Informal Learning and Transnational Education
The focus of Jay Cross' article on "Informal Learning - the other 80%," posted in his Internet Time blog last week, is learning within organizations. As such, it has tremendous relevance to Transnational Ed (TNE) as it relates to corporate training in developing countries which are attempting to join the global knowledge economy. This is only one aspect of TNE, however, and not the main force driving the current growth of the field. Even though it is "Old School" in every sense of the word -- what is really pushing cross-border higher education is the demand for accredited undergraduate degrees in countries which have a vastly inadequate supply of tertiary education slots to meet that demand. In other words, 18 year olds in Asia, Africa and Latin America want a college education, and the domestic providers are not able to accommodate them.
Ever since Stephen Downes linked to "The Other 80%" in OLDaily a few days ago and stated that informal learning, "rather than classroom-based learning - is where we should be focussing our efforts," I have been pondering the applicability of Cross' article to the more traditional dimension of TNE. At first it seems simple and straighforward -- e-learning! Put together a degree program consisting of a relevant set of courses, all contained within some handy-dandy CMS like WebCT or Blackboard, and let students experience the joys of independent, self-directed study. No classroom. No instructor-centered paradigm. Just projects, problem-based learning, and even group collaboration in semester-based courses. A perfect recipe for facilitating Informal Learning.
Except for one thing. That's not what they want. In "Future Directions in International Online Education" (2001), Ziguras and Rizvi argue that, "fully-online global delivery has failed to capture the imagination of students and teachers in the same as it has excited senior administrators. Fully-online global education may be technologically feasible and offer huge return on investment to some providers, but we suggest that there are very important educational and cultural factors that will hamper the development fully-online programs in international education." Ziguras has conducted as much empirical research on this issue as anyone, and has determined that Asian students are simply unprepared for self-directed learning.
John Biggam of Glasgow Caledonian University echos this concern: "Yet, this expectation of greater freedom for students may in itself present a barrier to students. Students familiar with face-to-face support mechanisms, where the teacher is a regular source of support, may not know how to cope with a different type of support infrastructure. For example, in Asia, a market that has been identified as a possible lucrative area for distance learning, the students are from a culture that is not used to such academic freedom and prefer regular teacher guidance and contact."
Things change. Whatever cultural traditions make Asian undergraduate students in transnational degree programs poor candidates for self-directed learning are probably not that much different from traditions in elementary and secondary in most of the world. With time and patience and the proper scaffolding, most students will no doubt be able to adapt. But at the present time, to be successful and avoid the alarming drop-out rates associated with Open University-style e-learning, transnational programs will need to be classroom-based. This means that Transnational providers will be forced to develop full-blown branch campuses, or at the very least establish partnerships with local providers offering a local teaching staff. This level of commitment shifts TNE out of what the WTO calls "Cross Border Supply," (mode 1) and into "Commercial Presence" (mode 3) -- a far more serious undertaking.
And what about "The Other 80%"? Does this important set of insights into how learning really happens have to wait for several years and a major paradigm shift before it can inform TNE? Not necessarily. Education does not have to be an either/or proposition, even though it is often presented that way. Undergraduates in the developing nations of the world want a structured classroom experience, (and their parents want them in a supervised environment as well). So be it. But elements of "The Other 80%" can still be introduced into that context. Students can be assigned group projects that call for activities outside of the classroom. They can interact informally with other students in other countries, registered for the same course, in online discussion forums, where they can compare and reflect on their experiences. After a few semesters of progress toward a degree, they might even sign up for one course on an independent study basis, within a complement of courses that is still primarily classroom-based.
Most Transnational Ed programs are not ready for a total shift into Informal Learning. They can, however, begin by taking small steps in that direction. It may well be that the transformation of traditional classroom learning into strong support for Informal Learning in transnational programs is not an event, but a gradual process.