Networked learning : Cross-cultural learning : Creativity & Innovation

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30 July 2003

This current posting mainly consists of response from Roy Smolens Jr to my earlier post on this blog. Roy's comments are so useful that I don't want them hidden in the discussion/response area of this blog.

However, I would point out that almost the entirety of his argument is taken directly from this paper (pdf file) - an important source for my own research - by Graeme Martin and Angela Jennings (Dundee Business School). I am not aware that he contributed to this report (he is not cited in it anywhere) so I would expect him to refer to this excellent work, rather than claiming the arguments as his own. If you're short of time, jump over the first few paragraphs - mine and Roy's - and get to the meat of the argument: it's good stuff.

I'll make some comments in the body of Roy's text, just to clarify a few things. I have - we all have - a lot to learn. So, now it's over to Roy:

I am hoping that my response to your recent article, National culture and philosophies of learning, in which you discuss the role of culture in eLearning may be posted on your site. If it is too harsh or considered a flame by you, then please contact me and I will attempt to clarify my utter dissatisfaction with your simplistic approach to lay all of the ills of eLearning on “culture’s doorstep”.

>> Patrick's comments: I have nowhere implied that "all of the ills of eLearning" are the fault of cultural difference. Much of my work is about helping people to understand the opposite. For example, I wrote a short article for Training Magazine (a supplement) about how cultural difference is one of the things that's going to make elearning a success. Among many initiatives I'm involved in, I'm working with a company called on cultivating innovation online by bringing together culturally diverse groups. <<

For your information, I have a 14+-year international, executive-level, marketing/management career behind me. I have worked in ten countries and speak eight languages. I have been currently based in Germany now for three years, as a professor of international management. I am now pursuing my doctorate in organisational behaviour. I am researching global virtual teams (GVT), teamwork behaviour. In using a social network analysis (SNA) approach, I am researching the knowledge management practices, the communication aspects of transforming information into knowledge and the influence of cultural aspects on these teams.

Please see my previous comments about this over-simplification of culture and ‘localisation’ of eLearning to Jay Cross (, with whom I co-presented at Educa Online-Berlin 2002. I was co-chairman, with Peter Isackson, of a parallel session on the role of culture in eLearning. Your associate, Alessandra Marinetti also took part in our session. It is amazing how eLearning stakeholders, designers and executives paid attention to the “Coke Light” version of cultural value research presented by your colleague. This imprecise attribution by Ms. Marinetti(and you, no?), and many others, is an insult, to those of us who diligently attempt to develop the cross-cultural/intercultural communication field, because of the rampant mis-attribution of one or two researcher’s results in order to further one's own agenda.

>>Patrick's comments:

i) I have no agenda other than to make things that work. I'm a practioner who's developed elearning in many countries; I see the problems that have arisen and I'd like to solve them.

ii) The reason business people take such a close interest in presentations on culture and elearning is because they don't know where to start. The mistakes that global organisations are making by not adapting elearning for different cultures is costing our industry substantial credibility. My clients tell me this every week. Coke Lite (excellent term!) is all they can take right now; if we feed them anything richer, they'll choke.

iii) In terms of diligence, please be assured that no offence is intended; I too have studied this area for many years. When I've time, I'll put up some links to papers from the last few years to both support my own credibility and to help others interested in the research into this area. Please note that the next 14 paragraphs of so of Roy's posting are paraphrases of the Martin & Jennings report I mention above; I am intensely aware of the issues they, raise, and Roy states them very clearly.<<

I think that you overlook the effectiveness of eLearning adaptation across countries, its direct relation to three antecedent independent variables within organisational and national level factors. I would assert that these variables are the, (1) nature of eLearning technology, (2) prior knowledge of organisations and countries about eLearning and its antecedents, and (3) the cultural distance between organisations.

Each organisation has a certain capacity for knowledge acquisition or adaptive capacity for eLearning based on its ability to recognise, assimilate and utilise new knowledge. Some organisations have a greater capacity to absorb, adapt and exploit knowledge than others, based on two related sets of variables, those that more directly focus on organisations and those, which are essentially national in character.

I feel that this relationship between the variables is moderated by a series of national and organisational level variables and contexts, including:

* - absorptive/adaptive capacity for eLearning in organisations (e.g. the potential for acquiring and assimilating knowledge of eLearning and realizing such potential knowledge by transforming and exploiting it) * - general business system features of the recipient country, * - national contexts for change, e.g. technological infrastructure, * - government coercion and inducements, and national integrating mechanisms and bodies, such as economic development agencies, * - individual learner variables and contexts

The differences in interactivity and richness of content, for example, may be in part explained by the prevalence of social constructionist learning philosophies predominately implemented in German and France, which are heavily associated with a face-to-face learning approach. To say at this stage of our knowledge of cultural influences that this is supported by Trompenaars, Hofstede, Schwartz or any other social psychologist’s research is overly simplistic and a flagrant misuse of these analyses. For example, from simply a technological angle, Germany is well behind the UK, Scandinavian countries and the States in hardware and software, with the number of computers per capita in Germany at around 125 per 1000, compared to 170 per 1000 in the UK and Scandinavian countries, and 270 per 1000 in the US.

Moreover, until recently computer equipment was comparatively expensive in Germany and Internet provision among the most expensive in Europe (though the privatisation of Deutsche Telekom was intended to change this position). The same argument cannot be made for France, which has had a long history of ICT technological use through the Minitel system. However, their reliance on their own national ICT system, based on the French language, has often been used to explain France’s great reluctance adopt Internet standards based on American English. Hence, eLearning is heavily dependent on economic factors not easily explained by cultural dimensions.

It is also of note how prior knowledge of eLearning is likely to influence its further adaptation. Unlike the UK, in Germany and France there has been no strong tradition of distance learning, nor positive experiences of computer-based learning (Massy, 2001). Moreover, the data on dissatisfaction with current eLearning provision in Germany and France may reflect a cultural antipathy to such forms of learning that makes future adoption less likely. In this sense there may be a vicious circle at work in which prior negative experiences influence current perceptions and take up by organisations and individuals as so on. How would you explain this phenomena by cultural value research? Dr. Hofstede and Dr. Schwartz do not yet have a valid explanation, but you seemingly have derived one from their research.

For example, in Germany the educational establishment traditionally has regarded learning through technology as suspicious and inadequate. This is reflected in the lack of organisations focusing on the implementation of technology-based learning. Aside from a deeply-set intellectual preference for the traditional face-to-face pedagogy and relative linguistic isolation from business and ICT English, the translation of the concept of ‘eLearning and open learning’ apparently connotes in the German language ‘ill-defined learning’, and an established phrase to describe the rich concepts embedded in 'distance learning' or 'telematics-based learning' are only recently (2002) coming into policy-level usage (for example, ‘Telematik-gestutzte Lernen’)”.

I am fairly sure that you, Mr. Dunn, could agree with my argument >> Patrick's comments: see Martin and Jennings' argument << that the greater the institutional distance between the originating organisation or country that developed the eLearning content/technology and the recipient organisation and country, the less likely the potential for absorbing and adapting eLearning will be. But, you attempted to draw a conclusion with “power distance –PDI”; (Hofstede, 1984, 2001) and “uncertainty avoidance-UAI” (Hofstede, 1984, 2001), whereby the more likely they are to be accepting of experiential, learner-centred approaches to education and training. This will not hold up under Dr. Hofstede’s OWN criticisms of his work (I am in frequent contact with him...) ; Trompenaars’ work, in fact, has never been tested in this respect. Here, for example, your overly-simplified application of the theories of Hofstede, Trompenaars, et al. are carefully chosen to match his predictions, which have suggested that Swedish learners would be much more comfortable with experiential and unstructured learning than German or French learners. This is not only reinforces the common mis-attribution of the underlying individual learner’s preferences for learning.

There is not doubt that there are likely to be differences in the motivation to eLearning. We can see from the work of people like Brown, Masie and others in an US-American context, and that the notion of techno-readiness was likely to be important in willingness to experiment with new forms of technology-based learning and the data on computers/capita speak to such a concept.

Such individual factors are likely to influence the adaptation, diffusion and exploitation of eLearning. In examining the interaction with national institutional variables, particularly the historical development and interrelationships between the education and training systems, how work is organised and broader cultural variables which are likely to influence learning transfer, e.g. the extent of individualism vs. collectivism in a particular country (Triandis 1989, Hofstede 2001, Bond 1999). Yet, by definition, most current eLearning content is of a highly structured nature, but arguably also with no real relationship between the content producer and the learner. In that sense, the application of these well-known cultural variables to the didactic-experiential continuum of learning approaches becomes more tenuous with the development of virtual, self-oriented material.

You, like many others who are not well-informed of cultural value research, could interpret these findings in the following way – that German and French training and educational professionals are strongly rooted in learning approaches and technologies that give trainers and educationalists direct contact, interactivity and power over the learning of trainees, in line with the relatively higher power distance to be found in Germany and, particularly, France by comparison with the UK.

However, the fact that the French and British respondents are generally less critical of the pedagogical nature of eLearning may be explained in terms of the individualist nature of learning culture and learning philosophies culturally-embedded historically in these two societies, in comparison to the more collectivist German approaches to knowledge creation and learning (Lawrence, 1994).  >>Patrick's comments: So this is completely consistent with Geert's (Hofstede) work, and support my argument. <<

In the UK, for example, with its relatively long history of institutions such as the Open University, Open College, eUniversity, Scottish University for Industry (SUFI) and Interactive University in Scotland have long “gentrified” a more rapid and early diffusion of eLearning. However, human agency and grasping opportunities have an important role to play in such diffusion and there is little doubt in our minds that the role of such organisations have had a marked influence on the more extensive and accepting role of eLearning in these countries (similarly, this point could be made in the Netherlands). Why do you not acknowledge your own country’s eLearning experiences, its inherrent bias and influence?

I am currently unaware of such comparable initiatives in Germany, France, or for that matter, England (except for some regional bodies) that have acted so positively to spread the message of eLearning. In Germany, for example, until November 2002, government departments such as the Federal Ministry of Research and Technology, the Ministry for Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Science had no specialised agencies to deal with developments in technology in learning or in open learning; indeed, according to German media, they were in fact quite hostile to the concept. Thus, the various segments of German industry and education with an interest in technology-based learning grew in a small-scale, uncoordinated and frequently overlapping fashion at regional or “Länder” [State] level, or else work in isolation.

In an attempt to remove the “magic veil” of culture from the rather simple mis-attribution of national cultural value research, let me safely say that eLearning content, process and services will be more difficult to transfer to countries and sectors whose philosophies of education are inconsistent with a dominant rationally-based, behavioural and cognitive approach. Constructivist approaches see individuals as more active players in the own learning and knowledge construction than as passive recipients of externally produced knowledge. Hence, in my opinion, eLearning approaches that do not employ high levels of interactivity will be more difficult to transfer into work-based sectors of education and training that embrace a constructionist and/or social practice philosophy.

In addition, the greater a country’s exposure to diverse and complementary external sources of knowledge on eLearning, the greater its ability to develop an absorptive and adaptive capacity for eLearning. Activities which raise the level of awareness on eLearning through, for example, national conferences etc, should positively influence educational, corporate and training agencies. But, this is not considered by any eLearning activists or “evangelists”.

As well, prior experience of technology-based learning will influence the development of a country’s prior absorptive capacity for eLearning by shaping the locus for its search for knowledge and its capabilities to acquire and assimilate knowledge on eLearning. This aspect, in my opinion, should be acknowledged as a key hurdle by companies marketing to European countries with previously poor experiences and also current negative experiences of eLearning.

The use of formal and informal social integration mechanisms for eLearning will lead to more effective and localised eLearning pedagogy by lowering the barriers to knowledge sharing and increasing the likelihood of assimilation and transformation of eLearning. Organisations need to pay particular attention to translating potential interest in eLearning into realized capacity through the use of conventional techniques such as champions, “early wins” to model the benefits of eLearning, project teams, and how to roll out successful experiments in eLearning.

We must strive to rid ourselves of widely held perceptions of national learning performance or acceptance, failure in a country, e.g. the need to secure “localised” access into education or to make labour markets more flexible will intensify the search, speed and direction for new eLearning teaching methods. It could be that the appointment of eLearning champions or national project teams could intensify the search, speed and direction for appropriate eLearning techniques. However, research needs to be undertaken on the effectiveness of national programmes of eLearning diffusion to see what can be learned for the future. Where organisations are distant in institutional and cultural terms, national level variables play a much bigger role. Therefore, for example, the marketing or use of eLearning materials into China, whilst appealing to many organisations, is likely to be fraught with problems. It is precisely due to the economic nature of “selling eLearning” that has led to mis-attribution of the exact role of culture in eLearning that has now become the ‘flavour-of-the-month’ for eLearning designers. But, unlike your thinly-attributed arguments demonstrate, and as I am an experienced international marketing executive and an organisational behaviourist, I believe that the existing knowledge of cultural value research needs much, much further research in this area before we can claim what you assert.

Simply put, organisations with well developed capabilities for transforming and exploiting eLearning (based on cultural complimentarity!) are more likely to achieve competitive advantage through cost reduction, innovations, product and process innovations than those without these capabilities. Organisations that measure their returns on eLearning using a ‘balanced approach’ are more likely to achieve flexibility, commitment and innovation than those, which do not.

The elearning industry is not ready to have a more balanaced approach. At the end of the day, the business of eLearning - is just that... business; is it not?

>> Patrick's summary: a lot of people feel very passionate about this subject, because i) it matters ii) there's a lot of rubbish written about it. I don't write rubbish, and neither, I suspect, do people like Roy. If you've bothered to read this far, thank you, and if you spot any poor work out there in this area, get in touch.<<

10:07:39 AM    Any comments?  []

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