Education in Context: A Few More Good Picks

by EdContexts Facilitators

In response to the often grandiose and paradoxical claims made by MOOC providers and professors, educators around the world have brought up critical issues about education across borders. An issue that has become more pronounced in the discourse of cross-border higher education is that MOOCs are making education more “democratic” while in fact they are further re-centralizing it and eschewing collaboration among educators across nations and contexts. Indeed, a lot of the educators who decided to enter cross-border higher education from the fancy door of xMOOCs often show striking lack of knowledge, experience, or even interest about the implications of teaching/learning crossing borders. Many professors, usually in the Western world, show up in the new landscape without having thought about complexities of cross-contextual pedagogy, diversity and cultural difference, and the many vagaries of contexts on a global scale.

However, the discourse about MOOCs and cross-border higher education, including in the mainstream media, we’ve come across a lot of conversations that add nuance to the issue of context in education.

As facilitators of EdConteXts, we tend to notice when others speak about context in sensitive and thoughtful ways. This post includes a few more of our favorite “picks” as a follow up of a post from last month.

We have shared among ourselves the writings of academic bloggers and reporters in academic media (such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed) who started paying attention to context and issues of power, politics, and culture early on. Journalist Ry Rivard, of Inside Higher Ed, is one of the writers who has done a great job of highlighting a range of critical issues and perspectives since when MOOCs started making the most concerted effort for going global in 2013. In an article titled”The World is Not Flat,” Rivard wrote:

While MOOC providers regularly cite compelling examples and testimonials from students in far-flung locations who have benefited from their courses, examples of possible endemic disconnects span the world: from educators in Africa who prefer to create their own content rather than rely on exports from the United States to American Indians who, even within the United States, lack access to the reliable Internet connection necessary to enroll in online courses.

In another major publication, Chronicle of Higher Education, writers like Jeffrey Young have done justice to the topic as well. Some time ago, Young reported about an international conference on distance education held at MIT, he covered a few important issues about the complexity of context and culture in higher education. Drawing attention to what participants from the global peripheries said at the meeting, he wrote:

One key takeaway from the event, though, was that virtual universities in other countries have no plans to add lectures from famous professors at MIT or otherAmerican colleges to their own online institutions.

In fact, The Chronicle has a dedicated section called the WorldWise where writers like Ian Wilhelm and academic researchers like Jason Lane and Kevin Kinsser write about very specific issues of education on the ground around the world.

Similarly, journalist Charlotte Gunawardena of The Guardian wrote earlier this year on the subject, cautioning that “students in the global south are wary of a ‘sage on the stage.’ And “unless universities adapt the curriculum to suit the needs of students in emerging economies, free online courses will have no relevance.” Viewing MOOCs from the perspectives of students from the global south (note the theoretical term), she rhetorically asked: “Why are these courses – which are labelled “open” and offer to take an unlimited number of students – not reaching the majority of learners in the global south?” She highlighted a few practical issues – “both physical access to the internet and proficiency in digital literacy” and also “curriculum design” as potential barriers to learning. She cited professor José Dutra de Oliveira Neto from Sao Paolo, who said that in spite of all the arguments about increasing access among proponents of MOOCs, “they did not ask us what we want.” Gunawardena concluded:

Moocs will be of value to learners in the global south only if they fit the learner’s own context and are based on the premise that it’s not just elite universities that have knowledge and skills to share.

Thus, while transnational higher education is indeed presented as a one-way traffic of “quality” educational materials from global centers to the peripheries and many in the mainstream, there is no dearth of critical voices in the mainstream itself.

Beyond venues like the above, there are a lot of academic blogs where the issues about context are brought to the fore. Academic bloggers like John Mak (especially in this post) have extensively discussed top-down and local issues regarding emerging modes of transnational higher education. Mak states: “The challenges ahead go deeper than what MOOCs are addressing, when viewed from a global perspective, unveiled by the various professors  in these global stories” (this page presents a great list of scholars on the global periphery who work in the area of international and local online education).

There is also now an increasing amount of academic scholarship on the subject. For instance, in an article on the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Brazilian scholar Tel Amiel discussed (in March 2013) the subject of “remix” of open educational resources. Distinguishing between “reusing” and “remixing” (or adapting to local contexts), he highlighted the difficulty of simply repeating or reusing educational resources created for or in one place at another. “Choosing design-as-remix raised a series of concerns related to licensing, attribution, context, and technical standards,” he said, later adding that there are many “concerns related to culture and inequity within the OER movement.” He said that “Every time a unique group with unique characteristics is assembled in a learning situation revision takes place though one might not recognize this practice,” further adding that “once a resource travels from its initial design context, “reuse” necessarily implies “revision.”

The emergence of academic scholarship that explicitly focuses on issues of context is effectively demonstrated by the publication, last month, of a special issue of the Journal of Global Literacies, Technologies, and Emerging Pedagogies that I had the privilege of guest editing along with another State University of New York colleague. The issue features seven highly context-responsive academic articles along with an observation piece by Maha Bali (another EdConteXts facilitator) and two narratives, including one by Tanya Lau (also one of us).

Please share your favorite works or sites in the comments section.

—selections by Shyam Sharma, New York, USA (and Kathmandu, Nepal)

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