I spent three months in the summer of 2009, and another four months from December 2009 to March 2010 in China, collecting data for my thesis. I had originally planned to visit three universities, but due to time constraints and problems with securing institutional permission, I ended up visiting two institutions. My ethics proposal was only approved days before the summer vacation, so I was not able to conduct any of my formal interviews during the summer.
When I came back in winter, there were still several weeks of preparation at both the sites before I could obtain the institutional consent letter from the university vice-presidents that I needed according to my ethics protocol. I established contact with the two universities through the personal contacts of members of my committee, and in both cases received introduction and support from colleagues in the department of education at the target university.
With significant help from my contacts in the departments of education, we managed to gather the necessary recommendations and signatures from other officials (such as the departmental party secretary, and the foreign affairs office), for the consent letter to reach the vice-president (or equivalent position). After having obtained this institutional consent, I had also asked for a list of possible interview candidates. In both cases, they introduced me to someone at the academic affairs office, and I received a list of professors that taught courses that had received a provincial or national Top-Level Course award. I contacted these individuals myself through the telephone, and made it clear that there would be no negative repercussions for them in refusing the interview, and that I would not inform anyone else of whom I interviewed. Some of these chose to confirm with the academic affairs office whether I had really received permission to conduct interviews, before responding.
I then agreed to meeting the professors at a time and place of their choosing, often in their offices, and asked them to read through, and sign, the informed consent form. This form, like the institutional consent form that had been signed by the vice-president, had been translated into Chinese for easier understanding (these forms are all listed in the appendix). It was clear to me that Western research ethics procedures made things much more complicated in a country that is not used to such procedures. Most professors were very willing to speak openly about their experiences, but became hesitant when they had to sign a long legal-sounding letter. Most agreed to sign, but I was forced to decline the offer from one participant who would be very willing to speak with me, but was reluctant to sign the consent form.
All interviews were conducted in Chinese, and recorded using the open source software Audacity on a portable MacBook computer. I made sure that the recordings were made anonymous (no personally identifiable information was available) and sent the digital files to a professional transcriber in Beijing.
The consent form stated that all participants would receive a copy of the transcribed interview, and have six weeks to submit corrections, or entirely withdraw their participation. I made a mistake in not asking for the participant’s e-mail addresses on the consent form, but with their names and institutional affiliations, I was able to easily find these through the Internet. Three people submitted corrections to the transcript, and none chose to withdraw from participation after the interviews had taken place.
University A is a top-ranking national comprehensive research-intensive university in a major city. University B is a provincial level normal university in a different part of the country. At University A, I interviewed the person in the academic affairs office responsible for coordinating their Top-Level Courses production (A0), as well as two professors, professors A1 and A2. At University B, I interviewed the head of the academic affairs office (B0), as well as three professors, professors B1, B2 and B3, one of whom (B3) is also involved in the provincial Top-Level Courses evaluation process. Additionally I interviewed someone on the national evaluation committee of the Top-Level Courses Project (C0).