Perspectives on Trans-Cultural Issues in e-Learning

Jon Mason, education.au limited, Australia

jmason@educationau.edu.au

Abstract

This short paper documents a personal reflection based on some limited initial research into the topic of trans-cultural issues in e-learning. As such, it is not based on any informed scholarship – particularly where issues concern the developing world. It is prepared mainly as a means of facilitating discussion during ‘Initiative 2003’ workshops held at Versailles Castle, March 19, 2003. If there is an assumption running though this paper it is that open knowledge systems and systems that are technically interoperable provide the best opportunity for knowledge sharing and therefore learning, whatever the cultural context.

Introduction

“Trans-cultural” is a term that can be applied in a variety of contexts and it can convey a significant diversity in meaning. For example, it could be applied to the challenge of establishing meaningful discourse between academics steeped in scientific or technological culture and academics who locate their work within the humanities; it could be applied to the challenge of establishing common ground between the library services and information technology service departments of a university; it might indicate an organizational challenge involving the formation of cross-functional teams; or, it might be used to describe the crossing of linguistic, religious, or ethnic boundaries. When it comes to discussing the field of e-learning all these kinds of perspectives become important. Furthermore, it has also come to imply issues of access, commonly referred to as the “digital divide”.

Before proceeding with this discussion in the context of e-learning it may be useful to reflect on how the term “culture” is used by prominent sociologists such as Manuel Castells when chronicling the history of the Internet itself:

“The Internet culture is characterized by a four-layer structure: the techno-meritocratic culture, the hacker culture, the virtual communitarian culture, and the entrepreneurial culture. Together they contribute to an ideology of freedom that is widespread in the Internet world …the culture of the Internet is rooted in the scholarly tradition of the shared pursuit of science, of reputation by academic excellence, of peer review, and of openness in all research findings, with due credit to the authors of each discovery. Historically, the Internet was produced in academic circles, and in their ancillary research units, both in the heights of professional ranks and in the trenches of graduate student work, from where the values, the habits, and the knowledge diffused into the hacker culture.” (Castells, 2001:37-40)

With this wide context in mind some key questions arise when considering the emergence of e-learning and the various efforts underway focused on standardization of its technical infrastructure. What do we know about learning that can be applied to e-learning? What might be unique about e-learning? What do we know about trans-cultural issues in general? Because of cultural considerations, should some things be left un-standardized? Will internationalising the school curriculum help facilitate better understanding of trans-cultural issues? The following discussion exposes these and other questions, leaving them largely unanswered because such questions in a way need to be left as questions – questions that disrupt our assumptions about the way ‘things are done’ and promote discourse.

SC36 and the Standardization Agenda

While the growth in membership of SC36 during its short life is an encouraging sign there is still much work to be done before outputs of this committee are truly representative of a balanced international input. For example, as yet there are no participating representatives from South America, South East Asia, Africa, or the Middle East. Given the costly nature of participation, however, achieving a wider participation will not be easily done. But it must be aimed for, if the global platform of the Internet is to be leveraged for purposes of learning, education, and training and therefore of benefit for all human societies – or, in the words of UNESCO, for the purposes of “education 4 all”.

It is also encouraging that in September 2002 SC36 formed a new Ad Hoc Committee focused on issues concerning language and culture following a proposal put forward by the Norwegian National Body. Its main stated aim is to ensure that “standards do not discriminate people or groups of people by culture, language and required function for use" (SC36 CLFA, 2002). This is no small task, particularly where the English language has been so dominant.

However, without major challenges of basic connectivity and access being resolved it is likely that the wider range of cultural and language barriers that already exclude many societies will compound further as new technologies are developed. The politics involved in these issues extend, of course, way beyond implications for learning, education, and training – this is the politics of the haves versus the have-nots, of the disparities between economic and social class, the politics of the “digital divide”.  Bodies such as SC36 must be vigilant in pursuing standardization that standards produced do not unwittingly perpetuate disenfranchisement.

Emerging Frameworks

In any investigation of the issues involved it is generally instructive to first consult sources of authoritative expertise on the subject. Thus, the following quotation from UNESCO clearly argues the importance of working within a framework that utilises insight and understanding gained from studying cross-cultural issues in learning, before proceeding with any analysis of the issues that emerge in e-learning.

“More than ever is there a need for experts in communication and information technology to work in partnership with those who, coming from a wide variety of disciplines, are in the forefront of reconceptualizing the world of learning. Without doing so there is the great risk that the use of improved technology will only reinforce and consolidate practices that, though unfortunately often part and parcel of established educational practice, have long been recognized to be counter to the development of humanity’s critical and creative capacity and of the human ability to confront the complex problems of today’s world. It is therefore recommended that the coming together of experts from around the globe during the “UNESCO Programme – LEARNTEC 2001” be taken as the starting point of an evolving partnership to learn about learning. It is equally recommended that technology-enabled mechanisms be explored – and that UNESCO play a facilitating role in this process – to foster the development of the suggested partnership and that ways be found to further expand it. It is recognized in this context that the yearly LEARNTEC events are a good opportunity to complement the technology-enabled partnership processes with equally necessary face-to-face gatherings to discuss progress made and to inspire future action.” (UNESCO, 2001)

UNESCO is to be congratulated on both its leadership and its continued efforts in brokering meaningful dialogue in this area. The LEARNTEC conferences have now become an annual event. However, much of this excellent effort is unfortunately not widely disseminated because the proceedings of these conferences are not freely available in HTML on the Web and must be purchased. Of course, for sustainability reasons even the non-profit sector must identify and secure revenue streams! But there is an ongoing challenge here because the high price of content is one of the major barriers to furthering the cause of open discourse on themes discussed at these conferences. It is likewise one of the barriers to delivering on the promise of universal education for all.

This issue extends beyond the developing world and is being addressed by some very interesting initiatives, such as the Public Knowledge Project initiated at the University of British Columbia and the Washington-based Public Knowledge Initiative, both of which represent strong advocacy for the notion of the Internet “Commons” which challenges conventional notions of intellectual property, particularly where the original intellectual effort was funded through public means. (PKP; PKI)

This perspective finds resonance within many communities of practice and builds on the notion that the Internet is an “instrument for the internationalization of education” and as a major upside of globalization. “This includes the aspiration of working towards an international information environment where information will be freely available for students, teachers, and researchers” (Kearns, 2002:79).

From the perspective of the developing world aid agencies have begun to respond to this challenge. Thus, the Virtual Colombo Plan, a joint initiative of the World Bank and the Australian Aid Agency, AusAid, has observed that “Developing countries will be deeply affected by the exploding demand for IT literacy and English language for accessing knowledge on the Internet” (McCawley, et al, 2002). Such initiatives are no doubt of positive benefit but the question arises as to whether the assumed continued dominance of the English language on the Internet is necessarily a good thing.

Cultural Identity

The growth of Internet over the last decade has brought with it both enthusiastic and cautionary responses from governments around the world. Interestingly, both kinds of response can be seen as stimulated by an interest in safeguarding cultural identity. Policy intervention of governments can be interpreted as both regulatory (in a controlling sense) and as culturally affirming where issues of national cultural identity or indigenous heritage are seen to be threatened by the globalized information spaces. There are numerous examples of this worldwide – such as Canadian government support of its First Nations cultural heritage in distance education programs.

However, affirming cultural identity – even that of indigenous culture – is probably more easily achieved by wealthier, large states. One of the concerns expressed at the University of West Indies Small States conference organized by the Commonwealth of Learning was that  “given the history of colonization, economic openness, high unit costs and the greater production and marketing capacity of bigger countries, the risk was that small states would be consumers more often than they would be producers of distance education products and services.” (COL, 2000:6)

When probing deeper into issues of cultural identity a shared perspective on the importance of community begins to emerge. Interestingly, this perspective has only begun to find mainstream recognition in the developed world in recent times, as is articulated by John Seely Brown:

 “what do we know that we didn’t know ten years ago? That learning and knowledge are the result of multiple, intertwining forces: content, context, and community.” (John Seely Brown, in Ruggles, et al, 1999:ix)

One of the interesting things associated with such revelations is that for many indigenous cultures learning has always been a social experience, unlike the developed world which has shaped its education systems primarily around individual learning requirements. For example, knowledge transfer from one generation to the next in the case of Australian Aboriginal cultures has now been well documented as being reliant almost totally on the oral tradition of combining storytelling and ‘song-lines’. Moreover, because such traditions have deep roots the task of teaching new skills is problematic without a social context  (Ellis, 1986). Fortunately, this issue is also recognised at the level of SC36 within the scope of work undertaken by Working Group 1 under the umbrella of ‘Collaborative Technologies’ (SC36 WG2).

Pedagogical Perspectives

Depending on whether learning, education, and training proceeds as individually-focused or community-focused also raises related issues about the most appropriate pedagogical approach. Thus, some cultures may lean toward instructivist methods while others will be based upon constructivist methods – this polarity in approach also runs across nationalities and organizations. Similarly, while rote learning may have gone out of favor in western education systems but it is quite prominent in Asian contexts. It still has a proven viability depending on context.

Designing e-learning programs that are explicit about such things may prove to be a challenge. But given that accessibility has become such an important issue – and is being addressed with support from government legislation, notably within the USA – there’s no reason why metadata cannot be used to facilitate the discovery of e-learning-ware that specializes in specific pedagogical methods. However, the key factor here is time – e-learning systems and the learning materials utilized by them are not created overnight.

Another consideration is the role of teachers. On this issue polarity manifests as instruction versus facilitation and is a pressure experienced by teachers as they embrace the learning potential of the Web into the classroom. The pressure arises as a consequence of e-learning developing as a mainstream activity in a range of settings that include the traditional educational institutions as well as the workplace.

From an indigenous knowledge management perspective – an entirely different perspective – cultural identity and cultural knowledge have been learned for centuries, transmitted from one generation to the next, typically via storytelling as well as through social activities such as dance and music. Its interesting to observe that the power of storytelling, and narrative in general, has only been appraised by theorists of knowledge management, organizational development, and learning in relatively recent times (Denning, 2003).

Technical Perspectives

What makes e-learning e-learning? At the risk of stating the obvious the answer is the technical infrastructure, using the Web as a platform for learning. It is important, then, to highlight the internationalization effort that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is pursuing. One of the W3C’s three stated goals is the following:

Universal Access: To make the Web accessible to all by promoting technologies that take into account the vast differences in culture, languages, education, ability, material resources, access devices, and physical limitations of users on all continents.”  

While the W3C does not see itself as a standards body, its work nevertheless leads to the development of international standards through building consensus around technologies that then become candidates for standardization, as in the case of XML (eXtensible Markup Language). And in their short life Web technologies can be seen as “among the best ways to store, manipulate and represent data in different languages” (Texin and Savourel, 2002).

With this technical infrastructure in place a number of groups have emerged in the last five years or so that are focused on ‘defining the Internet architecture for learning’ or ‘making e-learning interoperable’. One important group, with its origins in the USA is the IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS). Like the W3C IMS is not so interested in developing standards as such but is focused on the pragmatic task of capturing rough consensus that facilitates technical interoperability of applications (for example, learning management systems) and software components (such as content packaging specifications) that support e-learning. In the last twelve months IMS has achieved a number of milestones in its specifications development. Importantly, both its membership and its stakeholder base have widened to include e-learning systems vendors, educational institutions, government agencies, publishers, and libraries. However, in terms of establishing a truly international perspective IMS is faced by similar challenges faced by SC36: in furthering its agenda it must continue to find ways to lower the entry barrier for participation.

 

Following on from technical issues and implementations is probably one of the most important issues concerning trans-cultural e-learning: usability. A recent study conducted by Thomas Vöhringer-Kuhnt indicates significant variation (culturally expressed) in the perception of when computer software and learning systems are usable. In his analysis Vöhringer-Kuhnt also emphasizes the tension discussed above that exists between “individualism” versus “collectivism” (Vöhringer-Kuhnt, 2002).

Conclusions

This discussion has attempted to identify a number of perspectives that situate trans-cultural issues within a framework that is informed by social, technical, historical and pedagogical considerations. This topic of enquiry is complex but is of crucial importance to the ongoing viability to the international standardization efforts associated with e-learning. A number of key venues for engagement in internationalization efforts associated with the Web and e-learning already exist. Such efforts may not have scoped out the full extent of the challenges associated with e-learning in a global context but they do represent important foundations.;

 

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References

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