Bringing the World to Higher Education

President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC) delivered this keynote address, titled “Bringing the World to Higher Education” and delivered in International Association of Science and Technology for Development (IASTED), WBE 2008 Conference. Innsbruck, Austria. The Keynote was delivered by President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland, University College.

I can’t think of any better way to begin than with the words of former U. N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who wrote in 1999:

“….education is an essential human right, a force for social change — and the single most vital element in combating poverty, empowering women, safeguarding children from….hazardous labor and sexual exploitation, promoting human rights and democracy, protecting the environment, and controlling population growth. Education is a path toward international peace and security. Yet 130 million children in the developing world are denied this right…almost two thirds of them girls. Nearly 1 billion people are illiterate…the majority of them women.”

Eloquent words, at a time in our history when the global race for knowledge has become more critical than ever. In fact, in his book The World is Flat, Tom Friedman contends that we are in the grips of what he calls a “soft revolution,” in which knowledge has become the main driver of economic growth. And we would all agree that higher education provides an extraordinary venue for creating and disseminating this knowledge. Yet as important as higher education has become to global development and prosperity, the worldwide demand for quality academic programs still far exceeds the supply. So it comes as no surprise that Web-based learning technologies are quickly becoming essential to the big picture…..by transcending national boundaries to link millions of learners around the globe across time, space, and cultural experience.
 
Literally as I speak, nearly one-fifth — or more than one billion — of the world’s
citizens claim access to the Internet And while we still see the highest penetration
among “developed” nations in North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim, we are
also witnessing a steady rise in access among some of the lesser developed
countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

As such, e-learning is beginning to take the higher education market by storm,
providing greatly expanded access to lifelong learning, while at the same time
promoting cross-cultural exposure and awareness, both of which are vital in
building a robust and sustainable global economy. We might even say that these
technologies are literally bringing the world to higher education, by transforming
the very architecture of university life.

It will also need to facilitate a vibrant learning community; connecting broadly
dispersed students and faculty from a myriad of cultural and linguistic traditions;
political and socio-economic perspectives. Or as Luc Weber and James Duderstadt
has proposed, it must not only be a university in the world, but also of the world,
aligning scholarship, teaching, and service more closely with the needs of the
emerging global landscape and all of its people.

So in exploring ways to create this community, we must continue to look closely at
who is shaping the e-learning environment, and to what ends. Will it meet the
needs of all people, while at the same time adhering closely to rigorous standards
for academic freedom and quality? And will it prepare students to become good
global citizens and workers?

For the most part, the “offshore” higher education movement is a North to South
initiative, so to speak….or one in which countries in the more industrialized
northern hemisphere have begun to export their academic offerings to countries in
the less developed southern hemisphere.

Not surprisingly, this movement has attracted its fair share of for-profit ventures.
Institutions that are not really universities in the traditional sense; given that they
do not employ regular faculty, conduct research of any kind; or promote a
participatory governance system. As such, their primary focus is the stockholder,
rather than the student.

By contrast, there are a number of public and non-profit universities — such as my
own University of Maryland University College — for which the international
education market is essential to fulfilling both their institutional mission and their
long-term vision as truly global communities of scholars. With that in mind, they actively recruit a more international faculty and student body, and emphasize a more intercultural curriculum.

For many of these universities, e-learning has opened the door to opportunity in
terms of expanded access and affordability, while also unleashing unlimited
potential for global collaboration. At the very least, it promotes cooperative
academic ventures with other universities and nations around the world. Even
more importantly, however, students in Ghana, Sweden, and Russia may actually
reach across borders to create and exchange knowledge with classmates in
Thailand, Guatemala, and the United States.

Yet in developing only the most effective and empowering e-learning
environments and technologies, we must construct shared learning spaces that
foster individual success, despite sometimes vast differences in cultural, linguistic,
and geopolitical experience.

We will also need to bridge the gap between what our students see on the screen
and the services they must have to use it more successfully. Services such as
online library and information resources; tutoring and mentoring; career guidance
and professional networking.

In addition, we will have to come up with innovative solutions for expanding
access to distance technologies among developing countries, while at the same
time ensuring that these technologies are affordable and reliable.

And given the rapid emergence of so-called borderless education, we should also
establish transnational academic quality standards that discourage the mass
production and export of higher education, as a profit-making venture.

As online educators, developers, and designers, tasked with creating these global
learning opportunities, it is essential for us to understand first how our students
learn and then how to best use Web-based education for enhancing that process.
Research points to three basic learning preferences for acquiring and applying
knowledge: learning by being shown….by being told….and by doing. That said,
learning is not a spectator sport, but rather a process that involves some degree of
interactivity — with instructors, with other students, and with the subject matter
itself. What’s more, the extent to which we must interact varies from one cultural
tradition to another.

While most of this research has been conducted in the more traditional face to face
learning environment, we are now beginning to collect similar data among e-learners, which clearly shows that when properly designed the virtual classroom
can support and indeed enhance individual learning preferences.
Unfortunately, however, these studies have been, for the most part, national in
scope, and therefore limited to e-learners who are culturally and linguistically
homogeneous. But the truly global e-learning environment will be made up of
learners who come from a variety of cultural traditions, and speak a number of
different languages. So it’s critical to design virtual classrooms and programs with
diversity in mind…..from the social context we create, to the technologies we
employ, to the content we provide. And I would suggest that in doing so, we
follow three guiding principles….

First and perhaps most importantly, shared online learning spaces should be
culturally sensitive to promote academic success for all, by not only honoring, but
also accommodating the different cultural and linguistic traditions of their students.
We will also need to choose e-learning technologies and delivery systems that are
highly interactive; easily scalable; and exquisitely simple to use. In addition, they
must be configured for multiple purposes…allowing students to access virtual
support services as effortlessly as they log in to online classrooms.
And finally, we must make every effort to sustain only the highest academic
quality by providing a forum that supports academic freedom…..encourages
collaborative problem-solving….and establishes clearly articulated standards of
excellence.

In creating culturally sensitive e-learning environments, we might begin by
exploring the inherent differences in learning and communication styles between
individualistic and communal cultures, all of which have an enormous impact on
academic success.

Students who come from individualistic societies — such as in the United States
and Western Europe — focus more on competition and individual achievement;
are more visual than oral; and tend toward self-paced learning, with the teacher as
“guide to the side.” They also consider themselves to be innovative and
independent thinkers, who are not afraid to take issue with popular opinion.
Having nearly unlimited access to digital technology in all of its many forms, these
learners have come to view it as an essential part of everyday life. Many even
enjoy the somewhat faceless nature of online communication — often preferring to
interact more with the medium than with the messenger. Consequently, they have
become increasingly masterful at creating and using visual content in an
asynchronous environment.

Needless to say then, e-learning is more or less “made to order” for them — which
explains its rapidly growing popularity among American and European university
students, who have come to expect some form of it at even the most prestigious
research universities.

On the other hand, students who have grown up in communal cultures — such as
those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America — seek cooperation and consensus
through group affiliation, while also viewing the teacher as the expert, delivering
lectures and providing tutorials. And given that community is at the heart of
everything they do, these students will often suppress independent thought and
action to defer to the professor.

Having come from oral traditions, they are usually great storytellers….who learn
best by discussion and debate, and sometimes become confused and anxious when
“talking into” the “great beyond” we know as cyberspace. They are also far less
likely to have technology at their fingertips — perhaps with the exception of cell
phones — often relying on schools and cyber cafes for computer access.

As such, students who view the world through this cultural lens are not always as
successful in a virtual learning environment —- especially one that is
predominantly asynchronous….or in which the instructor is more facilitative than
directive. For example, African students often view the web-based classroom as
merely words and symbols on the screen, without anyone on the other side to invite
them in. Similarly, Japanese students find it difficult to engage in online learning
without an initial face to face meeting to establish a trust relationship with the
online educator.

So how can we use our online “toolbox” to create an effective and empowering e-learning environment that adequately respects and accommodates these
fundamental cultural differences?

If we acknowledge that online classrooms should indeed be active learning
communities in which instructors and students share ideas, information, and
opinions….then any good design must begin with an eye toward something social
psychologists refer to as social presence….or the feeling of connectedness to
others. So in creating this connectedness, we will need to provide plenty of
opportunities for online learners and instructors to interact effectively, either one-on-one or in a group.

For starters, we must incorporate a variety of interactive online tools chosen to
promote both intimacy and immediacy, while at the same time supporting effective
content and providing a sense of privacy for students who do not feel comfortable
sharing their ideas with others. That said, we might integrate an assortment of technologies like discussion boards; chat rooms; streamlining audio and video; and
email….into a learning environment that allows for both asynchronous and real-time communication.

Now as complicated and costly as these accommodations may sound, they can
actually be quite easy and affordable to make. In fact, with a little ingenuity and
flexible, off-the-shelf technologies, distance providers are taking Web-based
education to new heights. Let’s look at Australia’s Victoria University, for
example.

In order to deliver high-quality and affordable e-learning hospitality and marketing
programs, across 13 campuses on two continents, the university chose a Webbased
multimedia solution that was both cost-effective and easy to use. Building
off of a WebCT online classroom management system, designers successfully
integrated several off-the-shelf Microsoft® applications to incorporate video, audio,
still graphics, and text into the multimedia teaching package. And the results thus
far have been extremely promising, as teachers become more creative and students,
more successful.

Non-verbal social cues — such as body language and facial expression — also
facilitate social presence among diverse students, by underscoring important
emotions and values throughout the learning exchange. Yet in a predominantly
text-based online classroom, these cues are lost in cyberspace. Consequently, we
have begun to simulate them with emoticons….or typewritten facial expressions
such as the ever-popular smiley face that often appears somewhere in our personal
email. Online paralanguage allows us the same flexibility by using capitalization,
font size, exclamation points, and colloquial expressions to convey conversational
meaning.

Effective e-learning environments also make use of proven social networking
strategies to establish common ground among students of all cultural, national, and
linguistic backgrounds. For instance, with careful selection, we can create cohorts
of diverse students who have compatible learning preferences or similar academic
interests.

And online communities of practice organized around research specialties or
professional affiliations can actually transcend cultural differences by encouraging
their members to create new knowledge, share best practices, and engage in
cooperative problem-solving around such global challenges as poverty,
environmental degradation, and social injustice.

And finally, we should make every effort to localize the online classroom wherever
feasible. By replacing standard icons and menus with locally familiar words and symbols, the e-classroom designer can align the virtual environment more closely
with a student’s physical world. Even such basic design elements as screen colors
are subject to different cultural interpretations.

Local language is yet another important consideration in developing effective and
culturally sensitive online classrooms. Native language is both a fundamental
source of national pride and identity, as well as a significant variable when it
comes to student access, performance, and participation.

And while English is the official language of most Internet sites and online
academic offerings, it is at best a second language for more than 90% of the
world’s population. Consequently, the degree to which online students are fluent
in English has a tremendous impact on their reading speeds, the quality of their
written assignments, and their ability to interact with instructors and other students.
So in creating a truly global distance learning environment, we must accommodate
for different linguistic backgrounds and proficiencies. For instance, we might use
English for joint student activities, while providing directions, followup, and
research materials in the local language of choice.

Undoubtedly, many of you are now wondering how even the most well-endowed
universities can afford to enter the multinational Web-based education market. But
there are more than a few global e-learning ventures that have resulted in
maximum student performance with minimal up-front cost. Speak2Me is one such
outstanding example.

Created by the Ladder Publishing Company in Taipei, this unique Web-based
program cost only $50,000 US dollars to design, develop, and implement. And the
return on investment has thus far been enormous.

Using a real-time audio chat platform, with asynchronous text messaging
capabilities, American instructors teach conversational English to learners in
Taiwan. Bilingual Taiwanese instructional assistants are also on hand to translate
and clarify, as needed.

The program was designed to provide non-native learners with plenty of informal
opportunities to speak English while sharing personal stories, talking about world
affairs, and exchanging practical information. What’s more, its text messaging
function encourages learners to write in English, using a variety of groupgenerated
and locally customized emoticons to convey emotional context.

But even more important, this website facilitates a robust, intercultural community
of practice, which allows both teachers and learners to share effective learning strategies; explore diverse cultural traditions; and develop close friendships from
literally thousands of miles away.

Distance learning technology itself poses a significant challenge in creating virtual
campuses that are accessible to a broad global cross-section of students. Although
the industrialized world is rapidly closing the so-called digital divide, it is still a
reality among developing countries, where the rate of technology transfer is slow
and e-learners face a host of user problems, from outdated hardware and limited
bandwidth to technophobia and computer illiteracy.

To learn successfully online, students must be able to navigate comfortably from
one virtual room to another; participate in threaded group discussions; and
efficiently search the Internet. Needless to say, all of these activities require
adequate bandwidth, as well as a certain level of comfort with the delivery system,
both of which are still lagging well behind the curve in many lesser developed
parts of the world. Even such basic necessities as electrical power and landline
telephone service are inconsistent at best in some of the more remote areas.
Still when the technology is available, potential learners must be willing and
motivated to use it, which is often a function of cultural norms and traditions. For
instance, email communication in Japan and Korea is common among peers, but
not for superior-subordinate relationships, such as that between teachers and
students there.

So in designing effective and affordable e-learning course delivery systems that are
both easy to use and easy to access, the rule of thumb should always be keep it
simple. My own university is a good case in point.

As one of the very first universities to fully embrace the concept of distance
education, UMUC launched its virtual campus back in the early ‘90s. We charted
our course for online development with the idea that it would enhance rather than
replace the more traditional face to face model, using academic quality and student
service as our benchmarks. What’s more, we wanted to offer the same rigorous
academic curriculum both online and onsite, and to train faculty and students alike
in moving easily between the two modalities.

In assessing students’ needs, the university decided to go with a highly interactive,
asynchronous design, which could also support real-time communication. Rather
than use an off-the-shelf course management system, we developed our own
proprietary platform, which was more expensive on the front end, but offered far
greater flexibility for the future. Most importantly, however, we chose technology
that, at the time, was considered extremely “vanilla.” By that I mean technology
that was extremely simple to use — with no fancy features.
And while others on the outside scoffed at the time, this decision has proven to be
the key to our success in the long run. WebTycho as it’s called (named after the
Danish astronomer) is a largely invisible platform, which doesn’t get in the way of
the learning process. Besides being user-friendly and reliable, this system is highly
scaleable — a feature that has enabled us to rapidly grow our enrollments, while
also meeting the diverse learning needs and cultural traditions of both students and
instructors, with little or no resistance at either end.

WebTycho is also designed to the lowest common denominator. So it
accommodates variable bandwidth and interface capabilities, making it relatively
easy to access from anywhere at anytime around the world. But even more
important, UMUC’s system is designed to achieve multiple purposes, in that it
provides access to both a vast array of online courses and a wealth of virtual
student support services. Which brings me to yet another point – the challenge of
providing these services.

“Going online” is about more than just choosing technologies and developing
courseware. The real challenge is to wrap the system in a fully inclusive package
of support services for both students and faculty…and at UMUC, we met this
challenge by framing it as a front-end system design issue.

An interactive, around-the-clock “help desk” was among the first design priorities,
using a variety of online communication capabilities, as well as a 24-hour
telephone number to call in the event of trouble with the technology. Likewise, we
provided the same continuous service for information resources, with 24-hour
electronic access to a wealth of library materials, as well as an integrated search
feature for online databases and reserves. This virtual library has proven especially
important for UMUC students who live in remote locations around the world,
where good libraries and book stores are few and very far between.

Over the years, the university has gradually added administrative functions like
class registration and tuition payment, along with mandatory training for students
and faculty in online learning and teaching.

And inasmuch as feeling connected to a university community is an important part
of any learning experience, UMUC’s Student Success Center links students with
mentors, tutors, writing assistance, and study skills support. They may also join
online clubs and honor societies, and communicate from a distance with experts
and future colleagues in their field of study.

And finally, in keeping with the university’s longstanding commitment to provide
only the highest quality academic programs, we have also integrated an online assessment tool with which to measure their impact. In fact, UMUC is now
tracking outcomes among tens of thousands of students, across three continents, in
10 core learning areas.

Of course, the challenge still remains for us as distance innovators to cultivate a
global system of higher education that actually balances excellence with unfettered
access. So we must develop the means by which universities around the world
may participate, while at the same time maintaining a high degree of quality
control over the educational programs they offer.

That will mean resisting attempts to sell knowledge across borders with little or no
mutual exchange of research, ideas, students, and faculty. It will also necessitate
collaborative efforts to develop and implement transnational quality standards that
regulate what we teach, how we teach it, and how we assess what our students
have learned.

But this is certainly not an easy process when it comes to Web-based education.
Custom, law, language, cost, and demand from one country to the next make it
difficult to negotiate, much less enforce these standards. What’s more, the criteria
for professional qualifications vary greatly, with e-students often facing transfer
credit obstacles, and countries sometimes refusing to recognize foreign educational
credentials.

Foreign currency controls and telecommunications oversight also create
complications, at times restricting second country education providers from
investing in or implementing more highly stable and accessible distance
technologies. And even with international agreements governing intellectual
property rights, there are still some countries who disregard them altogether.

One of the more controversial developments involves the World Trade
Organization’s General Agreement on Trade and Services — or GATS — which
recognizes education as a tradeable commodity. In fact, universities and student
groups around the world have mobilized to protest this agreement, underscoring
the opportunity it affords unaccredited, for-profit, providers to capitalize on
substandard academic offerings and professional training programs.

In an effort to broker the quality standards deal, the United Nations Educational,
Scientific, and Cultural Organization — or UNESCO — stepped in to establish the
Global Forum on International Quality Assurance, Accreditation, and the
Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education. Having recently held its third
successful conference in Tanzania, this multinational group is creating a
framework for international quality standards, along with a code of good practice
for higher education providers, regardless of their method of program delivery.
And in honoring its commitment to promote democracy through education,
UNESCO has also endorsed the use of Open Educational Resources — or OER —
which offer open and free access to high-quality digitized learning and teaching
materials for students and educators. These resources can include courseware,
learning objects, teacher training aides, and student assessment tools. What’s
more, they are created and maintained by highly reputable universities and learning
organizations located around the world.

Cooperative articulation agreements between universities in different countries are
yet another way to ensure quality e-learning programs that meet specific
accreditation and qualifications standards, as well as global workforce needs in
both nations. My own university now has 10 such agreements with institutions of
higher education in Europe and Asia.

Perhaps one of the most successful of these relationships has been with the Carl
von Ossietsky University of Oldenburg — a leading German institution with
extensive experience in distance education. Under this agreement, Oldenburg
contributes a certificate and several courses to UMUC’s popular online Master of
Distance Education (MDE) degree program, thus ensuring the broad global
perspective that is so critical for today’s Web-based education programs.

In light of what we know, I believe it’s safe to say that the borderless education
market will continue to grow exponentially over the next decade or
two….especially given the rapid development and diffusion of technology, along
with the rising need for knowledge leaders and skilled workers in today’s global
economy. In fact, Merrill Lynch, a U.S. based investment bank, predicts that
today’s 80 million students worldwide will have doubled by the year 2025. And
inasmuch as online delivery can greatly expand the current supply of quality higher
education, we must continue to push forward with this new paradigm for global
learning.

So how can do we, as global e-campus designers and educators achieve this shift,
given its inherent challenges? I would suggest we begin by undertaking three
strategic initiatives:

First, we must greatly expand our body of knowledge, by collectively researching,
evaluating, and sharing promising WBE practices and innovative online delivery
strategies, particularly around diverse learning styles, cross-cultural education, and
student support systems.

We will also need to champion technology transfer around the globe, while at the
same time advocating for stepped-up international development of user-friendly, multi-purpose online delivery technologies that are highly reliable, scalable, and,
above all, accessible.

And finally we must continue to promote transnational academic quality standards,
by supporting worldwide member organizations like UNESCO. In the same vein,
we should encourage multinational distance education collaboratives among
universities and other learning organizations. These collaboratives will, above all,
need to clearly articulate a mutual mission and purpose, along with consistent
standards of excellence…..while also pooling resources to develop global learning
communities that empower and inspire.

By taking these steps, I believe that we can indeed bring the world to higher
education….creating a learning environment that is not only of the highest
scholastic and intellectual quality, but also extremely responsive to the needs of all
of the world’s citizens.