How institutional culture mediates the role of an OER policy

uct-ip uct-oa ufh-ip unisa-ip unisa-oer

Images: South African university OER policy documents

Sub-project 4 Lead Researcher Dr Glenda Cox and researcher Henry Trotter draw on  their research findings to discuss how the presence of an OER policy is mediated by institutional culture, which influences academics’ sharing of OER.

Several scholars and organizations suggest that institutional policy could play a key role in facilitating academics to contribute their teaching materials as open educational resources (OER). But given the diversity of institutions comprising the higher education sector—and the administrative and financial challenges facing many institutions in the Global South—it is not always clear which type of policy would work best in a given context.

Some policies might act simply as an enabling factor (a necessary but not sufficient variable in promoting OER activity) while others might act as a motivating factor (incentivizing OER activity either among individual academics or the institution as a whole).

In a paper we recently published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL), titled Institutional Culture and OER Policy: How Structure, Culture, and Agency Mediate OER Policy Potential in South African Universities , we argue that the key determination in whether a policy acts as an enabling or motivating factor depends on the type of institutional culture into which it is embedded.

Social Realist perspective on institutional culture

This means that the success of a proposed OER-related policy intervention is mediated by an institution’s existing policy structure, its prevailing social culture and academics’ own agency. A Social Realist theoretical perspective was used as a lens to analyse structure, culture and agency and the relations between them (Archer 2003, 2007, 2012).

Thus, understanding how structure, culture, and agency interact at an institution (and thereby result in identifiable “institutional cultures”) offers insights into how OER policy development could proceed there, if at all. Based on our research at three South African universities – the University of Cape Town (UCT), University of Fort Hare (UFH) and University of South Africa (UNISA) – each with its own distinct institutional culture, we explore which type of interventions might actually work best for motivating OER activity in these differing contexts.

In brief, we found that, at UCT with its collegial institutional culture, academics enjoy high levels of agency in which their motivation to engage with OER derives from their individual concerns, such as their personal educational philosophy or sense of openness. These motivations are mildly shaped by departmental and disciplinary norms and only minimally by the positive OER-related policies and support mechanisms available to them. In this environment, it is doubtful whether any further policy elaboration would create higher levels of motivation regarding OER. The most sustainable strategy appears to be the one that it has already adopted, allowing OER activity to develop organically, in fits and starts, with non-coercive institutional support.

At UFH, academics lack even the basic enabling factors necessary for OER engagement, thus it is difficult to talk about what would act as motivating factors in anything but hypothetical terms. In this respect, a policy intervention allowing scholars to possess copyright of their teaching materials would be a useful first step in moving towards a situation where they could leverage the cultural power of their peer groups to engage with OER. But if we see the IP policy not as an obstacle but an opportunity for the management, similar to UNISA, then the intervention would have to come at the level of strategy, in encouraging the administration to treat its IP assets as something worth sharing openly. However, it is difficult to develop and implement tight, coherent strategies in a bureaucratic institutional culture due, in part, to the fact that a lot of administrative activity is focused on operational compliance rather than strategic engagement. Therefore, any recommendation for an OER policy or strategy intervention in this environment would have to remain aware of the challenges surrounding the sustainability of such an initiative.

Lastly, at UNISA, the university’s managerial institutional culture makes an OER-related policy intervention the appropriate type of instrument for spurring OER activity there. High-level policy is the tool by which new initiatives are best instituted, creating the highest likelihood of sustainable commitment over time. Of course, in this particular case, the necessary policy and strategy are already in place. It is now just a matter of allowing the management to gradually operationalize its OER ambitions, moving from strategic declaration to policy implementation.

OER policy as an enabling or motivating factor

In essence, this paper argues that policy, whether in the form of a hard mandate or soft encouragement, should not be conceived of, ipso facto, as a “motivating factor” for OER activity because each university’s institutional culture mediates the role that policy plays in academics’ decision making. This means that, while every university may need an appropriate IP policy to allow academics or the university to engage with OER, the presence of this policy may have no motivating impact on actual OER activity. In such a case, the IP policy would be an enabling rather than a motivating factor. When agents have the power to decide and are free to choose they base their decisions on their ‘ultimate concerns’ as agents and those concerns may or may not include sharing teaching materials (Archer 2007).

This distinction matters because both factors are ultimately required for an institution to enjoy a sustainable engagement with OER. And knowing this means that OER advocates, from the individual proponent up to the intergovernmental organization, must take a nuanced, tailored and often multi-pronged approach to OER interventions at different institutions. This may be especially true for those in the Global South where there is not only a high degree of organizational diversity, but challengingly low levels of administrative and financial support.


Archer, M. S. (2003). Structure, agency, and the internal conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Archer, M. S. (2007). Making our way through the world: Human reflexivity and social mobility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Archer, M. S. (2012). The reflexive imperative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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