The impact of MIT's OpenCourseWare model on the Top Level Courses Project

December 1, 2010, [MD]

In this thesis, I have tried to show that the Top Level Courses Project is a unique Chinese answer to national challenges, and not an imported model. When the centralized curriculum, which was introduced through borrowing from the Soviet Union in the 1950’s, was gradually loosened up in the 1980’s, it was replaced with a system of course evaluations to promote quality and maintain a central direction for courses. As these systems of course evaluation became increasingly sophisticated and widespread, the Ministry of Education embarked on a number of major projects to select excellent universities and faculties through peer-review processes for extra funding, and to serve as examples to others. Adding the explosion of enrolment beginning in 1998, and the ministry’s strong desire to promote increased use of IT in education, a new national program that would evaluate the best courses, and share these using an online platform is a natural development of the different trends that already existed.

However, China does not exist in a vacuum, and during the same time, the MIT OpenCourseWare model was developed, and became highly publicized, within China as in many other places. Many articles have been published in China, both introducing the OpenCourseWare project in general terms, and comparing the OpenCourseWare project with the Top Level Courses Project (as mentioned above). To analyze how the OpenCourseWare project could have had an impact on the Top Level Courses Project, we need to decide on how to conceptualize the OpenCourseWare project.

OpenCourseWare as a norm

One way of conceiving of the OCW concept is to see it as the normative ideal that all universities should digitize and open access to their course materials. The Hewlett Foundation (2006) states the normative idea thus:

At the heart of the movement toward Open Educational Resources is the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general and the Worldwide Web in particular provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and reuse knowledge. OER are the parts of that knowledge that comprise the fundamental components of education content and tools for teaching, learning and research.

But for our purposes, let us suggest the norm that “universities should make their educational material openly available”. Finnemore and Sikkink (2005) have developed a theory of norm life-cycles, and used it to analyze the spread of women’s suffrage and the land-mine ban, among other activist movements. As opposed to a realist view of the world, where each nation only looks after their own best interests, they hold a constructivist view that advocates for the possibility of creation and spreading of norms in a global context. They define a norm as “a standard of appropriate behaviour for actors with a given identity”. Norms are learnt through social learning, or through contestation, and lead to a change in identity and internal values and motivation, ie. they are transformative (Checkel 1999).

According to Finnemore and Sikkink (2005), norms are created by norm entrepreneurs, who are critical to a norm’s emergence, because they call attention to the issues, and use language that “names, interprets and dramatizes them”. These norm entrepreneurs need some kind of organizational platform to stand on especially at the international level, and indeed, in order for a norm to reach a threshold and move towards a cascade, it will often have to become institutionalized in a specific set of international rules and organizations.

A cascade occurs after a tipping point has been reached, typically comprising a third of all states. Finally, the norm becomes internalized, and sometimes it can become so institutionalized that people follow it blindly, without reflecting on the consequences. Finnemore and Sikkink (2005, 913) use the international state system as an example of a norm that has become internalized beyond reflection; “actors no longer think seriously about whether ‘‘the state’’ is the best or most efficient form of political organization (it almost certainly is not). They just set up more and more states to the exclusion of other political forms.”

MIT and Hewlett could certainly be said to play the role of a norm entrepreneur, and together with UNESCO, they have spent a lot of energy framing open education in a way that will make it attractive to other actors. They also attempt to spread the model through international advocacy networks, using OpenCourseWare Consortium as a platform, and they have defined minimum standards that institutions have to fulfill, to be eligible to join – a minimum of 10 courses, and the use of open licenses, for example. And in fact, one might even see a parallel to the internalization of the idea, at least within the movement, where people are frantically trying to convince every single university to make OpenCourseWare, without stopping to think about whether that is the best use of resources in all cases.

So if OpenCourseWare represents a norm, has this norm had any impact on the Top Level Courses Project? I would argue that it has not, based on three reasons. Firstly, one of the core normative values behind OpenCourseWare and most Open Educational Resources projects is openness, which includes using an open license. However, the Top Level Courses Project does not require courses to use an open license, and in fact I have not come across a single course that uses an open license (and on being questioned, course authors all said that they would not allow reuse and repurposing of their materials – one of the basic concepts within the global open education movement).

Secondly, much of the impetus behind the project comes from the idealistic notion that educational resources should be available to all, and to spread access to people who do not have it today. However, despite the fact that university enrolment is still lower in China than in major Western countries (even after the process of massification), increasing access to education is never mentioned, whether in official documents, or by my informants. The Top Level Courses Project aims to increase quality for those already in the system, not to reach people who do not currently have access. The task of providing expanded access is entrusted to other initiatives, such as Open University of China (Wei 2008).

Finally, if the norm mentioned above had had any impact in China, we would expect to see a range of different experiments with making educational resources freely available, both by individual professors and by individual universities, like the case in North America or other regions of the world. This has not been the case – other than the Top Level Courses Project, which was initiated and funded by the Ministry of Education, there are very few examples of academics voluntarily sharing resources. One of the only exceptions is the SocialLearn Lab network started by Professor Zhuang Xiuli at Beijing Normal University (SocialLearnLab 2010). Given these reasons, I find it hard to conclude that OpenCourseWare has had much impact in China as a norm.

Openness as a policy innovation

In the previous section, I have presented the open education movement as essentially idealistic and normative. However, in addition to choosing to share one’s resources freely because of an ideological conviction; utility and pragmatic considerations count as other very important factors. I will first discuss how this factor plays out in the wider open movement, and then look at examples that pertain to OpenCourseWare.

It is easy to understand why users would be attracted to free resources, but why would producers, whether they are software companies, or universities, benefit from waiving their rights, and making their products freely available? The fact is that many large commercial companies have open-sourced their own software, or have engineers that contribute to outside open-source projects. Hecker (2000) runs through a number of reasons why commercial companies would want to open-source their products, and discusses different business models that can make this process sustainable (see also Behlendorf 1999). Widening the scope to encompass many open practices, Tapscott and Williams (2006) outline a number of innovative business practices that allow corporations to benefit from opening access to their internal processes and intellectual property, leveraging peer-to-peer collaborators and “prosumers”.

How does this apply to OpenCourseWare – are there good pragmatic arguments for a university to open access to its course materials, without having recourse to moral arguments? The MIT Evaluation Report lists a number of examples of how MIT OCW has benefitted MIT as an institution (MIT OpenCourseWare 2005). OpenCourseWare can help in recruitment, which is shown by the fact that 35% of freshmen aware of OCW before deciding to attend MIT were influenced by it in choosing which school to attend, and a large majority of alumni believed that it strengthened MIT’s reputation (p. 52, 60). It can also be very useful for existing students, who according to the report use the courses extensively to catch up or repeat classes, and plan their course of study (p. 50).

Even faculty find it useful to be able to consult other colleagues’ work. One interesting example of this is professor Karen Willcox who teaches astronautics, a course that requires a strong foundation in maths. She was dismayed by the poor level of math skills, and realized that she did not know what was taught in the math course that was required for entry to the astronautics course, or how the material was presented. Through the OCW site, she was able to review the material, and can now help the students make explicit links between her material and the pure math that they have previously studied (ibid., p. 58). In the same vein, when the OpenCourseWare Consortium tries to help faculty members and students “sell” the idea of OpenCourseWare to their administration and other faculty, they list a range of direct benefits to institutions, rather than appealing to moral and ethical values (OpenCourseWare Consortium 2010b, 2010c, 2010d, 2010e).

If we consider OpenCourseWare not as something that is normatively good, but as something that is pragmatically useful to an institution, or a state, then it is much easier to make the case for OpenCourseWare having had an impact on the Top Level Courses Project. While it is very difficult to define exactly the extent to which OpenCourseWare helped trigger the development of the Top Level Courses Project in exactly the form it exists today, many of the perceived benefits of MIT that were listed above are echoed by the professors interviewed in chapter five. Through my interviews and literature review, I found that people working in the education sector were very well aware of MIT OpenCourseWare and other open projects, but professors in other disciplines who had courses that were selected as Top Level Courses knew very little about it.

Tan Feng (2008) believes that the Top Level Courses Project was China’s response to the MIT project, and it is certainly possible that given all the underlying trends and problems discussed above, the 2001 announcement of MIT’s grand plan, and it’s positive reaction, functioned as some sort of trigger to create the Top Level Courses Project. This is strengthened by Phillips’ (2004) theory of policy attraction, which proposes that states will be more likely to borrow policy during times of political change, systemic collapse, internal dissatisfaction, negative external evaluation, new configuration and alliances, knowledge and skills innovation, or the aftermath of extreme upheaval – the explosive growth in enrolment during the period of massification could thus have made China more open to borrowing ideas from the outside.

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 December 1, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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