The Portal for Chinese open courses

November 25, 2010, [MD]

Initially there were no easy ways of finding out about the Chinese open courses, except for going to each individual university's open course directory. There were some indices, but they were not very helpful.

When the Top Level Courses Project was launched, there was no easy portal for discovering all the available courses. Each university built its own index site, and the Ministry of Education published links to all these sites, as well as to individual courses. Other organization, such as China Open Resources for Education, also created link sites that provided an overview of courses. These overviews contained little information, other than the name of the course, the university where it was taught, and the level of designation (university, provincial or national level).

This strongly resembles the situation we still face today in the Western world, with most courses being "hidden" behind their university's sites. Sites like have done a good job of lifting out the lecture videos and making them much more available, however they ignore all the other material that is published (syllabi, powerpoints, quizzes, etc).

As the number of available courses grew, this became very unwieldy, and when the Top Level Courses Project was renewed in 2007, the new policy specified that a unified portal for all Top Level Courses would be built. The task of building and operating this portal went to the Higher Education Press, one of the largest publishers in China, which is owned by the Ministry of Education. They received some funding from the Ministry of Education, but were also supposed to find ways of earning some money themselves (Ju Feng, personal communications).

The site, located at (Top Level Course in Chinese), is today a multi-facetted and rich site, with very advanced functionality. Visitors can browse through courses by discipline, university or level, and there are lists showing the most visited courses in different categories. For each course, the portal has imported a number of their resources into a resource database, so that you can look at individual PDFs, videos and other resources without leaving the portal.

There are also many social “Web 2.0” features: Logged in users can save courses to their personal page, rate courses, or leave comments. Users can also leave comments or questions around specific resources (individual documents and videos). When you visit a course, it also suggests other courses in the same category that you might be interested in (similar to Amazon’s “Other people who bought this book, also bought…”). Each course profile also features a link to the actual course website. In addition to featuring all the Top Level Courses, the site is a clearing house for information about the project, with the latest policy and news updates, information on applying, courses and seminars that are held, etc. There is an overview of teaching material that has received prizes for excellence, and there is an interesting intra-university sharing portal. This is an entrepreneurial attempt to both promote sharing of more resources than the Top Level Courses Project covers, and to earn some funding for the operation of the website.

I have been very impressed by this site, and was very excited to get a chance to meet with Ju Feng, one of the senior people working on this project. He shared his insight about the entire Top Level Courses project, as well as the vision behind the site. The intra-university sharing portal, while not entirely "OER", is nonetheless an interesting attempt to get people to share even more stuff than the material from Top Level Courses.

The portal is dependent on universities paying a subscription fee, and is thus different from the Top Level Courses material, which is all open to the world. Within this portal, any professor can then share material from any course. Apart from the fact that it is closed, the portal also differs because material does not have to be from a Top Level Course, and can represent only a small part of a course. For example, a teacher could share a particularly well-made Powerpoint-slideset, a recording, a 3D animation, or a document. There are similar social features attached to these resources, and a major part of the subscription fee collected from universities is paid out to content contributors, according to the popularity of their resources.

This approach is in part an attempt to overcome the problem that many professors need more incentive to share their most valuable resources. In an interview with Chinese Distance Education, the head of the department for distance and continuing education at the Ministry of Education said that “In the future we will see many kinds of sharing: both "charitable" and market-based, but right now we don't have the mechanisms for market-based sharing” (Liu Zenghui 2009, under “Jingpin kecheng jianshe reng cunzai bu zu” 精品课程建设仍存在不足). The closed-community resource sharing model that has pioneered could be one such market-based approach to sharing.

I am hoping to make a screencast in the future demonstration how the site works, since it is in Chinese, and it will be hard for most of the readers of this blog to explore the site by themselves. I think we could get a lot of inspiration on how to create a better site for exploring OpenCourseWare courses, regardless of which university they come from.

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 November 25, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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