The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project: Using Open Educational Resources to Promote Quality in Undergraduate Teaching


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 some times 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 for example Korea, Japan and Taiwan, 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 was first made aware of the existence of these courses in 2007, when I followed the open online course “Introduction to open education” by Dr. David Wiley. After finding the references in MIT’s evaluation report, both to MIT OpenCourseWare translated into Chinese, and to “homegrown” OpenCourseWare produced by Chinese universities, I became very intrigued, and decided I wanted to learn more about it. 

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 ascertaining whether something is truly a case of “borrowing policy”, or merely using words for other purposes, it is necessary with 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.