OER from the perspectives of world institutionalism and policy borrowing

September 22, 2010, [MD]

In addition to defining the concept of OER, and introducing a taxonomy of OER projects based on their purposes, I also introduce my theoretical framework from comparative education in the literature review. I begin by describing how international the OpenCourseWare concept has become:

At the 2008 Open CourseWare Consortium conference in Dalian, China, representatives from universities in many different countries were gathered to report on the progress, and share their experiences with opening up access to their course materials. Chinese researchers shared statistics on how large a percentage of students were aware of OpenCourseWare, Japanese professors showcased their latest OpenCourseWare semantic search tool, and Mexican researchers from the Tecnologico de Monterey showcased applications for mobile learning. The concept of OpenCourseWare had decidedly gone global.

One way to see this, is that the world is becoming more and more similar:

This would seem to support the idea that national education systems are converging globally. The view that there is a clear trend towards increased similarity in values and system design as the result of worldwide emerging models is held by Meyer, Boli, Thomas, and Ramirez (1997, 145), who state that

worldwide models define and legitimate agendas for local action, shaping the structures and policies of nation-states and other national and local actors in virtually all of the domains of rationalized social life — business, politics, education, medicine, science, even the family and religion.

Applied to higher education, world institutionalism predicts a growing trend towards isomorphism, rather than divergence, in higher educational systems (Meyer, Ramirez, Frank and Schofer 2006). This theory proposes that educational systems are not only converging in structure, organization and content, but also in such values of education as views of progress and social justice. The fact that 39 countries are currently members of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, and have universities that publish courses openly and share teaching materials freely, could be seen as further proof that global values and institutions are converging (OpenCourseWare Consortium 2010a).

However, not everyone is convinced that it's so simple:

However, this theory is not without critics. Anthropologist Anderson-Levitt (2003) criticizes convergence theories for taking global schooling models at face value, and Schriewer and Martinez (2004, 33) similarly believes that we have to look below the surface, and the terms employed, to see whether they are actually describing the same reality:

There is a convergence of educational reforms, but perhaps it is only at the level of brand names, that is, in the language of reform. Once a discourse is transplanted from one context to another and subsequently enacted in practice, it changes meaning.

They also differentiate between internationalization as a real process, and internationality as a semantic construct that can be referred to selectively, according to the “changing problem constructions internal to a given educational system” (Schriewer and Martinez 2004; Silova 2009). They show how policy borrowing does not happen systematically, for example following a simple centre-periphery model, but rather is structured by the needs and discourses in any relevant society. References to educational innovations in other nations are often employed as a rhetorical tool to promote change that is desirable by certain groups. To discover these processes, the multi-country statistical analysis often performed by the world institutionalist group has to be complemented by very fine-grained analyses of individual cases of educational borrowing, taking into account the local context, including culture, history, power structures and discourse.

I first learnt about the theories around policy borrowing from a book by Gita Steiner-Khamsi on education in Mongolia. This books is beautifully written, and worth reading even if I you never thought you'd be interested in education in Mongolia. I first heard about it by a coincidence. My friend Espen was beginning his MA in comparative education at the university of Oslo, and since my classes had not yet begun, I hung out in his classes instead. One teacher had the class read a book review of this book, and write a summary, to practice writing. I was intrigued by the book and when I got to Toronto, I got it at the library, and enjoyed reading it. Later, I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Steiner-Khamsi at University of Toronto, and although it was intimidating being the only undergraduate in a room full of graduate students, I was probably the only one who had actually read the book before meeting her.

In her book Educational import: local encounters with global forces in Mongolia, Steiner-Khamsi and Stolpe (2006) discuss global educational policy borrowing through the lens of Mongolia. They show how the government uses the language of modern Western innovations, but does not change its actual practices on the ground. This is similar to what Schriewer and Martinez (2004) describe as using “Ausland als Argument”. In many cases, the Mongolian government had to adopt the language of the donors, for example applying for funding for girl-child education, even if girls were far outperforming boys in school already. In other settings, a government will refer to external examples to lend legitimacy to their policy decisions, in some cases even “borrowing policy” even though the practices are already being carried out locally. In some cases, the terminology is adapted to lend credibility to desirable programs nationally, and in other cases, to receive funding from donors with specific priorities (Steiner-Khamsi 2004).

In my thesis, I then go on to describe in detail the Chinese Top Level Courses, and then use this framework to look at whether what is happening is in fact a global convergence of policies, or whether we should, inspired by Steiner-Khamsi, look below the surface to understand what is really happening.

The quotes in this text is from the MA Thesis "The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project: Using Open Educational Resources to Promote Quality in Undergraduate Teaching" by Stian Håklev, University of Toronto 2010.

Stian Håklev September 22, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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