance to visit many campuses and learning from other professors.