University-level Top-Level Course selection
University-level Top-Level Course selection is organized and implemented by individual universities, based on their course development plans and the courses that are traditionally highly ranked internally. From courses that have already developed good materials, have distinguishing features, and can play an inspirational role for other teachers, the university administration will choose a certain number of courses, and invest in their further development.
University B has a long tradition for educational technology, and was one of the first universities to have a course designated Top Level in 2003. The work on developing Top Level Courses, and the use of this process as a lever to improve the educational quality at the university, continues to have high priority.
The academic affairs office at University B is very concerned with whether courses are well enough constructed, so that they have a high potential for winning in the provincial and national competitions. Their self-described strength is their “pre-application process”. All 20 departments in the university can propose courses, and these all get a small amount of seed money for development. The courses that are selected for this internal process are courses that are already impressive, with many having gone through a period of more than ten years of development. However, they have to be updated, and they especially have to develop online material that reflect well on the course.
The courses are given 1-2 months for development, and after that, they create an expert committee composed of internal and external experts that begin evaluating the courses. The external experts come from other high-ranking universities in the region. This evaluation is based mainly on the available online resources, but a supervisory committee made up of very experienced and retired teachers also goes to listen in on classes, and they also solicit students’ evaluations of the teaching materials. The task of the academic affairs’ office is not to get directly involved in evaluation, but rather to coordinate the process.
The internal campus committee discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each course, especially where there is a difference in opinion with the external experts, and the best courses are proposed as provincial and national courses. The teachers who have already had a course accepted as provincial or national TLCP also contribute to share their experiences of the process.
University B has an ambitious goal for developing Top-Level Courses, they want 7-800 of their 3000 courses to reach Top-Level status, which would represent 30% of courses. Their short-term goal is to get 500 Top-Level courses between 2012 and 2015, which should include all obligatory courses. In addition, they are spending considerable energy trying to put up recordings for every single lecture for all their 124 existing Top-Level Courses, to complement the requisite representative lecture. This focus on improving existing existing Top-Level Courses is also reflected in their annual monitoring process, where all heads of departments sit around a table, display one course at a time on a projector, and check how much of the course contents have been updated.
When interviewing the person in charge of coordinating the development of Top Level Courses at University A, they put much less focus on the process of quality improvement. “Here the teachers and courses are already very good, so we don’t have to do too much work to improve them.” Mr. A0 believes that professors from University A have strong moral values, and would work hard on improving their courses even without such competitions, but he acknowledged that internal competition between colleagues in the same department can push professors to work harder on improving courses. Similar to the case at University B, most courses entered into the Top-Level Courses selection process at University A are courses that have a long history of development as excellent courses, and were not developed specifically for the Top-Level Courses Project.
Wang Xueyin (2008) has published a quite detailed case study from the development of Top-Level Courses at Lanzhou City College, and their process has many similarities with the one at University B. After the province put out the call for Top-Level Courses applications, the university began by calling a meeting with all the heads of departments, to ask them to identify top courses that had potential to become a Top-Level Course. They then established a teaching committee to identify basic and specialized courses that were relevant, and brought the teachers of those courses together with personnel from the computer department to discuss how online teaching materials could be constructed. Like at University B, the school decided to provide some funding to construct the initial courses.
The main guiding philosophy was that the construction of Top-Level Courses would support the improvement of quality of all the courses at the school, and ideally the courses that could have the most impact on the entire department would be selected. The university administration also underlined that the idea was not to simply recycle existing courses online, but rather to think through the design, and update the teaching methodology and content. When the course development was complete, the university organized an online blind peer-review of the course, and based on this, determined whether to award the university-level Top-Level Course designation.
As we have seen from these three case studies, universities play a key role in the Top-Level Courses Project, selecting potential candidates and supporting their development, until they can be selected as a university-level Top-Level Course. Universities also have to submit an annual report about the construction and sharing of Top-Level courses, including “updating and keeping the resources available, students’ use and feedback, support from the school, the open sharing situation of the resource, amount of resources spent on developing the course, and how much the university is spending on supporting development economically and organizationally” (Liu Zenghui 2009).