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

The perception of the Top Level Courses Project outside of China

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The perception of the Top Level Courses Project outside of China

In September 2003, a number of the pioneers behind the MIT OpenCourseWare project, and a representative from the Hewlett Foundation which had funded the MIT OpenCourseWare Project, attended a meeting with Chinese universities at the Beijing Jiaotong University. The meeting had been organized by Dr. Fun-Den Wang, a retired mining professor from Colorado, who is also the head of the International Engineering Technology Foundation (IET), an educational charity. Dr. Fun-Den Wang was impressed by the vision behind MIT’s OpenCourseWare Project, and wanted to make these resources available to Chinese universities. The result of the meeting was the founding of an organization called China Open Resources for Education (zhongguo kaifang jiaoyu ziyuan lianheti, 中国开放教育资源联合体), which would promote closer interaction and open sharing of educational resources between China and the world (CORE 2010a).

China Open Resources for Education (CORE) began facilitating the use of MIT OpenCourseWare by universities in China. They hosted a mirror of all the courses, so that they could be accessed more rapidly from computers within China, and funded the translation of some of the courses into Chinese (CORE 2010b). To date, their website lists 602 foreign courses that have been translated into Chinese (CORE 2010c). They held several conferences about Open Educational Resources in China (2006 in Xi’an and 2007 in Beijing), and in 2008 they co-hosted, with the OpenCourseWare Consortium, the international “Open Education Conference 2008” at Dalian University of Technology. This conference attracted researchers and administrators from around China, and around the world (CORE 2010b).

After a while, internationally CORE became synonymous with the Top Level Courses Project, which they called China Quality OpenCourseWare. Very little has been written about it in English, but what little there is tends to portray the project as a derivation of the MIT OpenCourseWare, with CORE as the founder and organizer. For example, Stephen Carson (2009), external relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare writes in an article in Open Learning:

In 2004 collaboration between the Chinese Ministry of Education and MIT's translation partner CORE would lead to the launch of the China Quality OpenCourseWare project, an effort to openly publish the best courses from across the Chinese higher education system. By mid-2005, materials from more than 500 Chinese courses were available through the CORE site. This collection of courseware has now grown to over 1600 total courses, some of which are now being translated into English by the CORE team.

David Wiley (2007, 4) writes in a report to the Organization for Economic Collaboration and Development that “in China 451 courses have been made available by 176 university members of the China Open Resources for Education (CORE) consortium”. Finally, Elpida Makriyannis (2010), a researcher with the Open University Open Learning Network, set up to coordinate research on worldwide Open Educational Resources efforts, describes the development of China Quality OpenCourseWare as springing out of the fateful meeting to establish CORE in September, 2003.

In fact, the Top Level Courses Project was launched in March 2003, half a year before the MIT meeting, and was not even mentioned at the meeting half a year later, where the discussion centered around the translation of MIT OpenCourseWare courses into Chinese (Duan Chenggui and Liu Meifeng, personal communications). So how could this misunderstanding have spread?

The spread of an understandable myth

To imagine that China Open Resources for Education organized Chinese universities into producing China Quality OpenCourseWare is natural, when you think of the organization of similar projects in most other countries. Let us look at some case studies from the surrounding East-Asian territories of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.


Already in 2002, researchers from the National Institute of Multimedia Education (NIME) and Tokyo Institute of Technology (TIT) went to study the MIT OpenCourseWare project, and this led to an OpenCourseWare pilot plan with 50 courses at Tokyo Institute of Technology in September (Kobayashi and Kawafuchi 2006). Later, in 2004, people from MIT gave an invited lecture about MIT OpenCourseWare at Tokyo Tech in July 2004, and after that, the first meeting of the Japan OpenCourseWare Alliance was held with four Japanese universities. These had mainly been recruited through the efforts of MIT professor Miyagawa, and his personal contacts. In one case, the connection was the former president of Tokyo University being an acquaintance of Charles Vest, the former president of MIT (Makoshi 2006).

Subsequently, in 2006 the OpenCourseWare International Conference was held at Kyoto University, and at that conference, the Japan OpenCourseWare Association was reorganized into the Japan OpenCourseWare Consortium (Kobayashi and Kawafuchi 2006). By 2010, they had 1285 courses in Japanese and 212 courses in English, with 23 university members, including the United Nations University (JOCW 2010).

The motivation for joining the OCW movement seems to have been to create positive change among Japanese universities, including modernizing presentation styles among lecturers, as well as sharing learning material (Makoshi 2006).


In Taiwan, it all began with the translation of MIT OpenCourseWare courses, which was organized by Lucifer Chu. He is well known in Taiwan for being the translator of the Lord of the Rings, and he used the royalties from this work to fund what would later be called the Opensource OpenCourseWare Prototype System (OOPS). In February 2004, the entire MIT OCW site was copied to a local server hosted in Taiwan, and a network of volunteer Chinese-speakers from Taiwan, China and other countries collaborated on translating the courses to Chinese. In late 2006, the project secured a grant from the Hewlett foundation, and in June 2007, OOPS hosted its first international conference on OCW and e-learning in Taiwan (Lee, Lin and Bonk 2007).

At the same time, universities in Taiwan were also beginning to develop their own open material. The National Chiaotung University in Taiwan joined the OpenCourseWare Consortium in April 2007, and launched their own OpenCourseWare collection in June of the same year. Currently, they provide 71 courses, 54 of which are recorded in real classes during the semester (Lee Haishuo, personal communication). They also provide discussion boards to facilitate interaction between self-learners and online teaching assistants, to nurture a self-learning environment. This self-learning can then lead to official certification from the university, even for outside students, after sitting a certification exam. Sitting the exam is free, and only requires completing an application procedure (NCTU 2010, Lee 2010).

In 2007, a number of other universities followed the National Chiaotung University, and joined the international OpenCourseWare Consortium. The National Chiaotung University began outreach in early 2008, to invite other universities to form a national association, and on the 24th of December, Taiwan OpenCourseWare Consortium was officially formed, with 18 founding university members (TOCW 2010). However, several of these members left because they were hoping that they would get subsidies from the government to produce OpenCourseWare, and when they found out that this would not happen, many left (Lee Haishuo, personal communications).

The different universities have their own specialties. For example, the National Chiaotung University has continued developing their basic science courses and offering them to other universities and self-learners, Taiwan University and National Chengchi University focus on basic education, National Taiwan Normal University offers courses on the classics, and National Taiwan Ocean University, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology and National Sun Yat-Sen University have all offered courses related to their specialties (TOCW 2010).

South Korea

In South Korea, the OpenCourseWare movement started with professor Gyutae Kim, who was a professor of electrical engineering at Korea University. He had learnt about the MIT initiative, and was eager to start something similar in Korea. He initially proposed this to the School of Engineering, but received little support. Later, as the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning in the same university, he received the dean’s permission to pilot an OpenCourseWare project, but without any funding (Meena Hwang, personal communication).

Gyutae Kim and his staff got strong support from MIT and the OpenCourseWare Consortium. They participated in the OpenCourseWare Consortium meeting in Santander, Spain, in May 2007, and learnt about an open source platform for publishing OpenCourseWare called EduCommons. John Dehlin, then director of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, later gave an online presentation about the OpenCourseWare concept, which lent important credibility to the pilot project at Korea University.

In April 2008, the Korean OpenCourseWare Consortium was formed, consisting of five universities: Handong Global University, Inha University, Kyung Hee University, Busan National University of Education and Seoul National University of Technology. However, there is not strong buy-in from presidents and staff at these universities, and aversion by staff members to add to professors’ work burden, which has slowed down the development of the project.

The national evaluation of universities is very important to Korean universities, and traditionally has only looked at research, thus making things that do not result in publications less of a priority. Recently, there has been an increased focus on teaching and learning from the Ministry of Education, which for example mandated centers for teaching and learning at each university in 2006.

A large project to improve the quality of teaching that was recently launched, called the ACE project, will disburse USD $800,000 each year for four years. This project, which is spearheaded by the president of Korea OpenCourseWare Consortium, Dr. Kim Young Sup, included the production of OpenCourseWare in the evaluation criteria for applicants, and all ten universities that won have planned OpenCourseWare projects in the future.

KERIS, a government subsidized organization that coordinates the production of electronic resources for Korean Universities, has also become involved in the opening of resources. Since 2007, it has paid universities to create thousands of e-learning modules. Recently, it has contacted the universities that produced these modules under contract, and asked them to open up at least part of them to the public (Meena Hwang, personal communications).

A common East-Asian model

Thus in all these cases, there is an initial contact between MIT and leading universities in the host country. Sometimes this happens through outreach by MIT faculty or administrators, and sometimes it is individuals who come in touch with the OpenCourseWare movement, and decide to try to spread the idea at their university, and nationally. Universities decide to join the OpenCourseWare Consortium individually, and to form a national non-governmental association or federation to coordinate the work of producing OpenCourseWare.

These organizations and efforts might receive support from the Ministries of Education, but are not funded or organized by the national governments. Given the way these federations began life, as international collaborations, they remain very internationally accessible. Websites are often available in English as well as in national languages, researchers frequently visit international conferences or publish in international journals, and often use the open-source platforms for hosting OpenCourseWare that have been developed by US universities.

At first sight therefore, the Chinese story seems to fit perfectly into this image. A meeting is organized between MIT and top Chinese universities, an organization is founded, and this organization coordinates the production of open course material. Even the name the project is known under internationally, China Quality OpenCourseWare, indicates that it is a direct continuation of MIT’s project.

As we have seen in the previous chapters, the Top Level Courses Project is something quite different however. It can trace its roots back to the unique system for course evaluations and quality improvement that developed in China since 1985, and was developed as a response to the unprecedented pace of massification of higher education in China, and the desire to promote pedagogical reform and increased use of IT in education. The way of organizing the project, the funding mechanism, and the goals are all different from the OpenCourseWare projects in other countries.

Yet this information was not readily available. The Ministry of Education has webpages with information in English about the higher education system in China, but none of these mention the Top Level Courses Project. No official publication has ever been put out that introduces the Top Level Courses Project in English. In fact, it does not even have an official English translation, which has led to a multitude of different translations (China Quality OpenCourseWare, NPWDEC, Top-Quality Courses, etc). Although more than 3,000 academic papers have been published about aspects of this project in Chinese academic journals, until recently no significant paper had been published in English.

This is thus a prime example of the need to look below the surface, as Schriewer and Martinez (2004) stated, and examine whether the terms we are employing in fact describe the same thing. China Quality OpenCourseWare sounds like just another OpenCourseWare, fitting perfectly in with the other examples in East Asia, and a great example of world institutionalism, with both organizational models, and values converging. As we saw above, however, the values inherent in the OpenCourseWare model seem not to have rubbed off on China, and although the project might have been inspired in some aspects by the MIT OpenCourseWare project, it is fundamentally different in organization, purpose, and presumably outcome. To grasp this however, a deep understanding of the context of Chinese higher education, and its history are needed.

In this case, it is not the state that is using “Ausland als Argument” (Schrieweer and Martinez 2004). Given the positive attitudes toward MIT OpenCourseWare by Chinese academics and students, the government could very well have named this project “China Quality OpenCourseWare” and tried to let their substantially different project benefit from MIT’s fame, but they never attempted to do such a thing. It is also not the case, as Steiner-Khamsi and Stolpe (2006) found in Mongolia, that the state is using specific terms to attract foreign funders. In fact, the Ministry of Education has chosen not to engage internationally at all around this project, not releasing any information in English, nor even providing an official English translation of the project.

Into this void stepped the organization China Open Resources for Education. They were able to get international recognition, and funding, because the world believed they were promoting an international model in China. According to Steiner-Khamsi and Quist (2000), many local NGOs master “NGO-speak” and focus exclusively on initiatives for which they are likely to get international funding. In addition, the funder, in this case the Hewlett foundation, willingly went along.

Steiner-Khamsi describes international organizations that have developed a portfolio of “best practices”, as well as corresponding management structure that serves the dissemination and supervision of these practice, such as Save the Children U.S. and community based education, the Open Society Institute/Soros Foundation and critical thinking, or DANIDA and student-centered learning (Steiner-Khamsi 2004). The Hewlett Foundation has also built up a large portfolio of open education projects, and it was easy for them to fund a Chinese project that looked similar to what they were used to.

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