MIT OpenCourseWare was announced in 2001, and went live in 2002. By 2007, MIT reached their goal of publishing virtually all 1,800 courses taught at the university. In 2005, the OpenCourseWare Consortium was formed, and it became independent in 2007 (MIT, 2008). So far, 21 other American universities have joined the OCW Consortium, but only a few of them are top-tier universities (OpenCourseWare Consortium, n.d.b). Instead, the MIT example has promoted a number of other initiatives from top-tier universities who want to brand their own offering: Carnegie Mellon’s OpenLearningInitiative, Yale’s Open Yale Courses, Rice University’s Connexions and Stanford Engineering Everywhere. The idea of Open CourseWare has received no national policy support, but in one case (Utah) received support from state legislators (Utah System of Higher Education, 2007).
One could conceptualize OCW both as an idealized norm, and as a pragmatic policy innovation. As a norm, OCW would be considered an outgrowth of the Open Educational Resources movement, which again can be seen as an continuation of the free software movement founded by Richard M. Stallmann. The Free Software Foundation, which he founded, says that using free software: “[...] is to make a political and ethical choice
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asserting the right to learn, and share what we learn with others.” (FSF, 2009). Applied to education, an early idea was the construction of so-called “learning objects”; discrete units of instructional material that could be reused and recombined for various purposes. This would allow a similar “pooling of resources” that was seen in open source, To facilitate sharing of these, David Wiley announced the first open content license in 1998. This license was based on the premise that educational content should be freely developed and shared "in a spirit similar to that of free and open software" (Wiley, 2003, cited in Caswell, et. al. 2008). The term Open Educational Resources was then created in 2002, at a conference held by UNESCO (UNESCO, 2002).
However, there are also good pragmatic arguments for a university to open access to its course materials, without having to recourse to moral arguments, and we could also see the MIT OCW as a pragmatic policy innovation. The MIT Evaluation Report (MIT, 2005) lists a number of examples of how MIT OCW has benefitted MIT as an institution. OCW 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 colleague’s 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
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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 interim director of the OpenCourseWare Consortium Terry Bays presented on strategies to “sell” the OpenCourseWare idea to universities, she listed a range of direct benefits to institutions, rather than appealing to moral and ethical values (Bays, 2008). From both the outward rhetoric, and the author’s experience with people who are directly involved in the movement, it seems clear that ethical and normative considerations are the primary driving factor behind OCW, and that the pragmatic reasons mainly function to convince funders and institutions to adopt the program. However, when analyzing the program in China, I will look at both whether the pragmatic and policy-based functions of Chinese OCW differ from the US “model”, and also whether the deeper “normative” aspects are present.