Online Higher Education and Cultural Invasion

Once upon a time, I was a believer. I believed that the wonderful possibility of online higher education will make available affordable, high quality higher education for the aspiring middle-class students everywhere. Of all the vistas opened up by the Internet, this was the most transformative. This would have made a truly flat world; this would have resulted in a convergence of values and ideas, desires and languages. 

That was then, the late nineties. Before the dot-com bust, before 9/11, before Facebook conquered the world. Most importantly, before I did a day's work for the online universities and met the first students who enrolled in them. Before the wonderful rhetoric met the real world and billions of dollars of venture capital was poured into online universities! And, before various failed schemes to improve higher education in the 'third world' came full-circle.

In between, I was in the frontline. I have this odd enthusiasm about what I do. Though I have not been successful in any sense, I have mostly been happy doing what I do. This feeling crystallised at a moment many years ago, which I still remember. This must have been late-nineties but I still recall the moment: This was a never-ending train journey to an interior town in India where my company just opened a computer education centre. The town, which was then well-known for being struck by a famine, was hundreds of miles away from the nearest big city and this was a sweaty coach-class train journey which allowed no sleep or respite from mosquitoes. As I couldn't sleep, I was spending the night looking out of the open windows. But it was a moonlit night and as the train went past the ravines of Western Orissa, I felt grateful. For nothing but the job I did: For the sense of purpose which made even my strenuous journey bearable. I never lost that feeling of elation, gratefulness for being given a purpose. I brought it to my job when I, many years later, started working for one of those online education start-ups which wanted to change the world.

It was only then I saw the problem: It was an American education which had no connection with or relevance to the local job markets or students' desires. It was all about playing up white privilege and the Indian propensity to think anything coming from the West must be good. For all its promises, only thing such education became is one of style, of superficial - and completely foreign - ways of presenting oneself. No one gave a damn about the student or her life; everything was constructed to scale, standardised to maximise profits. My feeble attempts to suggest facilitation through local learning centres fell flat, as that did not fit the business models. Instead, a false pride of being solely educated online was to be instilled in those poor souls who coughed up an American fee for the privilege of getting a piece of paper which they thought, wrongly, would allow them to become American someday. 

And, indeed, it failed. Students were never satisfied, and this is not just because videos were forever buffering and the accents were indecipherable. It was because none of it ever made sense. The tutors, even when they had any interaction, did not understand where the students were coming from and what they want. Mostly, also, students did not want to tell the tutors anything that might be too foolish, seeing them more as potential sponsors for a future route out of the country rather than guides to help with education. When I spoke to the employers, they demanded skills which American universities wouldn't necessarily teach at a degree level. Except for the white privilege, and some reflected glory of my residency in London, there was nothing we could - or wanted to - offer.

There was more than one lesson for me. I saw first-hand why online education's great promise stumbles all the time: Education is a culturally determined, personally responsive activity. There is nothing fuddy-daddy in scepticism about the online higher education start-ups; they are predatory mercenaries whose realities never match the marketing. They did not care how the student actually experiences the education: They pretended to tell the students how they should be feeling. They dressed up the data to show completions, peremptorily counting out anyone who may not complete. They made the students feel guilty about not being able to cope, not being smart and self-driven enough to keep up with online education. They failed the students in more ways than one.

No contact centre would have solved this, of course. This is a fundamental design problem of online higher education, often funded with globalizing aspirations, that it seeks to deny everything that is culturally specific. They are founded on the assumption that there is one true way to educate and that way is defined by the respective licensing authority that the particular provider draws their legitimacy from. That the students from far-flung countries paid for that education is seen as an affirmation that they also agree that their needs are met through such an education. Any quirks in this neat worldview, such as the idea that the students may indeed be poorly informed, have no place in this conversation. Within this flawed universe, a distant, disempowered contact centre would have made absolutely no difference.

Indeed, I recognise that my previous charmed life of spreading computer education in the interiors of India was based on acts of such cultural invasion as well. But then we didn't pretend to educate beyond teaching people computer programming, which was often carried in parallel with college and whatever other activities that the student was doing. Indeed, it does not absolve me, as we imposed a certain 'right way' of doing things everywhere we opened an outlet, and my well-meaning visits were often designed to control and dictate, rather than listen and learn. In fact, all such acts of 'giving education' and my pretence of doing good are acts of cultural invasion, some mild and some egregious. 

The trouble with online higher education is that, at its heart, there is blindness: An assumption that all people face the same realities and want the same solutions. The entrepreneurs do not take into account the different realities that their learners have: My suggestion that many poor learners in Africa or India may not have a room of their own to study in was once laughed off. Even the data that is obvious, Nairobi's 7 Mbps download speed as opposed to Singapore's 100 Mbps, is explained away as a temporary glitch. And, that an Asian student in an online classroom may keep quiet, or accept received opinion if it comes from a Western faculty member, isn't something factored into their worldview. In fact, Online Higher Education operates, to fit into the financial assumptions that help create them, with a strange conception of culture-free education [just like my ideas about computer training]. But education - as long as it is positioned to be the main activity to define career and character - can never be culture-free and impersonal. 

A culturally-responsive and personal education are incompatible with the global scale of currently existing online higher education. And, this is exactly why the promises of online higher education remain unmet. Many enterprises bite the dust and many thousands of students waste their time, energy and money on it in the meantime. This should count among the many tragedies of globalisation.



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