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Globalization and Cultural Aspects of Distance Education

International Perspectives on Distance Education Readings I

Globalization, culture and distance education (DE) are independent, yet closely intertwined, concepts. While acknowledging that the Unites States is taking a leading role in the development of DE, the first chapters in the International Perspectives section of the Handbook of Distance Education take DE beyond our borders to explore the challenges and opportunities of global learning.

In the chapter on Global Education, Mason (2003) notes that the nature of DE has tended to be not just a different educational approach, but actually follows more of a business model. The result, according to Mason, has resulted in a move away from education for its own sake to the commercialization and commoditization of learning. On the positive side, this has emphasized a learner-centered approach (with the distance learner being perhaps a more discriminating consumer than the traditional student). However, the author points out that the self-directed nature of DE may not be well suited for students who are not sufficiently prepared or motivated.

At the same time the author sees certain threats to traditional educational values and local institutions. When students can choose between their local options and seemingly prestigious Western schools or between potentially dull required courses and appealing multimedia offerings, they may choose the option with the most attractive short-term benefits and forsake what may be best for the long run. Or they may move away from their local schools and cultural values. While this may prepare them for some types of work in a global economy, it may actually hinder them locally or ultimately cause dramatic shifts in aspects of their native culture. Like the spread of McDonald’s and Starbucks, this can lead to a homogenization of society that may have unforeseen consequences.

Cultural differences present other issues that can impact instructional design and dialog, according to Gunawardena, et al. (2003). Some inherent characteristics of contemporary DE implementation favor learner focus, individual activities, literal instruction, and low context content. These traits are well suited towards the American culture for which they were designed; yet they do not always translate well to Asian cultures or even more collectively oriented European or Latin cultures. The authors note that technology can be a cultural amplifier but that it is important not to generalize about each culture. Ideal DE designs will incorporate a variety of activities and modes that can flexibly address the needs of various cultures as well as individuals with different learning styles.

The authors describe a constructivist “Amoeba” model that has a distinct structure, but an organic ability to adapt to its surroundings. They also cite Vygotsky (1978) to remind us that knowledge is socially constructed and recommend that designers work with people from various cultures of their anticipated audience to optimize design. Of course this is not always practical or cost effective, but by keeping this in mind during the design phase, instructional designers can strive, when practical, to offer new options and perspectives to all learners, rather than forcing the "American Way" on to the rest of the world.

Gunawardena, C. N., Wilson, P. L., & Nolla, A. C. (2003). Culture and Online Education. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of Distance Education (pp. 753-775). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Mason, R. (2003). Global Education: Out of the Ivory Tower. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of Distance Education (pp. 743-752). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.


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© 2003, 2004 Susan Connell, Educational Technology Student at San Diego State University