The power of personal relationships in the spread of the OpenCourseWare model

December 6, 2010, [MD]

We saw in the cases of other East Asian countries how personal relationships often played a key role in introducing the idea of OpenCourseWare to new societies, and this is true even in China as far as the limited role of China Open Resources for Education goes. This is quite consistent with much of the literature on policy diffusion. For example, Mintrom (1997) has studied how policy entrepreneurs can play a role in spreading policy between states in the US, and also how membership in professional organizations and networks can assist this spreading of norms. He defines policy entrepreneurs as “people who seek to initiate dynamic policy change”, which they do through attempting to win support for ideas for policy innovations.

The strategies available to them are identifying problems, networking in policy circles, shaping the terms of the policy debates and building coalitions. They also face the challenge of crafting arguments differently for different audiences, while maintaining an image of integrity. He posits that policy entrepreneurs have the following commonalities with business entrepreneurs: they are able to spot problems, to take risks to promote innovative approaches to problem solving, and they have the ability to organize others to help turn policy ideas into government policies (Mintrom, 1997).

He also surveyed the spread of the idea of school choice among.different states, and tested out theories about which states were closest geographically, and which were most similar, but it turned out that what mattered was who sent officials to the same education conferences. Certainly it is the case that OpenCourseWare has not spread to the countries that are closest to the US, nor to the countries that are the most similar in structure.

In his discussion, he lists how professional networks can work as conduits for policy ideas, and platforms for policy entrepreneurs (Mintrom and Vergari 1998). These issue networks are institutionalized in the form of associations, journals, newletters, list-serves and conferences, and seem to promote what Granovetter (1973) called “weak ties” between different groups. Successful policy entrepreneurs are able to maintain these weak ties to different clusters of stakeholders that are spread throughout the globe (Steiner-Khamsi 2004a; 2004b).

An interesting case of the impact of one networked individual is what Gita Steiner-Khamsi (2006) calls the “Maris O’Rourke” effect. She was a New Zealander instrumental in the development of outcomes-based education (OBE) there in the 1970’s, and when she moved to the US, OBE travelled with her. In fact, the tipping point which gave OBE a world career happened at the same time as O’Rourke entered the World Bank. This is a wonderful example of one individual playing a pivotal role in disseminating a policy innovation. We could easily replace O’Rourke with Catherine Casserly from the Hewlett Foundation, or Shigeru Miyagawa from MIT.

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 6, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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