Beijing — The Chinese government has sunk millions of dollars into a nationwide lecture giveaway online, but a recent report found the effort deeply flawed, and some professors say it is likely to be drastically revised or completely scrapped next year.
Finding out how the program works and what might become of it has been a continuing riddle during my week of interviews here. Luckily I wasn’t alone in the quest — most of the week I traveled with The Chronicle’s local correspondent, Mary Hennock.
On Monday we sat down with Mark Zhao, deputy director of the department of educational technology at Peking University, who explained how the program works. Each year since 2003 the Chinese government has designated a set of courses as “excellent quality” courses. In addition to the distinction, the universities running the courses are given about $20,000 per course to put the related materials online, where they are meant to inspire other, less excellent professors. The project’s name sums up its simple goal: National Quality Course Plan.
The plan started soon after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced its OpenCourseWare project, which is working to make materials for every course there free online.
The Chinese project selected about 3,000 excellent courses from some 500 colleges and universities in China — meaning plenty of government money has poured in over the years.
But some officials in the Ministry of Education, which runs the effort, now consider it a failure, Mr. Zhao said, because many professors have refused to make the materials freely available. “In some teachers’ opinion, teaching is a very private thing,” said Mr. Zhao. “They don’t want other people to interfere with the teaching process, that’s mainly involving academic freedom.”
The project is part of a national five-year plan that expires with this calendar year, and Mr. Zhao said he and other professors worry that it will not be renewed, and that the money will no longer be available to the university to put the course materials online. When we asked when he expected a decision or how likely the outcome would be, he simply laughed. “We don’t know exactly,” he said. “Such thing is decided by the high-ranking officials — we can’t get such information.”
Maybe you can find out, he added, knowing that we were headed to a meeting with a ministry official later that day. First we took a group picture with Mr. Zhao and some of his colleagues — a custom repeated at just about every stop we made during the trip.
So in the afternoon we posed the same question to Zhang Yao Xue, director general of the Office of Academic Degrees Committee of the State Council, in his plain but spacious office in the ministry compound. Is the program going to be cut?
He laughed, noting that, although he is not in charge of the project, he is “sure the funds won’t be cut.”
“It’s the worries that the professors have because they don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “It will continue for sure.”
When pressed, he noted that a committee was still discussing the future of the program — focusing on how its policies will be improved. “We had several discussion meetings,” he said, “and we will have another several meetings, and then we will report it to our State Council.”
When will all that happen?, we asked. “Soon,” he said.
Later in the week we were introduced to a professor who is participating in all of those meetings, Han Xibin, an associate professor and vice dean of the Institute of Education at Tsinghua University.
He agreed that the program would continue, but most likely with some drastic changes.
The professor co-wrote an article critical of the National Quality Course Plan in the June issue of the British Journal of Educational Technology. It reports on an analysis of the “quality courses,” which found that more than half of those visited by the researchers were “not accessible at all,” that the resources were rarely updated, and that 57 percent offered no interactive features.
A survey of IT staff members at 88 universities in China found that the main users of the course Web sites were professors planning to apply to get the grants themselves, rather than to reform teaching, the report said.
“Many, many experts say this project is not a success,” he told us. “It’s not for students.”
Among his suggestions, which he is arguing for in the planning committee: Use the grant money that goes to the quality courses to build an IT support group for any professor who wanted help teaching with technology, and set up dedicated servers for their quality courses so they have a stable home in cyberspace.
When will a decision be made? He laughed. Despite his involvement, he is not sure either, but he said the discussions might go on past the end of the year, meaning a delay before the new program begins.
“The problem will be solved,” he concluded. “Because the universities and colleges realize we must use the IT to support the learning and teaching.” At least, that’s the directive of another government report that came out recently.
In the U.S., universities have also been taking a hard look at whether the course giveaways are worth the cost.