Thursday, June 26, 2014

Culture in the Classroom: 1

How much should one pay heed to cultural issues when planning to deliver education globally?

This question has assumed renewed significance as global education is now a reality. Technology has made it possible, financial liberalisation made it desirable. Now, even the last barriers, which were there for mostly political and cultural reasons, are also coming down. Even a country like Bangladesh, which is forever at war with Western influence at home, has now allowed overseas universities to set up shop (see story).

With a broad global consensus slowly emerging about a regulatory easing of Higher Education, the global online providers never had it better. The technology of delivery has reached a tipping point, the access to computing, through cheap tablets and smartphones, have reached even the remotest parts of the world, and the groundswell of middle class aspirations have far outstripped the traditional modes of supply. 

Indeed, there are big hurdles to cross. China not only tightly controls its education, but also its Internet. India badly regulates its education, which means complete prohibition of foreign awards as well as widespread availability of the bad ones. Other countries like Pakistan and Indonesia remain frontier territory: Nigeria's Boko Haram makes it their cause to fight foreign education.

But at least the cities are accessible. The logic of global businesses in education these days are predicated on modernised cities, unified in consumption habits. And, indeed, with most of world's population getting into cities, this is a defensible ambition. That the city folks everywhere want, and need, the same education.

My point, however, is that there is one more barrier to cross: That of culture. The national cultures are well and alive, and indeed kicking: The more homogeneous consumptions become, cultures and behaviours go the other way. It is fashionable to be Filipino, Indonesian, Bengali and Nigerian again. Besides, the new immigrants to the cities want an economic opportunity but do not want to abandon their religious, cultural and filial roots. An education must take this into account.

This poses big problem in the quest for scale. That everyone will be able to take and benefit from the same educational offering is a naive assumption to make. Culture ensures that if one has a problem, they won't post it on a forum. They won't even leave the course. They would just write the exams and pass, but then continue unchanged. As if the whole business of education was like a Western dress, to be worn for a limited time for a limited purpose. 

Which should be all fine if this is just about handing out degrees, or merely teaching a skill. But those business models have limited shelf life. The western degrees have a legacy, but a weak one: They sell not because of their inherent strengths, but in the absence of competition. It is only a matter of time when a disruptive innovation will come from the emerging markets, particularly those markets with lots of domestic demand. Skills teaching is also prone to disruption, given that skills are socially constructed and must be right for the local markets.

The appropriate goal for global education then is to modify behaviour, creating a band of global professionals, which no national system can effectively service. At this plain, however, somewhat paradoxically, the business of education is culturally laden, because one can't change behaviour without engaging the whole person. 

The question for online educators is this then: How to engage the whole person? My experiences at the chalk face told me a different story than one would see from the strategists' vantage point: The act of education is as much in listening as in speaking, and the limitations of pure online offerings are often in the listening to the learner. MOOCs may result in superior public conversations but it will hardly change the world: The culture in the classroom will trump the march towards global homogeneity of thought and values. This is the next great challenge for the global education. 


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