The practical models of developing Top-Level Courses 

The project appeared in the context of rapid development of the Chinese higher education system, which drastically expanded in size, and entered the phase of mass higher education. At the same time, the use of information technology in higher education increased quickly. Given this background, the project is characterized by how it pulled together all levels of higher education administrations and individual universities in promoting educational reform. The project’s strength is the strong support it has received in terms of policy, administration and management, human resources, finances, and technical assistance.

The project could both be described as both top-down and bottom-up. The three level structure of university-, provincial- and national-levels resulting in a pyramid-shaped distribution, where courses are voluntarily promoted level for level by individual universities and professors, can be described as a bottom-up approach. However, the Ministry of Education is responsible for the planning of the project, formulating policy, funding, organizing peer-review, and monitoring quality, just as it has the general responsibility for guiding the development of higher education in China. From this perspective, the project can be said to be mainly top-down (Wang Long, 2008a).

We will compare the project with a number of other important international OER projects, using a graph with the practical organization of the project on one axis, and the openness of the structure of the resources on the other, as seen in figure 2. From the figure, we can see that the project ends up on the side of top-down when it comes to organization. When it comes to organization of resources, courses are used as the basic organizational principle, with a closed and predetermined structure. These organizational features of the project are both tightly linked with the macro-structure of Chinese higher education as a whole, as well as with the traditional culture of China. 

Figure 2. Organizing and implementing mode for Top-Level Courses and other OER initiatives

For the Top Level Courses Project, openness and sharing is the result of a valuable process, and not the only goals. From beginning to end, the main focus is not on the publishing and sharing of digital resources, rather this publishing and sharing is used as a lever to promote the integrated development of courses. With the integrated development of courses, we mean two things: First, at the individual course level, the project promotes the improvement of educational ideals, teaching team, teaching method and approach and course management and examination. Second, at the national level, the project aims to produce a number of top-quality courses that can work as inspirational examples for others, to promote improvement and reform of all university courses, as well as the increased and improved usage of educational technology, leading to the improvement of course quality.

The quality of the resources shared is the raison d'être for the project. To achieve and maintain this quality, the project employs a number of measures, which we can separate into internal quality measures (within the course), and external quality measures (external evaluation and control) (Wang, 2008b). Internal quality is achieved by adhering to project quality standards, making sure that courses live up to educational and academic requirements, are at the forefront of their discipline, and are easy to use. External quality control is achieved through the step-wise evaluation and selection at different levels. This selection is very competitive, and only courses with distinguishing features, excellent quality, rich resources and the potential to be inspirational models will be selected for the highest levels. External quality measures also include the targeted control of development, publishing, updating and use of course material carried out by the Ministry of Education. 

There are a number of factors that ensure the smooth operation of the project. First the institutional factors: formulating a system of norms and standards for the peer-review of applications, helping universities to institute policies that support the project, and striving to establish mechanisms for the long-term promotion of course creation and development. Next is the systematic design of the project: the top-down organization, the process of proposing, reviewing and publishing, the gradual promotion from one level to the next, the practice of first constructing the courses, and then getting financial support afterwards, and the encouragement of bestowing honors on courses. 

These factors all contribute to the transparent, orderly, efficient and sustainable operation of the project. It is also characterized by a stable and sufficient source of funding, in which aspect it differs from most other OER projects, which usually rely on raising their own funds or on contributions from foundations. There are specific funds set aside for Top Level Courses development, and each level of operations is able to receive sufficient funding for the execution of the project. The project is organically embedded in the development plans, and daily work, of all participating institutions, and receives sufficient support in terms of human resources, technical support, and organization and management.

The development of the course resources is closely integrated with the formal class teaching in China, and this process, which can be described as an integrated process of developing and sharing, is also one of the characteristics of the project. On one hand, Top Level Course material at any level can be used directly in the class in which they were generated, but the teaching of similar classes at other universities can also benefit from these resources. In addition, Top-Level Coursesalso lead the way in terms of course development, and the quality norms established can inspire the development of other related courses on campus. Since the goal of the project is to create excellent examples, which will inspire all other courses to improve in quality, the intimate connection with the formal higher education system is a necessity.