How the world misunderstood the Chinese Top Level Courses Project

December 3, 2010, [MD]

When I attended the OpenCourseWare Consortium meeting in Dalian, China in 2007, and first heard about the Chinese Top Level Courses Project, I thought it was created by an organization called CORE. So did virtually everyone in the international community. It took me a lot of reading and conversations to understand that it had nothing to do with CORE - not because there was any evidence to the contrary, but because I was so convinced that this was the case. So how could the international community so thoroughly misunderstand what was going on in China for over 7 years?

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 mythTo 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, see for example the case studies from the surrounding East-Asian territories of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. 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.

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 December 3, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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