The portal

When the Top-Level Courses Project was launched, there was no easy portal for discovering all the available courses. Each university built its own index site, and the Ministry of Education published links to all these sites, as well as to individual courses. Other organization, such as China Open Resources for Education, also created link sites that provided an overview of courses. These overviews contained little information, other than the name of the course, the university where it was taught, and the level of designation (university-, provincial- or national-level).

As the number of available courses grew, this became very unwieldy, and when the Top-Level Courses Project was renewed in 2007, the new policy specified that a unified portal for all Top-Level Courses would be built. The task of building and operating this portal went to the Higher Education Press, one of the largest publishers in China, which is owned by the Ministry of Education. They received some funding from the Ministry of Education, but were also supposed to find ways of earning some money themselves (Ju Feng, personal communications).

The site, located at (Top-Level Course in Chinese), is today a multi-facetted and rich site, with very advanced functionality. Visitors can browse through courses by discipline, university or level, and there are lists showing the most visited courses in different categories. For each course, the portal has imported a number of their resources into a resource database, so that you can look at individual PDFs, videos and other resources without leaving the portal.

There are also many social “Web 2.0” features: Logged in users can save courses to their personal page, rate courses, or leave comments. Users can also leave comments or questions around specific resources (individual documents and videos). When you visit a course, it also suggests other courses in the same category that you might be interested in (similar to Amazon’s “Other people who bought this book, also bought…”). Each course profile also features a link to the actual course website.

In addition to featuring all the Top-Level Courses, the site is a clearing house for information about the project, with the latest policy and news updates, information on applying, courses and seminars that are held, etc. There is an overview of teaching material that has received prizes for excellence, and there is an interesting intra-university sharing portal. This is an entrepreneurial attempt to both promote sharing of more resources than the Top-Level Courses Project covers, and to earn some funding for the operation of the website. 

The portal is dependent on universities paying a subscription fee, and is thus different from the Top-Level Courses material, which is all open to the world. Within this portal, any professor can then share material from any course. Apart from the fact that it is closed, the portal also differs because material does not have to be from a Top-Level Course, and can represent only a small part of a course. For example, a teacher could share a particularly well-made Powerpoint-slideset, a recording, a 3D animation, or a document. There are similar social features attached to these resources, and a major part of the subscription fee collected from universities is paid out to content contributors, according to the popularity of their resources. 

This approach is in part an attempt to overcome the problem that many professors need more incentive to share their most valuable resources. In an interview with Chinese Distance Education, the head of the department for distance and continuing education at the Ministry of Education said that “In the future we will see many kinds of sharing: both "charitable" and market-based, but right now we don't have the mechanisms for market-based sharing” (Liu Zenghui 2009, under “Jingpin kecheng jianshe reng cunzai bu zu” 精品课程建设仍存在不足). The closed-community resource sharing model that has pioneered could be one such market-based approach to sharing.