GLOBAL: The challenges of global online education

A college education is more important than ever before. Globally, more jobs require higher education qualifications as our global economy becomes knowledge-based. Those jobs provide higher wages and better benefits and, in turn, the increased productivity of educated employees contributes to a healthier economy.

More than 97% of future population growth will be in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean. Accordingly, the workforce will be increasingly diverse and mobile, and it will include more women. But most people, in particular in developing countries, still lack access to educational opportunities, either because these opportunities are not available or because they are not affordable.

Online education presents unique opportunities to overcome these issues of access. Education can be available at any location with an internet connection and computer. Courses are more affordable without the additional costs needed to maintain a traditional university. The greater convenience of online courses makes education available even to people who are working and supporting their families.

There is great potential to educate millions of people, improve their lives and strengthen the global economy.

Even online education presents challenges, however, and overcoming those challenges arising from cultural differences was the topic of a panel presentation, "Innovations in Digital Didactics: Bridging the cultural divide", at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha, Qatar, held from 1-3 November.

Drawing from different experiences in the United States, Mexico, China, Spain, Slovakia and Saudi Arabia, the panelists presented some common elements of successful cases of online programmes primarily related to working adults. These include:

  • • A standardised curriculum based on learning outcomes.
  • • Faculty orientation and training as standard practices.
  • • A strong academic and student support system whereby students receive active attention and support as they progress through their programmes of study.

    There are some contextual challenges - including cultural misunderstandings - that arise now that online education connects instructors and students from all around the world and from very different cultures. In developing countries one is likely to find one or more of the following conditions:

  • • Varying learning styles. For example, students tend to be less active learners than in developed countries.
  • • Different academic standards. For example, using another's work may be plagiarism in one culture but accepted practice in another.
  • • A preference for some degree of face-to-face interaction with faculty; that is, students prefer to have some interaction before and-or during the course being delivered rather than no interaction.
  • • Local relevance. For example, students welcome local examples or case studies that they can relate to, thereby developing a global perspective that has local relevance.
  • • Cultural and language differences. These can sometimes lead to confusion or offence.
  • • Different cultures. Faculty need to be sensitised and have some degree of acculturation regarding context as hierarchies play out differently in a developing versus developed countries.
  • • Perceptions of online education. There is also an underlying perception that an online education, unless it is from a well-known institution, is of poorer quality.

    Overall, the panelists agreed that academic programmes delivered at least partially online represent an area of opportunity to extend higher education access to unmet and under-served populations (for instance, working adults, rural or marginal populations etc.).

    In addition, as the digital generation progresses, there will be a challenge and a need for colleges and universities to integrate online learning into the mainstream of academic programmes as students will expect technology to be woven into what they experience in school.

    * This article was written by members of the International Association of University Presidents panel on "Innovations in Digital Didactics" at the WISE conference: Dr Hamid Shirvani (California State University, Stanislaus), Dr Jason Scorza (Fairleigh Dickinson University), Dr Khalid Alkhathlan (King Saud University, Saudi Arabia) and Dr Fernando León García (CETYS University, Mexico).