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Friday, September 9, 2011

Thinking about Culture in International Online Learning


In June, I had the opportunity to speak at a Policy Forum sponsored by the International Council for Open and Distance Education.  The Forum focused on ICDE’s possible role in international inter-institutional collaborations.  The discussion, with leaders from more than 30 countries, included a topic that is much on the minds of our open and distance education colleagues around the world, but that is discussed very little within the United States:  the cultural implications of cross-border delivery of education.

Historically, it is fair to assume that most U.S. institutions expected that international students came to their campuses to immerse themselves not only in their disciplines, but also in the American professional culture and, more broadly, in the American social culture.  In return, the presence of international students helped to broaden the horizons of local U.S. students, many of whom were away from home for the first time. 

Online distance education creates a much different environment, however—one in which the cultural intent of education becomes much more visible as a practical issue.  For the most part, international students in online programs are not expatriates.  They tend to be working adults, living and working in their home cultures and wanting to apply their learning to their lives in their home countries.   Online learning has also sparked a new movement—the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement—through which faculty developers of online materials can share their online content with colleagues at other institutions worldwide; this focuses the culture issue even further, as instructors in other countries will be using, with local students in their home countries, content developed by their U.S. colleagues.  

Another aspect of this idea is that higher education involves immersing the student in the academic culture.  This has been the rationale for required residencies in graduate programs that prepare students for academic careers.  However, immersion in academic life has proven not to be as relevant in programs that prepare students for careers in non-academic professions; in this case, the better argument is that students should be immersed in the professional culture in which they will work after graduation.  The problem, until very recently has been that, aside from internships and practica, institutions could not provide this kind of immersion.

These developments raise some serious questions about how we engage these students—and, indeed, how we engage all students—into our online communities and how we contextualize content in this new learning environment.  At minimum, we must become self-conscious of the cultural context in which we teach and in which we expect our students to work together as part of a learning community.  The question is:  What is the cultural context in which we ask our learning community to operate within each course?

While it is safe to say that most online programs have not addressed this issue, two approaches have begun to emerge.  One—the multicultural approach—uses both content and pedagogy to create a context in which students see themselves and their professional studies in the context of a broader regional or global context.  This option has been an issue in Europe, where there has been a backlash against an approach that welcomes all cultures, at the perceived expense of the student’s home culture.   The second option is to use the online environment to help students contextualize the curriculum within their own local culture. 

The issue is made more complex by the fact that most online curricula are not limited to international students, but mix students from the institution’s home state, other states in the U.S., and international students.  One might ask whether “local” students would benefit equally from an approach that encourages all students to apply their learning to their local situation.

Either approach requires a serious and self-conscious effort to create curricula, content, and pedagogies that reinforce the goal.   At minimum, it means avoiding unnecessary—and usually unintended—cultural bias in the form of “inside” jokes and remarks about the culture (in the U.S., this often takes the form of jibes about government processes or sports analogies).   Beyond that, however, lie more complex pedagogical issues that require participation by multiple faculty members in a program to agree on a shared approach.  In some cases—where multiple programs across multiple disciplines are involved, for instance—it may also require support (in the form of instructional design and editorial staff) at the institutional level. 

Online learning is transforming how colleges and universities reach out internationally, both to other institutions and directly to students.  Collaborative international degree programs and Open Educational Resources are two examples.   Addressing the issue of culture is the next step in this transformation.  Needed now are best practices and models to guide both content and pedagogy.