The great international OCW debate

October 17, 2008, [MD]

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I am doing a course on global governance and educational change, and we have been going through standard theories of political science and international relations theory. This week, we had to write a reflection paper to apply some of these theories on a topic of our choosing, to prove that we had understood them. I chose to write an imagined (and exaggerated) dialogue about the MIT Open CourseWare. Don’t take this too seriously, and none of these necessarily reflect my own views.

The International Debate on the MIT Open CourseWare

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Economist’s annual policy maker debate hosted at Oxford University. This year we will be presenting the statement “MIT Open CourseWare and similar projects help promote educational equality in the world, and should be promoted”. We have a distinguished panel tonight. Our first section will focus on the national American context, and Professor Compensatory Liberal will go first.\ *\ **Professor Compensatory Liberal*: Dear attendees, I support today’s statement. America benefits from its wide variety of educational providers, both private and public, and we are proud of the diversity and entrepreneurialism evident in our educational system. However, there are large groups that are under-served and lack access to high-quality education, whether this is due to financial difficulties, or an inflexible life-situation. Making high-quality courses from one of America’s premier institutions available to these citizens will go a long way in compensating for this lack of access, and will hopefully set an example that other institutions can follow.

Professor Pure Liberal: I disagree with this statement. Having a large and diverse body of educational providers, including public, private and for-profit actors, is – as my esteemed colleague stated – one of the strengths of our nation. It is quite appropriate that educational services should come at a cost, because they are very expensive to provide, and it is fair – countless studies have shown that gaining a college degrees is an investment that pays for itself several times in increased lifetime income. The state has decided to subsidy a part of this cost, because the positive externality of increasing the educational level of the population is so high that without a subsidy, less education would be consumed than is socially optimal. However, providing education for free completely distorts the market place, and risks putting for-profit providers out of business, and decreasing the competition in the market, thus hurting the consumer.

Professor Pure Liberal 2: Esteemed colleague, I respectfully disagree. While all your premises are well stated, you do not accurately consider the function of MIT Open CourseWare. Since MIT does not provide accreditation, which is what most educational consumers ultimately seek, MIT OCW does not compete with other educational providers. Instead, it provides very valuable functions for MIT. Primarily, it is a marketing tool, which has helped shore up MIT’s reputation as the “gold standard” for engineering training in the world. 60% of all incoming students cite MIT OCW as a factor in their choosing the institution. Internally, the courses are also very helpful to students selecting classes, or wanting to review material. Therefore, MIT OCW is a shrewd strategy from MIT to better position themselves in the market, and compete for students. This is a legitimate part of doing business, and something we should be supporting.

Professor Socialist: First to the previous speaker, I resent the notion that education is a good to be consumed. Education in a socialist society would be a human right. The education provided at MIT however, is an elite education for the capitalist managerial class which is completely inaccessible to the working class. The OCW project is simply a ploy to detract attention from the fact that working class children are excluded from attending MIT, and taking advantage from close interaction with professors, experience working in labs, the participation in learning communities, etc. This kind of quality education will always be unavailable to ordinary students in a capitalist system.

Professor Socialist 2: Esteemed colleague, I respect your views, but in this case I will have to disagree. You speak almost enviously of MIT as high quality education. Remember that universal education was instituted to socialize children into workers who could show up on time, work sustained for long periods of time, and not question authority. It is true that transformatory learning based on for example the Freirian model can be a powerful act of resistance in a capitalist society, however what MIT does is to take the most creative youth and mold them into model workers for the “innovation economy”. Their newest project to spread their educational materials to everyone, is simply a ploy to get working class men and women studying and improving their skills for free in their own time, which will benefit the companies they work for, but not themselves.

Well, we thank you for your views on MIT Open CourseWare in the American context. Now we are widening the scope of the debate, to consider the impact of MIT Open CourseWare on the international stage, and we have a mix of American and international contributors. Professor American Realist?\ *\ **Professor Liberal Internationalist*: Every human being in the world has an equal right to education and personal development. The current situation is that educational opportunities are very inequitably distributed throughout the world, and in many countries youth lack access to quality higher education. As a world community, we need to come together to pull up those who need it. The MIT OCW is a wonderful project that let’s anyone in the world be a “fly on the wall” of the MIT, and radically widens access to one of the world’s premier research and teaching institutions. Hopefully many similar projects will be created, so that we will have a chance of reaching the Millenium Development Goals.

Professor American Realist: If this project was simply available inside America, using a similar license to the one developed in the Australian school system, which limits usage to the national context, the situation would be very different. Strengthening the human capital in the US, leading to a strengthening of both the commercial productivity, and perhaps also our armies would certainly be a laudable objective. However, America’s educational system, the best in the world, is a key to our national competitiveness on the world stage. By making these resources available internationally, you are undermining our key advantage, and in extremis threatening the global American hegemony that preserves world peace and our prosperity.

Professor American Realist 2: While I wholeheartedly agree with the assessment made by my colleague, I wanted to add that security, and failed states, is a large concern for us at the moment. If it could somehow be shown that MIT OCW could increase the human capital in conflict zones, and reduce the probability for conflict, even by a small amount, this would be something quite support-worthy. Of course, access should not be extended to the whole world, but only to the areas that national defence and security dictate that we help.

Professor Australian Pure Liberal: I want to reiterate the concern that my colleague Professor Pure Liberal espoused earlier. The international trade in educational services is one of the fastest rising sectors of the economy, and one that brings benefits both to exporting countries and importing countries. These free resources constitute an unfair challenge to our producers of learning materials who have contributed so much to the increase of quality learning opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region, and serves to incalculate in people the belief that very expensive learning resources ought to be free, thus undermining future increases in this global trade.

Professor Neo-institutionalist: There is already a trend of increasing convergence among educational systems in different nation states, as they tend to align themselves with the “imagined community” of the global modern society. Programs such as MIT OCW make important contributions to this process, by sharing the “gold standard” educational materials, which help shape expectations around curriculum among universities, students and lecturers.

In fact, Chinese universities have produced more than 250 book-length comparative reports on the differences between MIT OCW curricula and the curricula taught in Chinese schools, with the express purpose to improve the quality of education in China to “international standards”. Indeed, not only the educational content itself, but also the pedagogical methods and lecture styles are being transmitted through the videos available, and many professors in developing countries have reported modifying their own teaching based on this. Such a global convergence towards a “gold standard” is a natural and positive process, and MIT OCW is a wonderful contribution to this.

Professor Latin-American World-system Theorist: The previous speaker analyses the world without any relevant historical context, and presents a fairy-tale view of the global processes that actually take place. Research, scholarly publishing, and top university education is concentrated in the Anglo-Saxon centre of the world, all conducted in the English language according to a certain epistemology and grounded in a system of production. The MIT OCW has two distinct very negative effects on the developing countries of the world. Firstly, it legitimizes MIT as the global leader in teaching, and the material and knowledge that they are transmitting as the material “most worth knowing”, which will “help us” move ahead. Their knowledge is not relevant to a struggling developing country, and their ways of knowing block out the local and indigenous ways of knowing that we need to develop.

Secondly, it presents the illusion that everyone in the world have access to high quality education. These courses will merely benefit the urban elites in our countries, who already embrace Western knowledge and ideas of progress, to the detriment of their own people who cannot afford clean water, let alone an internet connection. In order to develop our educational system so that it truly benefits our people, we must close the windows to the flood of Western educational materials that are attempted introduced through loans, or even as “free”, and concentrate on our own language and heritage.

Professor International Norms: The idea of freely and openly sharing educational resources is an emerging norm on the national and international arena. It’s an idea that traces its heritage back to the open source movement, and also to the very fundaments of science and the academia. It has been introduced by a number of norm entrepreneurs, such as MIT, the Hewlett Foundation, and individuals and groups that struggle to promote this norm, both in the US, and on the international arena.

They have had some success, with Open CourseWare projects started in many countries, for example Japan, Mexico, Korea, China, France and Holland, however the norm has still not reached the tipping point where it would lead to a norm cascade. Although a number of groups have signed on, no countries have as yet adopted open access to educational resources as a national norm, or something that they want to push in international fora. The creation of international networks often precedes this process, and an encouraging factor is that UNESCO has thoroughly endorsed this movement, and indeed were the ones who in 2002 coined the word “open educational resources”.

This movement has the potential to bring much benefit to the world, and contrary to what some previous speakers have alluded to, Open CourseWare is not an imperialist or capitalist ploy. The movement is very supportive of every country contributing and sharing of their valuable and unique material, and as mentioned, there is already OCW available from developing countries such as China, Vietnam and Mexico, which can be shared with the world. As one example, the Indian Institutes of Technology have put over thousand hours of video on Youtube.

In addition, because OCW utilizes an open license, the material can be remixed and adapted in many ways. Thus, the material can be translated to local languages, and edited to suit local conditions. (The same is of course true for Chinese and Japanese material – it can be translated to English, and used in American universities. Unfortunately, that does not seem to have happened yet). In this way, OCW indeed does constitute one global trend of sharing, but one that is equal, not a one-way transfer of knowledge and ideology from the West to the rest.

Professor Global Transformer: The only way we can achieve an equitable and sustainable world is to prioritize grassroots initiatives that treasure local knowledge and locally produced products, together with a radically inclusive democracy. Although the model of the elite MIT university is anachronistic, and not worthy of emulation, the fact that is the MIT OCW material is presented with an open license. This means that we can repurpose it and borrow from it when we design our community adult education intiatives, and online peer-to-peer learning communities. In that sense, this material is certainly useful.

I thank all the participants for their participation. Good night.


Stian Håklev October 17, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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