Global learning, local colour

Ardrishaig – not a pâtisserie in sight

My father remembers exactly the point when his language education failed. He went to school in Ardrishaig, a windy, rainy fishing village on the west coast of Scotland, two sea-lochs and some grey-green hills away from Glasgow. It was around the third lesson, and the class had just been confronted with the word croissant. “Someone had decided we should learn French,” he says. “But we came across ‘croissant’ and just couldn’t get our heads round it. None of us had ever seen a croissant. The teacher could barely describe a croissant. Of course we were baffled. Why, we thought, did this textbook want us to imagine people sitting in cafés miles away eating pointy cakes we’d never heard of? We should have been learning Norwegian – at least we all knew what a herring was.”


By Alasdair MacKinnon


The problem my father and his fellow pupils faced was not one of cultural distance – not, that is, the irrelevance of French to children growing up over a thousand kilometres north of Paris. The problem lay in the dislocation between the central authorities and the schools. While government bodies’ language-teaching policies ensured an education in French for all school pupils across the United Kingdom, they failed to provide an education that appealed to pupils on a local level. And while ways could have been found to make foreign languages attractive to children in the Scottish Highlands, discussing the flakier points of French pastry wasn’t one of them.


Globalisation presents a massive problem for education, especially now that, in the words of ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN speaker Andreas Hörfurter, “Knowledge creation is a globally shared task.” In recent years, “a tremendous global movement towards opening educational resources” has developed, with universities and OER providers using the enhanced connectivity offered by the internet to expand their outreach beyond national borders.


This global movement offers a tremendous opportunity to improve the quality of access for students worldwide. However, to say that merely having the ability to allow access to quality materials from all over the world is bound to ensure the use of those materials would be over-simplistic: differences in culture, education systems and scenarios will certainly cause a multitude of problems to any globalising institution. Many educational resources made available globally “lack local relevancy,” Hörfurter says; nevertheless, a reliance on the creation of locally-produced, locally-relevant resources is as inefficient as repeatedly “re-inventing the wheel in different locations”.


Clearly, globalisation must go hand in hand with localisation.


And indeed, the localisation industry goes back decades and has developed alongside the globalisation movement. Brands have for a long time had to deal with the fact that, though the same English is spoken in diverse places, the people who speak it have totally different cultural backgrounds, and that the Arabic-speaking world, though composed of contiguous countries, is by no means homogenous; advertisers know that you can’t sell a car called “Pajero” in Latin America, or a cheese called “Kiri” in Iran.


So intertwined are the twin concepts of globalisation and localisation that the obvious portmanteau “glocal” was coined in 1980s Japan, itself a globalized name for the older practice of dochakuka, “living on one’s own land,” or adapting farming techniques to local conditions. For while the farmer, in this metaphor, may have the practical know-how to succeed in new country, he will not unless he also take into account soil types, climate, local markets and culture. The teachers’ situation is similar; they have to cultivate the fruits of the “globally shared task” of knowledge creation in small groups of students, at a local level.


An example of how localisation affects education work is given by ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN speaker and localisation expert Mohamed Hassan. A company he was working with wished to sell its e-learning courses in Saudi Arabia – but in the audio and visuals he instantly noticed several elements which would have caused bafflement or even offence in the kingdom: “dialogue between a girl and a boy, while in Saudi Arabia boys and girls do not sit in the same class; kids playing with their pet pig, religiously not accepted… kids playing with a snowman and snowballs, which environmentally do not exist in the Arabic region”.


Both Hassan and Hörfurter have found that content must be localised on several different levels, especially in terms of content, language and style. Pictures and examples must be adjusted to fit local principles, traditions, environment and landscapes; the register of the language must be adjusted – Hörfurter found out, for example, when presenting South African content to an audience in the Middle East, that the informal language that had been “accepted and appreciated” in SA was “only hesitantly taken seriously”. Even symbols and icons can be the cause of problems: the + sign, Hörfurter says, used in western cultures to denote positivity, caused “confusion” in Afghanistan, “because they saw it as a symbol for negation”.


Global learning could be an important driver of equality in the modern world. But for learning content to appeal to wider audiences, it must embrace these sorts of differences. What the advocates of global learning must realise is that equality is not homogeneity: that the same standard of education can be attained in different ways.


Content localisation is a clearly a minefield of potential mistakes and embarrassments – one of the reasons why Hörfurter and Hassan will be imparting their expertise on the subject at an ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN session entitled “Glocalisation”. Andreas Hörfurter will speak on the “Global Sharing of Educational Resources: Making Them Locally Relevant”, while Mohamed Hassan will deliver a talk entitled “Localisation: A Key Success Factor for Global E-Learning”. For more information on ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2013, visit our website.

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