Despite the obvious benefits of eLearning, its acceptance is not universally guaranteed. In this article, I examine how we might overcome the cultural barriers to the adoption of eLearning.
There is no question that rapid innovation, highly dynamic industries, fluid regulatory environments, and other compliance regimes in today’s world have made business more challenging than ever.
Subject areas are also evolving in interesting and sometimes unexpected directions. This is true even in law, an area not typically associated with profound, dynamic change.
A few years ago, had you asked a lawyer, “What is intellectual property?” he or she might have mentioned copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Today that same lawyer might include personality rights (also known as image or publicity rights, that is, the right of a person to protect his or her name, voice, image, gestures, mannerisms, or distinctive appearance from non-consensual exploitation), or even privacy and human rights.As an example of this, see the discussion of the U.K. Human Rights Act and a section on privacy in the book by Cornish et al. in the References at the end of this article.
Many of the issues marketing managers worry about today – search engine rankings, (Google) AdWords, marketing through social networks, to name a few of the issues – weren’t relevant (or didn’t even exist) just a couple of years back.
Globalization has further complicated matters, adding new jurisdictional, temporal, cultural, and geographic dimensions. Then there is the “extended enterprise,” where companies, often in dispersed locations, share information, typically over private networks, to streamline operations.
The key to success for today’s enterprises
For contemporary organizations or extended enterprises to succeed, the relevant players – users, partners, etc. – need to know what the rules and policies are. They need to know this not just for today but whenever significant change occurs, whether from the introduction of new policies, products, industry standards, laws, or technologies. They must be able to acquire and maintain critical proficiencies, skills, and know-how, which is no trivial matter given the rapid, constant expansion of issues that organizations, and the professionals working for them, must master.
The growing mobility of today’s professionals further complicates things. Mobility makes it harder for professionals and their employers to schedule classroom instruction. The rising costs of travel also make companies more reluctant to send their staff to remote locations for training.
Thus the swift, effective, and cost-efficient communication and transfer of knowledge between an organization and its subsidiaries, overseas operations and partners, is more important than ever.
ELearning as the solution?
For the purposes of this article, eLearning primarily focuses on instruction and learning experiences delivered via electronic technology such as the Internet and includes online courseware as well as Web-based seminars (Webinars). ELearning can foster the quick customization of the learning process and encourage collaboration and interaction with experts and peers.
This means that organizations can improve the efficiency and efficacy of instruction, and at the same time mobile professionals can access training when and where it is convenient for them. ELearning effectively reconciles the apparently incongruous challenges of disseminating information and upgrading user and partner competencies, while simultaneously saving travel costs and making access to education more convenient, particularly for busy, mobile workers.
As an added plus, eLearning not only eliminates many of the expenses and inconveniences of getting the instructor and students in the same place, as in conventional classroom instruction, but it also permits the distribution of training materials online, yielding additional cost savings. (Marengo & Marengo).
With so many obvious benefits, one might think that today’s professionals and students would universally embrace eLearning with great enthusiasm; unfortunately that is not the case.
ELearning has achieved success in the West, in terms of enrollments. The expansion of education through the Internet has increased dramatically over the past few years. By 1998 there were over 1.3 million students enrolled in distance learning programs, up 78% from 1995. Though the U.S. Department of Education has not tracked the exact increase in the Internet student population, the financial numbers alone are evidence of the tremendous growth in the industry. In fact, distance education generated US$1.2 billion in 1999 and even then analysts projected that it would be between US$7 and 10 billion by 2003.
ELearning in the West has achieved both efficacy, as shown by a major study by the United States Department of Education that found that online education is generally more effective than face-to-face instruction, and acceptance among professional communities, as evidenced by the numbers of Webinars, Podcasts, and online courses on offer. However, it has not replicated such success in other parts of the world.
IT infrastructure is not always to blame
Though poor IT infrastructure, limited financial resources to acquire the requisite equipment and software, or even unreliable public power supplies have slowed if not halted the adoption of eLearning in some areas. Other places that have been slow to accept eLearning can boast of excellent IT infrastructures and near-ubiquitous use of IT among the their populations.
According to anecdotal evidence among providers of online education in the Asian region, for example those offering online legal education, it would seem that Asia’s professionals and students are far more reluctant to engage in online education than their American counterparts; and in many of these instances, IT infrastructural limitations are not an issue.
In fact, IT infrastructures in many Asian countries are far superior to that of Western nations. According to Akamai’s 2010 State of the Internet report, average user broadband speeds in South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong (at 14.6 Mbps, 7.9 Mbps and 7.6 Mbps respectively) far outstrip average online broadband data rates in the United States (3.9 Mbps).
Many of Asia’s educational institutions as well as commercial organizations such as Cathay Pacific Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, and the People’s Bank of China, as well as the Asian arms of global companies such as HSBC, have invested in advanced eLearning systems. Educational Webinars and Podcasts over the Internet are widely available throughout the Asia Pacific region for anyone to access. Although Asia’s professionals and students will use eLearning, they have hardly embraced it to the same degree as their counterparts elsewhere.
Lack of enthusiasm
Multiple factors can explain this lack of enthusiasm among Asian users towards online education.
In the case of live Webinars, poor scheduling clearly is to blame for low overseas turnouts. For instance, many American organizations run their Webinar training at times that may be convenient for American instructors and American audiences (for example a start time of 1:00 PM Eastern Standard Time is generally acceptable for audiences in New York, Chicago and even California). Those times are often unacceptable for audiences in Asia as 1:00 PM in New York is either 1:00 AM or 2:00 AM in Singapore depending on the time of the year.
When I conducted an interview with a marketing manager of an international IT company, I learned that there are companies that conduct Webinars across multiple continents at times convenient to their target audiences, whether in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, or North or South America. However, they frequently find that Asian-based users are far less likely to participate in these online events than their American or European counterparts. It would appear that poor scheduling is not the only factor.
Some (this author included) believe that many Asian students and professionals prefer to go to traditional rather than online classes for the social and networking opportunities – or as an excuse to get out of the office.
Others suggest that many Asian students, conditioned in the traditional instructor-centered lecture-intensive environment, simply sit in a classroom and passively listen to lectures, or are too reliant on instructor feedback to easily accept an alternative educational forum. (Shee, 2010; Al-Hunaiyyan et al., 2008) As a result, many Asian students and professionals find it difficult to collaborate or even publicly question an instructor, even in an online discussion forum or similar communications vehicle.
There seems to be some support for this hypothesis. A study of European and Asia/Pacific students enrolled in an eLearning program in the United Kingdom’s Open University found that students from Asia/Pacific countries were more concerned with their isolation from the instructor, who they referred to as “a figure of authority, the person with ‘the answers.’” They struggled more, in comparison to their European counterparts, with uncertainty and self-discipline. European students, on the other hand, expressed concerns of being isolated from other students and missing out on opportunities for discussion and debates. (Al-Harthi, 2005)
Asians are not alone
Whatever the reasons, Asian learners are not alone in their relatively tepid acceptance of eLearning. Studies among Arab students taking distance education courses suggest that Arab students have stronger uncertainty avoidance than, for instance, their American counterparts, as they may feel more threatened by uncertain or unknown situations than do members of the American culture (see “Framework for eLearning” entry in the References).
According to some researchers, there is a connection between cultural background, learning styles, and cognitive processing. Western worldviews include competition, individuality, timing and scheduling, and task orientation while non-Western ones tend to include cooperation, collectivity, relativity of time, holistic thinking, and social orientation. Western learning styles tend toward field-independent and analytical thinking in comparison to non-Western learning styles. (Editor’s Note: Field-independent learners are able to focus on the relevant details and not be distracted by unnecessary details; they rely on their internal frame of reference as they process information. Field dependent learners will focus on the whole, and not notice the parts so much. Their frame of reference is external.) All this may explain why Western learners are more ready to embrace eLearning than are their non-Western counterparts.
If one looked more broadly, one could find evidence that in a more general context, computer-based or online (business) models that work in the West either do not work or require heavy modification to achieve success in overseas markets. For instance, consumers in Hong Kong have been reluctant to embrace online shopping, despite its proven success elsewhere. (DeWolf, 2011)
Given that different cultures appear to react to and use eLearning differently (Hewling, 2005), we must therefore temper the implementation of eLearning in a global context with local cultural considerations. In some instances, eLearning implementations may not be practically possible. As eLearning knows no restrictions in terms of race, color, sex, or religion, it (and Internet access in general) provides a challenge to Arabic and Islamic countries that strictly control interactions between male and female students and impose strict religious barriers, which of course, collapse in the virtual realm (Al-Hunaiyyan et al., 2008).
Nevertheless, professionals and students need to familiarize themselves with ever-growing numbers of technical, legal, business, and other concepts and practices in ever-shrinking time frames. So the question of how to solve the problem of instructing professionals and students not only remains but will be further exacerbated should suitable instructors become more scarce, are not available to teach locally, or are unwilling or unable to travel to overseas locations. ELearning may be the only viable alternative, even if it is not particularly palatable to some overseas communities now.
It can work
Happily, there is evidence that eLearning can succeed overseas, either on its own or in a blended setting. As noted earlier, there have been successful adoptions by companies in Asia; companies operating in the Middle East have also successfully implemented eLearning.
The National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan, for instance, has successfully introduced an innovative instructional blended-learning legal course covering the socio-legal aspects of human rights and immigration (Shee, 2009). In this particular course, students were presented with a scenario and had to, among other things, perform role-plays, cite relevant legal authorities (i.e. laws and regulations), and discuss aspects of the scenario with their instructor through an online discussion forum. As Taiwanese students are typically passive, they initially needed some encouragement – notably in getting students to participate actively and effectively with the instructor through online discussions – but students eventually came to enthusiastically embrace the new format.
In culturally adjusting the online instruction, the University turned most established assumptions of Confucian pedagogy, where the instructor is viewed as the omniscient oracle of knowledge – a figure not to be questioned – upside down. As Confucius had written no textbooks and his recorded teachings were mostly conversations between himself and his individual students, the use of role-plays and online discussion guided by the instructor were, in a sense, an update of traditional Confucian instruction.
There is a joke that goes something like this:
The United Nations once surveyed the opinions of children worldwide on the issue of food shortages. However, when asked, “Please express your personal views on the food shortage problem in many countries,” children from different countries had trouble understanding the question.
African children did not know what “food” meant; Latin American children did not catch the word “please”; European children had no idea what a “shortage” is; American children could not comprehend why there are “many countries” in the world; and Asian children had no concept of what “personal views” are.
Users worldwide can react differently to the same things. Consequently, those responsible for implementing eLearning globally must not presume that observations or assumptions based on experiences in one location apply elsewhere. Although some culturally based resistance may affect the adoption of eLearning in some places, you can overcome such resistance with the appropriate adjustments.
(Listed in order of their citation in the article.)
Cornish, W. R., Llewelyn, D., & Aplin, T. (2010) Intellectual Property: Patents, Copyright, Trade Marks and Allied Rights, 7th Edition. London: Sweet & Maxwell
Marengo, A. & Marengo, V. (2005) “Measuring the Economic Benefits of ELearning: A Proposal for a New Index for Academic Environments.” Journal of Information Technology Education Volume 4, 2005, p. 329-346
Shee, A. (2010) Legal eLearning and Interactive Teaching in an Information Society of Pluralistic Culture, Lecture delivered at University of Hong Kong, 10 November 2010
Al-Hunaiyyan, A.; Al-Huwail, N.; Al-Sharhan, S. (2008) “Blended ELearning Design: Discussion of Cultural Issues,” International Journal of Cyber Society and Education Vol. 1, No. 1, March 2008 Pages 17 -32
Al-Harthi, A.S. (2005) Distance Higher Education Experiences of Arab Gulf Students in the United States: A cultural perspective Vol 6, No 3. Main Section available at: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/263/406 (visited 13 March 2011)
Framework for eLearning Contents Evaluation, Socio-cultural issues in the area of education and eLearning: Excellent practices and further resources, available at http://promitheas.iacm.forth.gr/fe-cone/docs/Annex 13 Good Practice Guidelines.pdf (visited 13 March 2011)
DeWolf, C. Why Hong Kong people are afraid of online shopping,16 February, 2011 available at http://www.cnngo.com/hong-kong/shop/why-are-hong-kong-people-afraid-online-shopping-441145 (visited 12 March 2011)
Hewling, A. (2005) Culture in the online class: Using message analysis to look beyond nationality-based frames of reference. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1), article 16 available at http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue1/hewling.html (visited 13 March 2011)
Shee, A. (2009) Interactive Learning in a Modern Confucius Classroom – Using Drama to Cultivate Humanity and Sensitivity in an Interdisciplinary Law Course, available at http://www.ukcle.ac.uk/resources/enhancing-learning-through-technology/shee/ (visited 15 April, 2011)