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 state a norm that says “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 for example the spread of women’s suffrage and the land-mine ban. 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 the creation and spread 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, and use the 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. 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 extremely 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.