The spread of an understandable myth

To imagine that China Open Resources for Education organized Chinese universities into producing China Quality OpenCourseWare is natural, when you think of the organization of similar projects in most other countries. Let us look at some case studies from the surrounding East-Asian territories of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.


Already in 2002, researchers from the National Institute of Multimedia Education (NIME) and Tokyo Institute of Technology (TIT) went to study the MIT OpenCourseWare project, and this led to an OpenCourseWare pilot plan with 50 courses at Tokyo Institute of Technology in September (Kobayashi and Kawafuchi 2006). Later, in 2004, people from MIT gave an invited lecture about MIT OpenCourseWare at Tokyo Tech in July 2004, and after that, the first meeting of the Japan OpenCourseWare Alliance was held with four Japanese universities. These had mainly been recruited through the efforts of MIT professor Miyagawa, and his personal contacts. In one case, the connection was the former president of Tokyo University being an acquaintance of Charles Vest, the former president of MIT (Makoshi 2006).

Subsequently, in 2006 the OpenCourseWare International Conference was held at Kyoto University, and at that conference, the Japan OpenCourseWare Association was reorganized into the Japan OpenCourseWare Consortium (Kobayashi and Kawafuchi 2006). By 2010, they had 1285 courses in Japanese and 212 courses in English, with 23 university members, including the United Nations University (JOCW 2010). 

The motivation for joining the OCW movement seems to have been to create positive change among Japanese universities, including modernizing presentation style among lecturers, as well as sharing learning material (Makoshi 2006). 


In Taiwan, it all began with the translation of MIT OpenCourseWare courses, which was organized by Lucifer Chu. He is well known in Taiwan for being the translator of the Lord of the Rings, and he used the royalties from this work to fund what would later be called the Opensource OpenCourseWare Prototype System (OOPS). In February 2004, the entire MIT OCW site was copied to a local server hosted in Taiwan, and a network of volunteer Chinese-speakers from Taiwan, China and other countries collaborated on translating the courses to Chinese. In late 2006, the project secured a grant from the Hewlett foundation, and in June 2007, OOPS hosted its first international conference on OCW and e-learning in Taiwan (Lee, Lin and Bonk 2007).

At the same time, universities in Taiwan were also beginning to develop their own open material. The National Chiaotung University in Taiwan joined the OpenCourseWare Consortium in April 2007, and launched their own OpenCourseWare collection in June of the same year. Currently, they provide 58 courses, 42 of which are recorded in real classes during the semester. They also provide discussion boards to facilitate interaction between self-learners and online teaching assistants, to nurture a self-learning environment. This self-learning can then lead to official certification from the university, even for outside students, after sitting a certification exam. Sitting the exam is free, and only requires completing an application procedure (NCTU 2010, Lee 2010). 

In 2007, a number of other universities followed the National Chiaotung University, and joined the international OpenCourseWare Consortium. The National Chiaotung University began outreach in early 2008, to invite other universities to form a national association, and on the 24th of December, Taiwan OpenCourseWare Consortium was officially formed, with 18 founding university members (TOCW 2010). 

The different universities have their own specialities, the National Chiaotung University has continued developing their basic science courses and offering them to other universities and self-learners. Taiwan University and National Chengchi University focus on basic education, National Taiwan Normal University offers courses on the classics, and National Taiwan Ocean University, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology and National Sun Yat-Sen University have all offered courses related to their specialities (TOCW 2010). 

South Korea

In South Korea, the OpenCourseWare movement started with professor Gyutae Kim, who was a professor of electrical engineering at Korea University. He had learnt about the MIT initiative, and was eager to start something similar in Korea. He initially proposed this to the School of Engineering, but received little support. Later, as the Director of Center for Teaching and Learning in the same university, he received the dean’s permission to pilot an OpenCourseWare project, but without any funding. 

According to Meena Hwang (personal communications), who was working under Gyutae Kim in the Center for Teaching and Learning, they received strong support from both MIT and the OpenCourseWare Consortium. They participated in the OpenCourseWare Consortium meeting in Santander, Spain, in May 2007, and learnt about an open source platform for publishing OpenCourseWare called EduCommons. John Dehlin, then director of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, later gave an online presentation about the OpenCourseWare concept, which lent important credibility to the pilot project at Korea University. 

In April 2008, the Korean OpenCourseWare Consortium was formed, consisting of five universities: Handong Global University, Inha University, Kyung Hee University, Busan National University of Education and Seoul National University of Technology. However, according to Meena Hwang, there is not strong buy-in from presidents and staff at these universities, and aversion by staff members to add to professors’ work burden, which has slowed down the development of the project. 

The national evaluation of universities is very important to Korean universities, and traditionally has only looked at research, thus making things that do not result in publications less of a priority. Recently, there has been an increased focus on teaching and learning from the Ministry of Education, which for example mandated centres for teaching and learning at each university in 2006. 

A large project to improve the quality of teaching that was recently launched, called the ACE project, will disburse USD 800,000$ each year for four years. This project, which is spearheaded by the president of Korea OpenCourseWare Consortium, Dr. Kim Young Sup, included the production of OpenCourseWare in the evaluation criteria for applicants, and all ten universities that won have planned OpenCourseWare projects in the future. 

KERIS, a government subsidized organization that coordinates the production of electronic resources for Korean Universities, has also become involved in the opening of resources. Since 2007, it has paid universities to create thousands of e-learning modules. Recently, it has contacted the universities that produced these modules under contract, and asked them to open up at least part of them to the public.

A common East-Asian model

Thus in all these cases, there is an initial contact between MIT and leading universities in the host country. Sometimes this happens through outreach by MIT faculty or administrators, and sometimes it is individuals who come in touch with the OpenCourseWare movement, and decide to try to spread the idea at their university, and nationally. Universities decide to join the OpenCourseWare Consortium individually, and to form a national non-governmental association or federation to coordinate the work of producing OpenCourseWare. 

These organizations and efforts might receive support from the Ministries of Education, but are not funded or organized by the national governments. Given the way these federations began life, as international collaborations, they remain very internationally accessible. Websites are often available in English as well as in national languages, researchers frequently visit international conferences or publish in international journals, and often use the open-source platforms for hosting OpenCourseWare that have been developed by US universities.

At first sight therefore, the Chinese story seems to fit perfectly into this image. A meeting is organized between MIT and top Chinese universities, an organization is founded, and this organization coordinates the production of open course material. Even the name the project is known under internationally, China Quality OpenCourseWare, indicates that it is a direct continuation of MIT’s project.

As we have seen in the previous chapters, the Top-Level Courses Project is something quite different however. It can trace its roots back to the unique system for course evaluations and quality improvement that developed in China since 1985, and was developed as a response to the unprecedented pace of massification of higher education in China, and the desire to promote pedagogical reform and increased use of IT in education. The way of organizing the project, the funding mechanism, the goals are all different from the OpenCourseWare projects in other countries.

Yet this information was not readily available. The Ministry of Education has webpages with information in English about the higher education system in China, but none of these mention the Top-Level Courses Project. No official publication has ever been put out that introduces the Top-Level Courses Project in English, in fact it does not even have an official English translation, which has led to a multitude of different translations (China Quality OpenCourseWare, NPWDEC, Top-Class Courses, etc). Although more than 3,000 academic papers have been published about aspects of this project in Chinese academic journals, until recently no significant paper had been published in English. 

This is thus a prime example of the need to look below the surface, as Schriewer and Martinez (2004) stated, and examine whether the terms we are employing in fact describe the same thing. China Quality OpenCourseWare sounds like just another OpenCourseWare, fitting perfectly in with the other examples in East Asia, and a great example of world institutionalism, with both organizational models, and values converging. As we saw above however, the values inherent in the OpenCourseWare model seem not to have rubbed off on China, and although the project might have been inspired in some aspects by the MIT OpenCourseWare project, it is fundamentally different in organization, purpose, and presumably outcome. To grasp this however, a deep understanding of the context of Chinese higher education, and its history are needed.

In this case, it is not the state that is using “Ausland als Argument” (Schrieweer and Martinez 2004). Given the positive attitudes toward MIT OpenCourseWare by Chinese academics and students, the government could very well have named this project “China Quality OpenCourseWare” and tried to let their substantially different project benefit from MIT’s fame, but they never attempted to do such a thing. It is also not the case, as in Steiner-Khamsi and Stolpe (2006) found in Mongolia, that the state is using specific terms to attract foreign funders. In fact, the Ministry of Education has chosen to not engage internationally at all around this project, not releasing any information in English, nor even providing an official English translation of the project.

Into this void stepped the organization China Open Resources for Education. They were able to get international recognition, and funding, because the world believed they were promoting an international model in China. According to Steiner-Khamsi and Quist (2000), many local NGOs master “NGO-speak” and focus exclusively on initiatives for which they are likely to get international funding. In addition, the funder, in this case the Hewlett foundation, willingly went along. 

Steiner-Khamsi describes international organizations that have developed a portfolio of “best practices”, as well as corresponding management structure that serves the dissemination and supervision of these practice, such as Save the Children U.S. and community based education, the Open Society Institute/Soros Foundation and critical thinking, or DANIDA and student-centered learning (Steiner-Khamsi 2004). The Hewlett Foundation has also built up a large portfolio of open education projects, and it was easy for them to fund a Chinese project that looked similar to what they were used to.