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 to recourse to moral arguments? The MIT Evaluation Report (MIT OpenCourseWare 2005) lists a number of examples of how MIT OCW has benefitted MIT as an institution. 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 the math course that was required for entry to the astronautics course taught, 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.