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Visit JD Eveland on the web

There’s a lot of interest in the potential for on-line translation as a way of overcoming some of the linguistic problems. For example, visit Babel Fish. But, of course, language is only a relatively small part of our problem here.

The various platforms all have websites:
FirstClass, Blackboard, WebCT

In case anyone doubts that international distance learning is a two-way street, check out Open University, a UK-based institution now vigorously pursuing the American educational market.

See Alliant University's current offerings.

Read a paper by Eveland, et al, on how providing help is far more an interpersonal than a technological issue.

See more on the dynamics of effective distance learning:

Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom, Palloff and Pratt, 1999.

Creating the Virtual Classroom: Distance Learning with the Internet, Porter, 1997.

Read more about implications of global distance learning:
"Global Implications of eLearning." M. Conner, LiNE Zine, Fall 2000.

Design Considerations for Distance Education in a Global Environment.” D. Demeester and K. Elander, University of Michigan Dearborn, 1999.

Distance Learning in a Digital Era.” G. Shive, Instructional Systems Design for Distance Education, 1999 International Conference.

International and Cross-Cultural Issues ” from Lucent Technologies' Center for Excellence in Distance Learning (CEDL) Learning Works, 1994.

Principles and Practices of International Distance Education” from Global Distance Education Initiative, Information Bulletin 13, May 1998.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, “All happy programs are happy alike, all unhappy programs are unhappy in their own way.” Learning from others’ errors is usually problematic; since no one’s situation is ever just like ours. A principle of learning theory, however, is that we only discover new ways of doing things when the old ones don’t work. So, often, we can extract useful lessons and principles from situations that appear to be programmatic failures. Here’s what I learned about designing effective elearning in programs of international education. I learned most of these lessons by hard example—trying things that didn’t work, doing too little too late, failing to find the right touch.

We had few models to draw on when we began to design our program. Many of the problems occurred because we misapplied ideas that tended to work in the domestic context, but simply weren’t applicable in the transnational situation. But some effective principles can be deduced here. These aren’t sure-fire, “do-this-and-you’ll-be-a-success” tips for software creation or even educational content. Rather, they’re some issues to consider as you begin to see where elearning for learners in other countries fits into your overall strategy.

Different Strokes

The most basic principle is that elearning tools developed in the U.S. cannot automatically be used by learners in other countries without considering a number of cultural and technical issues. The technology that’s so easy and natural for us developers to wrap our hands and brains around is not nearly as accessible to non-technical learners in other countries. We can do a number of things to make the transition better—that’s what this article is about.

What led me to these conclusions? In the fall of 1995, I was part of the group at the California School of Professional Psychology-Los Angeles (since summer 2000 a part of the new Alliant University) that created a new Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) program in management, explicitly targeted at learners from East Asia (specifically Thailand and Taiwan). The program was designed in executive format with conventional classes meeting twice a year for three-week sessions (one week per class) for three years—18 total formal courses. We adapted the course load with some changes from the existing Ph.D. program in organizational psychology. Learners were to be recruited by the California Management Institute, a private consulting group with extensive Asian contacts. The reasons for creating the program were, at best, ambiguous. Its relationship to the existing capabilities of the school was unclear, and no doubt the vision of a positive cash flow fueled by the “Asian Tigers” played a major part in its inspiration. The vision of “globalization” so widely preached in the business world today is widely appealing in education—the more so as schools feel themselves increasingly subject to market pressures.

A major guiding premise of the Psy.D. program was that its continuity and connectivity between the twice-yearly conventional academic sessions could be maintained by information technology—specifically, email, discussion boards, and related Internet features. We designed two particular areas to rely almost entirely on remote interactions—a six-unit “Professional Issues” class to be conducted on-line between Modules 1-2, 2-3, and 3-4 through group discussions, and mentoring toward the completion of the doctoral project. Although relatively small, the distance learning component was, in fact, seen as the essential glue that would keep learners involved and provide the major value-added over conventional residential academic programs.

In fact, the program failed to attract enough learners, and did not provide an effective educational experience, particularly the distance learning component, for those who did enroll (it has since been suspended). The rest of this discussion is my own attempt, speaking as a Professor in the Program and its Director of Information Technology, to draw some conclusions from this discouraging tale. I hope it might help others interested in distance learning in the international educational market to avoid making some of our mistakes.

So what did we learn?

1. Make sure that you’re selling something that people know and want. In this case, the Psy.D. degree is an American innovation, almost unknown in East Asia. It proved a hard sell, particularly in a tough economic market. The curriculum had a number of interesting and relevant courses, such as Family Business, Innovation, and Global Perspectives, but also a number of traditional management courses only vaguely adapted to the international context. The package was ill defined and poorly integrated, and its value to prospective learners often unclear. Clearly it’s not enough to sell the title “Doctor.” You have to deliver solid value beyond that, and be able to define it clearly.

2. Have an information infrastructure adequate to support your planned delivery system. It may be hard for wired readers to believe, but when we committed to this program with its substantial on-line components, the faculty were barely connected to the Internet, and there was almost no effective information available as to how learners in Thailand and Taiwan could make connections. We only had basic email, and less than half the program faculty used it. After the program began, we discovered a basic threaded-discussion bulletin board system provided as a weekly supported utility by the private Internet Service Provider (ISP) that hosted our initial website. Configuring the system was technically easy; explaining a bulletin board to those who had never seen one was far more complicated. Since I’d been using bulletin boards for over 10 years, I found it hard to understand how this tool wasn’t self-evidently useful and easy to use. But it wasn’t.

Since then, a number of new resources have come on the scene. In particular, integrated suites of on-line applications such as Blackboard, WebCT, and FirstClass all offer readily configurable on-line environments. In fact, for its last year our program used Blackboard, with reasonable success. The technology, which functioned with a high degree of reliability, did not impose limitations on its effectiveness. Rather, the limitations arose as a function of the other factors discussed here. Blackboard has a good discussion group utility—but it still requires that learners understand what a discussion group is and how it works. No single technological solution can resolve the cultural context issues at a stroke.

3. Understand the importance of dropping into the middle of a very complex cultural context. Much of international education assumes that learners are removed from their own context and required to operate in yours. In conventional educational exchange, this is true, and in fact is part of the charm of the process. Immersion has much value; that’s why we do “junior year abroad.” But in the distance elearning environment, learners are explicitly not in my world but in theirs, with all its reinforcing cues. I didn’t have the power of the group to help me change their behavior—I only had what I could present in the information environment. It’s also important to realize that Thailand is not Taiwan, and that Asian men often see things differently than Asian women. Also, a host of micro-cultural issues can conveniently be ignored when they’re in Los Angeles, but not when they’re in Chiang Mai or Nantou.

4. Make sure you have a culturally appropriate training strategy. This involves a clear appreciation of both where your participants are and where you need them to be. It’s one thing to set up a discussion board, another to tell anyone how to log onto it, let alone do it well. Learning the logic of threaded discussions isn’t an automatic, probably not even an easy, proposition—particularly for those with no prior experience, which included all but two of the Asian learners and all but one of the faculty (me). I developed a detailed guide about how to register and post messages and responses, but the pace with which people caught on to how it was done varied greatly. Interestingly, experience with AOL-type chat proved to be less helpful than one might think in learning how threaded discussions work. The first two cohorts of learners had little opportunity for hands-on training. When I could spend some program time in experiential training with the third cohort, participation improved. Self-teaching, even coached and help-supported self-teaching, is very difficult in this environment, since one is simultaneously learning both an interface and a logic of discussion.

5. Understand that the Internet does not make distance disappear. Being on the other end of an email link or part of a threaded discussion is only slightly like being on the other side of a desk or in a classroom. Electronic media, no matter how augmented, remain remarkably lean when compared to face-to-face interactions. If this is difficult enough to manage in the domestic context, it is far more critical in the international setting, where managing cultural cues is already complicated. This issue is most critical when it comes to helping learners (and faculty, for that part) to use the technology effectively. Effective help is, as I have written about elsewhere, a highly personal relationship, and very difficult to exercise at a distance.

My biggest frustration in our program was my inability to extend a helping hand to the learners as they attempted to crawl into cyberspace. Ten thousand intervening miles are a real barrier, and the well-meaning partners in Taipei and Bangkok were only vaguely attuned to the importance that we attached to the Internet part of the program. The local training that was supposed to occur simply never happened. So the system consisted of almost nothing but weak links. Technology is never self-implementing.

6. Remember, incentives matter. Prospective beneficiaries almost always resist educational change. The more different the experience is from what learners consider “normal,” and the more “optional” the activity seems to be, the more likely incentives will be needed to get folks on board. Particularly for Asian learners, “normal” means a highly structured and hierarchical classroom with faculty lecturing and very limited student participation. That is, of course, almost exactly the opposite of the experience encouraged by the Internet. In this case, the incentive included the need to “participate” in the Professional Issues discussion board at least 18 times over the six-month intersession. In fact, virtually all activity took place in the month before the end of the intersession when we reminded the learners that if they didn’t post, they wouldn’t be able to get on with their doctoral projects. The incentive worked; whether the educational objectives were in fact achieved is debatable. But something had to be done.

7. Technology often presents a barrier. In the case of the Asian learners, as in many status-conscious societies, keyboard phobia remains a fact. Also, internet service provides in East Asia have not always achieved that degree of reliability we generally take for granted in the U.S. Accordingly, we allowed learners to access the discussion board in various ways, including having their secretaries handle the actual keyboarding, allowing staff to handle their inputs, and allowing input by mail or fax. While this undoubtedly sabotaged the actual experience, it seemed to be more important to encourage participation than to insist on some version of technical purity. Whether it was worth the compromise seems debatable.

8. Most importantly, keep things moving! The single biggest disincentive to participation in an ongoing on-line educational process is logging on to find your email hasn’t been answered, or there’s nothing new in the discussion group. This is characteristic of all on-line education, but particularly vital when you’re dealing with a population of folks who don’t have a strong internal motivation to log on, and who have a cultural predisposition to wait for the professor to take the initiative. Responsibility to make the dialogue work ultimately rests with the faculty, and can’t be downloaded to the learners.

Some conclusions

What’s the bottom line? No one will probably make all the mistakes we made in our program when they undertake an internationally focused distance learning effort. Many of these mistakes, however, are easy to fall into. They’re not so easy to resolve—few if any generic solutions exist, particularly not technological ones. No software will resolve the design concerns outlined here. Rather, what you need is a careful appreciation of the cultural context into which you’re inserting your material, a respect for the individuals in that context and a recognition that you’re only intervening in a tiny part of their lives. This places the burden of the exchange on you as designer/instructor.

The biggest single design consideration remains—you have none of the multiple social cues available with international learners that you have in the U.S. You need a careful reading of the culture, and recognition of the severe limits on the ability of information technology to cross boundaries. This recognition will go a long way toward enabling you to create a mutually satisfying educational experience for all.

JD Eveland is a consultant on applied behavioral sciences. He has worked in education, government, and business and would welcome a chance to share some ideas about what's going on where you work. Contact him directly at jde@jdeveland.com or visit him on the web at http://www.jdeveland.com.

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