The Chinese Top Level Courses Project: Conclusion and directions for further research

December 9, 2010, [MD]

In this thesis, I set out to understand how the Top Level Courses Project was organized, and how it came to be. I wanted to compare it with MIT OpenCourseWare, and understand whether MIT’s project had influenced the development of the Top Level Courses Project in any way. I also discussed whether the spread of the OpenCourseWare concept could be seen as a sign of growing isomorphism in values among institutions of higher education in the world, and I proposed the counter-theory that what was happening was a borrowing of ideas or concepts in name only, that were implemented in quite different ways.

In chapter three, I showed how concepts of course teams, and improvable courses developed by groups over many years arose, and how the tradition of course evaluations followed immediately after the centralized curriculum began to be opened up. This came together with the unprecedented expansion of Chinese higher education in the last 15 years, and the strong focus on investing in excellent examples – first universities, then disciplines, and finally courses – chosen through peer-review. Taken together with the focus on IT in education, this made the creation of the Top Level Courses Project a natural next step, but it is possible that some of the impetus came from knowledge of the MIT project.

I have described in detail how the project is organized, and how it is experienced by university administrators and participating professors. I used this in chapter six to show that the project was fundamentally different from MIT’s OpenCourseWare, although there were a few areas that overlapped. I discussed the differences between the two projects using the framework of the four purposes, suggested in chapter two, as well as by conceptualizing MIT OpenCourseWare as a norm, and as a policy innovation.

I then showed how the Top Level Courses Project has been fundamentally misunderstood in the West as a direct continuation of the MIT model, and used theories from policy borrowing, and case studies from other Asian countries, to show how this could have happened. Finally, in the conclusion, I proposed that the history of Chinese higher education discussed in chapter two has led to a model of course development that is fundamentally different from the North American model, as a reason why this project could not easily be transferred to a North American university, but also suggest that this situations might be changing.

Directions for future research

This thesis has given a detailed account of how the Top Level Courses Project is organized, and what purposes it is intended to serve. I have not made any attempt to evaluate whether the project is successful in attaining any of these goals. Although there have been criticisms of the project raised in the Chinese literature, and some evaluation performed, there is a great need for rigorously designed studies designed to test some of the central assumptions. I believe that the four purposes introduced in chapter two could help in that process. As it is, several papers have attempted to evaluate the project without first specifying which purpose it believed the program served.

One could design an experiment to measure the impact of teachers who go through the process of having their courses selected as Top Level Courses, and the entire department. Do they become better teachers? Do the courses improve? Does it have an inspirational effect on the entire department? Further, one could look at professors at other institutions who consult material from courses similar to their own. Does it inspire them to improve their own courses, or do they acquire new ideas and content that they can use in their teaching?

It is also possible to look at student use of the resources, and whether they are able to learn effectively, but it should be kept in mind that this was never one of the main purposes of the project (although it seems to have become slightly more prioritized as the project develops).

There is also a wide-open space for comparative educators and higher education specialists within the open education research sphere. Currently, most of the research is conducted by educational technologists, but there are many very fruitful venues for comparative and historical studies. This thesis has been an attempt at using Chinese higher education history and current context to explain the development of an Open Educational Resources project that ended up very differently from the global OpenCourseWare model.

Another approach would be to use these open materials as data in a comparative curriculum project. There are a few examples of this from China, where China Open Resources for Education facilitated 148 comparative studies comparing MIT curriculum with the curriculum at Chinese universities (CORE 2007).

Two specific examples are Li et al. (2007), who conducted a narrow study of 14 Top Level biology courses and 22 MIT OpenCourseWare biology courses, and found that Top Level Courses are largely based on unidirectional classroom instruction, whereas MIT courses emphasize student interaction. And Liu Kefu (2006) used OpenCourseWare to do a comparative study of classics courses in the United States. Given the wide variety of materials available, this could fruitfully be extended to other areas.

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 9, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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