A world of difference: the demands of global diversity

Any teacher knows that within a single class, student diversity can be vast. Globally, that picture is much the same and developers and policy makers must be equally attentive to the variety of needs presented by regional difference.


 By Alicia Mitchell


Speaking at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2012, Michael Trucano, Senior ICT and Education Policy Specialist at the World Bank, pointed out that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to education: good practice becomes best practice only when it is locally contextualised. During the conference the ONLINE EDUCA news team went in search of delegates with their own stories to tell of local challenges and local solutions.


In a country the size of China, which had a university enrolment rate of just 14% of those eligible to attend in 2002, higher education provision offers up unique obstacles. Dr. Carsten Ullrich, an associate researcher at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, described how online courses have now – ten years later – enabled over 900,000 students to enrol at 67 online colleges. These colleges offer an alternative for those who failed the notoriously difficult university entrance exam and provide remote access to the sparsely located brick-and-mortar institutions to whom they belong.


Apart from the size of the country, the Chinese education culture, based on Confucian values and intensely teacher focused, presents a particular kind of learning environment in which attempts to simply cut and paste eLearning models based upon European pedagogical theories have had little success in the country.


Passing the university entrance exam can have lifelong consequences in a country that still places a very high value on diplomas, both socially and within labour markets. Therefore, parents are rarely supportive of methods that may encourage student collaboration but provide no direct preparation for the test awaiting them.


Another issue arises as lecturers and students may be hesitant to adopt new technology into their learning environment for fear of technical failures causing loss of face – something that carries a heavy weight in Chinese culture. To combat this at SJTU, live-streamed lectures are taking place in lecture theatres and are structured just like conventional lectures, with the recording technology making as little impact on the experience of the lecturer as possible.


Mauritius offers a contrasting example of how a country’s size can impact education. In spite of having a population of less than one and a half million, the use of distance learning models in the tertiary education sector has made up for low funding and scarce facilities.


Suresh Munbodh spoke of the partnership between his private institution with India’s Sikkim Manipal University and the London School of Business and Finance. Through these partnerships, Global Learning is able to offer any of the bachelor, master and doctorate courses available at the universities, even when there is just one student interested in enrolling.


As one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, Namibia faces its own problems. Despite covering a landmass over four hundred times larger than that of Mauritius, its population is not even twice that of the tiny island. Divided into 13 regions, co-ordinating education and ICT integration efforts can prove to be an administrative headache.


Namibia will be hosting eLearning Africa 2013 and, during a session to introduce the conference, delegates were keen to share not only the successes of their nation’s efforts to transform into a knowledge based society, but its challenges and mistakes as well.


In response to the strategic issues raised by the country’s geography, Namibia’s government has initiated a variety of schemes, including decentralised financial control to allow local administrators to respond to the specific needs of their communities, school clustering to encourage inter-school technical support and skill exchange and a national education management system that links all ICT-connected schools to a central ‘cloud’, to facilitate the sharing of learning resources and experiences.


Hilya Nghiwete, Under Secretary to the Ministry of Education, pointed to some fundamental resource and infrastructure issues that have held back development in Namibia: how can the government allocate funding to ICT when there are competing issues such as text book shortages and lack of electricity supply in rural areas?


However, solutions are on hand. Wilfred Kuria, Trust Secretary at Xnet, highlighted the collaboration between Xnet, Telecom Namibia and the Ministry of Education to provide cheap and reliable internet access to all educational institutions in the country and the potential within the mobile sector. Namibia has the third cheapest mobile network service in Africa.


Speaking on behalf of the African Development Bank, Tunisian based Awuese Oku pointed out the specific challenges within Africa, particularly focusing on the obstacles caused by single-skill training, low investment and poor infrastructure. She also noted the damaging effect of political instability and disparate policy goals across African nations on attempts to bring about wide-spread change.


Despite this, Oku remained positive and emphasised the side of Africa which the wider world rarely recognises: a continent undergoing an increase in wealth, growth and optimism, where more children are attending school than ever before and where 99% of the population will have broadband access by 2060.


Whilst cultural, geographical and political diversity demand flexibility and resourcefulness in all education sectors, there are still universal truths to be remembered. Oku finished her presentation with a notion that does not stop at national borders: education and learning are not the same thing, she says, “education provides the foundations essential to successful lifelong learning. It is our responsibility to be clear in our goals for both to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has access to high-quality, locally relevant education”.


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