Introduction: MIT courses and Chinese open courses

September 14, 2010, [MD]

I start my MA thesis with the example of a Chinese open course which looks deceptively similar to an MIT OpenCourseWare course, or an OpenCourseWare course in Japan, or Israel.

In 2003, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched its OpenCourseWare website, which eventually came to contain online resources for virtually every course taught at the institution. This received much media attention, and gradually a number of other institutions joined in by publishing their own courses. In 2005, the OpenCourseWare Consortium was formed, and it became independent in 2007. The consortium members from 24 different countries use similar software and organizing principles for their materials. If you look at a course in Japan, or in Saudi Arabia, you are likely to find the same elements: a course outline, a reading list, lecture slides and in some cases lecture recordings, and sometimes sample exams, or samples of student work.

If you visit Dr. Li Xuejun’s course on pharmacology at the website of Peking University, you will find the structure very familiar. There is an introduction to the course, a list of the members of the teaching team, reading lists, lecture slides, lecture recordings and even some exam questions. This course is one of more than 12,000 open courses that have been developed by faculty from more than 700 Chinese universities, as a part of the Chinese Ministry of Education’s National Top Level Courses Project, which started in 2003. Despite the large scale of this project, very little is known about it outside of China. Most of the English-language sources that mention it, assume naturally that it is another OpenCourseWare project, similar to those in Korea, Japan and Taiwan, for example, with roughly the same purposes and organizational principles as in the other 39 countries implementing MIT-inspired OpenCourseWare projects. MIT reports themselves frequently mention the Chinese project as one of the positive impacts of the MIT OpenCourseWare project.

I chose a random example of a course, to make it more specific. You can visit that specific course yourself. There you will see the the teaching team, which consists of 12 professors, including two non-Chinese. An introduction to the course, including the development history, the teaching contents, the teaching methods, an other topics. The actual course material consists of a detailed introduction, PDFs from the PowerPoints shown in each class, and example three lecture recordings. There is also a detailed evaluation of the course, with several articles about medical teaching written by the course team, available for download.

All in all, a very impressive course, but still very similar in organization to any MIT OCW course. Is this a case of global convergence, where educational systems in all countries gradually begin to resemble each other, or might there be something else at work? I introduce the theories of world institutionalism, roughly suggesting the former, and Steiner-Khamsi's work on policy borrowing, which suggests a more critical look at the specific circumstances and meanings of a single program in a specific country, in a specific cultural and historical context:

There are different ways of analyzing this global spread of the OpenCourseWare concept. Meyer and Ramirez at Stanford University believe that higher education systems around the world are “converging”, and becoming more similar. The fact that universities in 39 countries should choose to implement the same system for sharing their courses online, would seem to be a strong case for this argument, with China making a very strong addition.

However, Steiner-Khamsi and Stolpe’s research on educational policy in Mongolia shows that the government would often adjust its terminology to match international trends and demands, thus placating donors and making it seem like Mongolia was headed towards convergence, while the actual situation on the ground was quite different. They believe that to ascertain whether something is truly a case of “borrowing policy”, or merely using similar words for different purposes, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of a country’s history, culture and institutions. Inspired by this, I decided I wanted to examine how the Chinese Top Level Courses Project was organized, and how it fit in with the larger trends in Chinese higher education.

I finally formulate my research questions, which are very general, and mostly focus on finding out exactly what the project aims to achieve, how it is organized, and how it came to exist - but also looks at it in a comparative perspective:

The first question I asked was “what is this program”. I wanted to understand all the details around how the program was organized, how courses are created and by whom, how the program is financed, and who uses the resources. The program began in 2003, so I also wanted to look at how it has changed through this time period. I then wanted to understand how it came to be launched at exactly that time in history, looking at the history of Chinese higher education for clues of trends that could have led to the program being launched. Finally, I wanted to know how different the program is from the MIT OpenCourseWare, and also how it became known among Western audiences. To summarize:

  • What are the purposes of the project, how does it operate, and how has it developed since it was launched
  • What were the historical circumstances that led to/informed the launch of this project
  • How is the program different from, or similar to, MIT OpenCourseWare
  • How was the international understanding of the project shaped?

The quotes in this text is from the MA Thesis "The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project: Using Open Educational Resources to Promote Quality in Undergraduate Teaching" by Stian Håklev, University of Toronto 2010.

Stian Håklev September 14, 2010 Toronto, Canada
comments powered by Disqus