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Comparison of the OpenCourseWare model with the Top-Level Courses Project

There have been a number of studies published in Chinese that compare MIT OpenCourseWare with the Top-Level Courses Project. Wang Hongju (2009) sees the purpose of MIT OpenCourseWare as spreading quality resources throughout the world, whereas the Top-Level Courses Project is aimed to increase communication internally between universities in China, and improve the quality of teaching. Together with Zhou Yan (2009) and Yang, Wang and Luo (2007) he also praises their unified technological platform, and what he describes as a very rigorous project evaluation methodology. 

While these papers all bring up interesting points, they are not very comprehensive comparative studies, and fail to employ any kind of framework or theory to discuss the two projects. They also consistently hold MIT OpenCourseWare up as a positive example, and portray the Top-Level Courses Project as a weak copy in need of improvement. Instead of seeing the Top-Level Courses Project as a weak copy of the MIT OpenCourseWare model, I would like to understand it on its own terms. I will first use the typology introduced in chapter two to analyze how the purposes behind these two projects differ. I will then use two different ways of conceptualizing OpenCourseWare as a framework to analyze the influence of MIT on the Chinese project, and finally discuss why the international community has reached misleading conclusions about the Chinese project.

The four categories I listed in chapter two were transformative production, direct use, reuse, and transparency/consultation. In this section we will use these four categories to look at the differences between the OpenCourseWare model that was promoted by MIT, and now has been adopted by many other universities around the world, and the Top-Level Courses Project in China.

Transformative production

The first category, transformative production, is the most significant difference between the two models. There is no doubt that publishing courses online will always have some impact on the people involved with the course, but at MIT, this was never an explicit goal. There is no selection procedure for courses, rather the goal is to have all courses being produced. Rather than fostering reflection and engagement through the creation of the OpenCourseWare courses, the procedure was set up in a way to minimize the work-load for teachers – they just have to hand over the material they were already using for classes to a group of specially trained workers, who vet the material for copyright, and post it online. 

In the case of Japan, modernizing the lecture styles of professors was mentioned as one of the motivations (see below), and it is possible that universities in other countries also saw this as a way to make professors more ambitious about their teaching methods, and perhaps “learn from the example of MIT lecturers”. However, it is never mentioned very explicit in the justifications, rather the target is always the creation of a collection of materials (which can be classified according to the three next categories).

In China, however, the transformative effect of the production process is one of the main, or perhaps the main justification for the project. In chapter 4 and 5, I have argued that the Top-Level Courses Project grows out of a long tradition of course evaluations and competitions to select excellent units, which would receive extra funding and act as examples for others. When discussing the goals of the project, most of the concrete goals are around the impact of the production of resources, for example the creation of teaching-teams, which is supposed to entice full-professors to teach undergraduate courses, train young professors, and foster intra-collegial reflection around the courses (something that has a long tradition in China, as I noted a bit earlier). Different from MIT and projects in other countries, professors in China are not supposed to submit snapshots of what they are teaching right now, but go through a process of research and refinement, improving both the teaching methods and pedagogy, and updating the content.

The project also aims to increase the technological literacy of professors, which will be reflected in their teaching towards their own students, and to inspire a greater focus on quality, and educational reform and innovation, not only among the professors directly involved with the production of Top-Level Courses, but by the entire departments or universities involved. And when I interviewed professors and administrators about the effects and impact the Top-Level Courses Project has had, both for individual professors, who have had a single course designed as a Top-Level Course, and for administrators who assessed the impact on their entire institution, almost all the comments I received where about the impact of the process itself.

This focus on the process can also be seen from the web resources generated. We saw in chapter 5 that most of the courses had already gone through several rounds of internal competitions to become for example excellent courses, and one of the main differences between the Top-Level Courses Project and evaluation projects that have come before it, is the requirement to share resources online. However, the main purpose of the website is to act as a platform for the application process, and the website is assessed on how well it reflects on the course as it is taught in a physical classroom, by looking at the teaching plan, representative recordings of lectures, student evaluations, justifications and reflections around the course by professors, etc. 

This innovation enables a more efficient and standardized review-process, involving blind peer-review by expert committees consisting of faculty members from all over China. Once the designation has been given, this same website which was used to apply, is then opened up to the public, with very few modifications. The main consideration in designing the website is therefore which materials are necessary to properly evaluate the quality of a course taught in a classroom, not what resources would be most useful to other professors, or to distance learners.

 Resources shared

If we look at the actual resources produced by the Top-Level Courses Project and the OpenCourseWare projects in other countries, there are both similarities and differences. There is a very large diversity of Open Educational Resources projects in existence, and I have chosen to compare the Top-Level Courses Project with the OpenCourseWare model here, both because internationally it has been believed to be a kind of OpenCourseWare, and because OpenCourseWare pioneered the publication of an entire course as an open resource, or collection of open resources, and this is similar to what the Top-Level Courses Project produces.

In both cases, the result is one website per course listing a number of resources. Almost every course will have a course outline, often with slides for each lecture, a reading list, and many will have supplementary material, audio and video recordings of some or all lectures, past exam questions, student works, etc. Top-Level Courses will usually be much more complete and refined than for example MIT OpenCourseWare courses, and the effort that goes into production of the former is far larger, however the principle is the same.

If we analyze this material using the three remaining categories from our framework, we find that neither project is particularly suited to direct learning by students. Course websites for both models are designed to reflect the teaching that happens in a classroom, and have not been designed for effective online or distance learning. This does not mean that students do not use the course websites for this purpose, it is certainly possible to learn a lot for someone who is an independent learner, but it is clearly not the primary consideration when the courses are produced.

The category for re-use is where we find the largest discrepancy between the OpenCourseWare model, and the Top-Level Courses Project. Almost all international OpenCourseWare projects use an open Creative Commons license that allow others to download, modify, and redistribute derivations of the material, as long as the re-distributor does not make a profit. This means that although MIT’s courses might not be well suited for for example distance learning “out of the box”, someone else can instead repurpose parts of courses, and put them together into something quite different – whether it’s an online course, a textbook or a documentary. The most common example of this reuse is translation, which for example CORE has been involved with. Granted, the resources published by MIT are not ideal for reuse, because they are often published in file-formats that are difficult to edit (such as PDFs), but the license at least allows people to try.

In addition to this, the concept of reuse and derivation is frequently promoted by the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which has hosted many workshops on this topic at their annual conferences[1]. On the other hand, none of the copious literature on the Top-Level Courses Project mentions the possibility of reuse, and the courses are not licensed with an open license that would permit this legally. This is not just different from the OpenCourseWare model, but a deviation from the entire Open Educational Resources movement, which would lead many Open Educational Resources advocates to state that the Top-Level Courses Project could not be counted as an Open Educational Resources project.

When we examine the final category, transparency/consultation, we find that the two projects are very similar. Both have the express purpose to let great courses inspire other teachers, and to share best examples of teaching and course design. In China, these are the best courses, because they have been rigorously selected as such, and at MIT, the courses are considered the best, because they all come from a top-level university. In addition to inspiring teachers at other institutions, literature from both projects also talks about students using their courses to better understand what is required by a certain major, the courses promoting collaboration between different universities, etc. To fulfill this purpose, it is actually a positive thing that the material online closely reflects what goes on in the actual classroom, and has not been extensively modified to be better suited for distance learners.

In this section, I applied the framework of four purposes which I introduced in chapter 2, and found that although the OpenCourseWare model and the Top-Level Courses Project are similarly poorly suited to direct distance learners, and well suited to the purposes of transparency and consultation, they differ radically on the two other categories. The Top-Level Courses Project has transformative production as one of its main purposes, which is not even mentioned in the MIT literature, whereas MIT OpenCourseWare courses are fairly well suited  for reuse, and this is encouraged, which is absolutely not the case with Top-Level Courses.


[1] For example Larry Cooperman and Jon Philips 2008. “Erosion of the Cornerstone of the OER Movement: The Problem of Reuse”. Open Education Conference 2008, April 23-27. Dalian, China, and Allyn J. Radford 2009. “Enhancing the value of OERs through interoperability and adaptability of content, data and infrastructure”. OpenCourseWare Consortium Global 2009, April 21-24. Monterrey, Mexico.