Online learning is big business. Revenues from e-learning are estimated by many to exceed $51 billion by 2016. And while the U.S. and Western Europe currently have the most learners, Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America are projected to have the highest rates of growth.
This “melting pot” of learners brings a new level of cultural diversity and cross-pollination to the global education market. It’s also increasing the variety of online learning options available, as different cultures emphasize different aspects of learning and teaching techniques based on their particular norms and values, as well as factors such as infrastructure and socioeconomic conditions.
The Role of Education in Society
Cultures that place a premium on education drive competition within the learning marketplace. This goes a step further in countries where academic achievement is viewed as the most important precursor to personal and professional success. In these countries, the educational market is hyper-competitive with immense pressure placed on students to perform.
This view is pervasive in South Korea, Singapore, Japan and other Asian countries where families hold student performance and advancement as core values. South Korea, which ranks only behind Denmark and Iceland in terms of expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP, once scoffed at the idea of online education. Now, it has emerged as a leader in e-learning advancements, with 17 online colleges. Other cultures that prioritize education in society are also rapidly emerging as leaders in the online learning revolution.
The Need for Language Diversity amidst Shifting Demographics
One of the more obvious cultural differences in global online learning is language diversity. As more people assimilate into new cultures, the need to learn multiple languages is driving massive demand for online language courses and tutoring options, with the demand for English-as-a-second-language (ESL) soaring. In an increasingly global world, dozens of languages are represented, and online learning providers now offer courses in more languages than ever before.
Communication and Collaboration Preferences
Differences in how people communicate and collaborate are relevant in traditional and online learning environments. In the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, students frequently work and collaborate in groups. This empowers students with “lead” roles while teachers facilitate.
In other cultures there is little collaboration, as teachers have historically been the primary authority in all classroom situations. Often, in countries like China, this view stems from the culture’s deep-seeded reverence for the wisdom of elders.
These differences must be acknowledged by educators involved in e-learning. Learners accustomed to group collaboration generally prefer virtual classrooms that enable live, real-time interaction between students. A preference for interdependent learning has led online learning providers to facilitate group collaboration through live chat, interactive whiteboards, breakout rooms and other features. In situations where the teacher prefers to limit group interaction, or cultural norms dictate a teacher-led environment, he or she can establish preferences within the virtual environment. Self-paced video courses are also an option for independent-minded learners.
Economic Needs and Career Advancement
The common belief that education is a path toward career advancement and financial security is still subject to differences.
In India, education plays a key role in economic mobility. New hires typically make less than $1,000 per month. But five to ten years into a career, with the right education, the same employee can earn $50,000. That kind of growth can have a huge impact. And since many Indians can’t afford to take years off work to attend traditional colleges, online learning is becoming the answer.
China, home to almost 70 different online colleges and the world’s biggest economy, is also seeing rapid growth in e-learning due to an increasing demand for highly trained workers. Expect e-learning to grow as the country seeks to stay at the forefront of the global economy.
Technology Adoption and Infrastructure
Access to fast, reliable and affordable broadband technology is a key determinant to the success and growth of e-learning programs worldwide. In this respect, governments have a huge hand in determining its success or failure.
South Korea is the world leader in Internet access and broadband speed—four times faster than the U.S.—and is a key reason South Korea has quickly emerged as a world leader in online education. Africa has seen growth in online learning now that fiber optic Internet connectivity is taking hold in the country. Even the Middle East—a late adopter because of governmental censorship—has witnessed a growing interest in e-learning programs.
As the reach of online education broadens, educators must embrace cultural differences and adapt to the accepted learning practices of each culture rather than expect these cultures to adapt to them. This will ensure educational programs that produce optimal outcomes as students learn in customary ways and in familiar environments.