International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments

Kluwer Academic Publishers, forthcoming 2004 - passages from two chapters

Global Online Education

by Steve McCarty (Japan), Begum Ibrahim (Malaysia), Boris Sedunov (Russia) & Ramesh Sharma (India)


This international team of online educators will show, true to the title of this chapter, that online education is already a global phenomenon. The World Wide Web, which affords so many educational applications friendly to designers as well as to users, has lived up to its name by reaching nearly all countries through the Internet infrastructure. Online education at first suggests education through the Internet, but the "line" in online and offline refers more broadly to networked computers. By necessity in some countries, or by choice, Intranets and other systems of digital devices such as mobile phones, whether connected by ground wires or by satellites, can also serve as media for formal education and informal learning. Issues of access recurring in this chapter imply, however, a goal that all learners at least have the option of studying and communicating with other world citizens through the global Internet, that is, online education in the fullest sense.

Global online education represents not only a technical revolution in access to valuable information for people in developing countries, but also a paradigm shift from education to perpetuate elite classes of hereditary privilege -- in all countries -- to UNESCO's motto of "education for all" -- through the Internet. Globalization in this chapter implies a positive diffusion of educational opportunities beyond Western or wealthy countries, so the geographical coverage focuses mostly on non-Western regions. But efforts behind the scenes and sometimes sacrifices of Westerners who collaborate internationally to create a level playing field open to all must not be taken for granted. At the same time, recognizing that globalization for purposes other than education can be harmful, online educators must proceed into this new frontier with intercultural sensitivity. (The chapter "Global Virtual Organizations for Online Educator Development" in Part I of this Handbook details how the World Association for Online Education promotes professional ethics in this new discipline along with enjoyable online cultural activities, not centered in any geographical region, serving as a distributed virtual learning environment and open source learning organization).

"Global" also refers to global issues raised by the advent of online education. As just one provocative example, if equal opportunity for education were realized through the Internet, would those who were born to comfort be able to compete with those who are hungry to learn? Conflicts of interest are bound to arise then at the toll gates where gatekeepers represent institutions profiting from the scarcity of access to expert educators and the economic consequences of credentialism. To substantiate this chapter, educators from around the world answer a questionnaire including globalization issues, with questions aimed to be phrased neutrally to elicit responses representative of their country or culture.

"Online education" also refers to learning methods that at least partly utilize the information and communication technologies available through the Internet. Given the explosive growth of specialized knowledge and paradigm shifts in educational approaches, lifelong education is needed above all by educators themselves. For online educators not to replicate the classroom but to take advantage of new media, new ways to communicate and to design educational experiences, renewed professional development for educators in virtually all fields of enquiry is also necessary. Educators are thus utilizing the Internet for professional networking regionally and globally to learn from one another about the new media and their applications to education.

While the pendulum of opinion about e-learning may swing from pro to con in economically fortunate countries, the developing world entertains no such luxuries but looks to cyberspace to accomplish the empowerment by global knowledge that would otherwise continue to take too long to trickle down. To leapfrog to 21st Century information and communication technologies most effectively, many non-Western countries are developing virtual universities, particularly through national open universities little known in the West. Non-Western scholars also are among those benefiting from international networks of educators freely sharing expertise in educational technology. In a report adopted by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Ghanaian John Afele (2002) writes that "[d]istance learning has become essential to global development programming." Thus this chapter will take a geographical approach to case studies, presenting little-known initiatives of both local and international significance where the use of virtual learning environments empowers educators.

The Internet has allowed world citizens to bypass their government representatives to a great extent and to organize their own international relations. The world community of scholars with shared academic standards and ethics is particularly well positioned for networking to form global guilds and to reconstitute Academia in cyberspace. Are there any signs, though, that the new media are making a difference in the so-called real world of embodied human existence? With the topic of global online education already so vast, it will be important to focus on far-reaching questions. Moreover, in a world still divided by barriers of hostility, it will be important to find out if there are emerging trends in social evolution whereby education through the Internet helps to foster intercultural reconciliation.

Global issues such as gender, culture, language, economics and access will be illustrated as to how they work out in local and international contexts. Local case studies such as virtual universities will illustrate how global issues in online education work out in specific cultural contexts. International collaborative projects are also explored for their intercultural significance. Global issues are also examined in different geographical regions to enable comparisons. Whether universality or divergence is found would in each instance help guide future practitioners of global online education.

Global Online Education Questionnaire: Summary and Discussion

Knowledgeable scholars in various countries were surveyed in the fall of 2002 to compare the state of VLE use, effects of globalization on local cultures, what institutions and associations for online education have emerged, and what obstacles are faced locally such as access to Net infrastructure. In the context of the mission of this Handbook, if the questions are expressed objectively enough, and if the responses are as representative as they seem, then some valuable information and comparisons can be discerned from the results.

Respondents were limited in number but represent some locations not covered elsewhere in this chapter, which aims for the broadest range of voices. The aim here was not to gather public opinions but rather professional opinions representative of various world regions, so the survey was distributed to a few international electronic discussion lists concerned with online education.

Here the results are summarized and discussed, but the full and unmediated data in the Appendix may prove to be more interesting as well as valuable to investigators. Respondents answered for 16 countries or wider regions, viz. Latin America, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Finland, Israel, Turkey, Russia, India & South Asia, Kenya, South Africa, Lesotho & Southern Africa, The Philippines, Indonesia & Southeast Asia, Malaysia, and Japan. Respondents are identified in the Acknowledgements.

With a view to comparing trends in the world, the results will be summarized regionally into Latin America (Mexico to South America), Finland, Israel, Turkey, Russia, South Asia (mainly India), Africa (Sub-Saharan), Southeast Asia, and Japan. The diversity within each region or country as indicated by the respondents will also be described. In subsequent sections, furthermore, the co-authors provide details on online education in the former Soviet region, the Indian subcontinent, all countries in Southeast Asia, most of the Pacific Rim countries, and the Islamic world, thereby representing many more countries and cultures.

The questionnaire enquired first about the state of virtual learning environments (VLEs) used for education in the respondent's region, whether the Internet is used mainly by the elite, and whether females are as involved. Next, do local people feel that globalization effects threaten their culture, or is a broader cultural repertoire welcomed? Have other issues been widely debated such as language, democratization, equalizing of opportunity, or resistance to change by governments? Do leaders or the media see the Internet as beneficial for education, international and intercultural relations? Then, are there virtual universities or other such schools available, and if so, are they accredited, recognized, or considered notorious? Have many people considered studying at institutions in other countries through the Internet? Have many local companies entered the e-learning business? Are there academic associations for the professional development of online educators? Finally, is Web access an obstacle for many people, and what other issues affect the acceptance of virtual learning environments or online education?

Respondents did not necessarily answer every question thoroughly. What follows here is a concise paraphrasing and quotation of the salient responses that shed light on the questions while being suggestive for regional comparisons. Investigators should refer to the Appendix for the complete and definitive views of the respondents. At the end of each item below there is a brief statement comparing the responses for global trends and variations. Then in the following subsection there is further discussion of the results as a whole.

The first substantive question was, What is the general state of the use of virtual learning environments for education? For Latin America the four responses seemed to reflect different social strata. A professor formerly with the World Bank saw cultural antecedents in distance education for e-governance as well as e-learning in higher and continuing education, whereas others found ignorance among all but an educational elite. The latter is probably a more realistic view of the region as a whole, while also acknowledging progress in educational technology and attitudes thereof. In Finland, one of the most wired nations and well-known for mobile phone technology, the concerns seem to be similar to North America, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. That is, how to refine virtual learning possibilities with pedagogical considerations, and reconciling the different interests in education represented by commercial solutions vs. open source. For Israel the response was just for its Open University, with half the courses utilizing at least components of e-learning. Compared with open universities in other countries, though, Israel resembles nations advanced in VLE adoption. In Turkey Internet penetration was reported as 2% but growing. There is a demand for online education even before facing pedagogical concerns thereof. In Russia VLEs are less developed than in the West because of poor telephone lines, few private educational institutions compared to underfunded public ones, and strong government-centered traditions. In multicultural South Asia VLEs are being adopted rapidly for education in tandem with the infotech sector. In Africa online education is mainly available at the university level. Many schools do not even have telephones, and use of the Internet does not necessarily extend beyond e-mail to the Web. In Southeast Asia, for the Philippines it was reported that virtual learning is popular with few institutions, mostly for the sake of profit. Indonesia is mainly at the public planning stage, whereas in Malaysia "many traditional public and private universities have some or all of their distance learning programmes available online." In Japan virtual environments are popular for socializing, but progress has been slow in realizing their educational potential. University and government bureaucracies are slow to accept change, while companies struggle to find a market for e-learning amid so many consumer attractions. Technology tends to race ahead of pedagogy, but individual educators are well-equipped to experiment with VLEs. The overall pattern seems to be that VLEs are used worldwide more or less, depending mainly on the level of economic development of the country. For more details see also the next question, the Appendix, and Cultural and Regional Reports on the State of Online Education later in this chapter.

Is the Internet used for education by a small elite in universities or elsewhere? In Latin America it is elsewhere to an extent, but not all universities are online yet. In Finland Internet availability is ubiquitous. In Israel it is used by all students to supplement classroom learning. In Turkey a limited number of English-medium private universities use learning management systems (LMSs) like Blackboard and WebCT, but Turkish-language LMSs are needed for public universities. In Russia the Internet is used in almost every university to supplement f2f instruction with skills needed for future jobs. In South Asia most universities are connected to the Net, with libraries in India interconnected. In Africa progress has been slow, with bandwidth and online costs relatively expensive, but there are affluent universities with a high technological level, particularly in South Africa. In Southeast Asia it is used in elite universities and affordable for students. In the Philippines even the underprivileged can use the Internet on a rental basis. In Indonesia it is the elite among universities. In Malaysia Internet use is progressing in secondary and primary schools. In Japan even elementary schools are well on the way to being wired, but Internet use is still mostly supplemental to regular face-to-face education. The responses overall confirm that the Internet is used in most but not all universities worldwide. For some regions above it could only be extrapolated how widespread Internet use is beyond their universities. More details are available elsewhere in this chapter, particularly on Internet use for all Southeast Asian countries.

Are females much less involved? In Latin America centering on Mexico it seemed to be yes, but the opposite for South America. In Finland and Israel they are equal. In Russia "[f]emales in former USSR countries, except the Moslems, are much more active and free than males." But rather than technical aspects "they prefer to utilize completed and reliable software products." In South Asia the difference is rather between urban vs. rural. Urban females are equally involved. For Africa the responses were varied: balanced in Kenya; women and girls still caught in traditional roles in South Africa, but females could be in the majority under certain demographic conditions in Lesotho and elsewhere. In Southeast Asia females outnumber males as they do in the whole educational sector. In Japan females are less involved with technology until it becomes very user-friendly and fashionable like mobile phones. Having more free time than men, females may be more involved in online education than men in the future when they become comfortable with the Net. Most responses worldwide were contrary to stereotypes, and may point to the role of educational cultures in bringing a surprising proportion of females into VLEs globally.

How do people generally feel about globalization effects -- do they feel their culture is threatened or do they welcome a broader cultural repertoire? For Latin America the Mexican respondent wrote that "[p]rofessionals feel it is a good thing provided our culture and values are maintained." A broader cultural repertoire is welcomed except in places like Argentina where globalization has had ill effects. In Finland there are no qualms except over whether VLEs are locally developed or not. In Israel most people welcome a broader cultural repertoire. In Turkey "where Europe and Asia meet" there is a strong sense of history and their role as a would-be Muslim nation in the EU. "Globalisation, the result of the impact of technology and power, has its own pluses and minuses [depending upon] pluralist-participatory democracy, market economics, national and international transparency and interactions." In Russia: "Some young and progressive people welcome international relations, but [the] older generation with a former Soviet mentality in a large proportion still do not trust foreigners, especially because Russia after Perestroika was invaded by foreigners who managed to plunder and help some Russians steal huge amounts of capital. So in a way the old communist accusations of uncontrolled and criminal capitalism have proven to be a reality. It will take a long time to replace that plunder with civilized international cooperation and to restore the lost trust in foreign businessmen and economic consultants." In South Asia: "Both. Elders are concerned with the cyber-attack on their culture, while young people are excited with the new medium, making global friends, finding communication much easier and at anytime." For Africa a Kenyan wrote: "It is welcomed particularly by the elite. The tradition-bound [tribal people] however feel highly threatened." In South Africa: "Civil society seems to be against globalisation, but as we are a country with 11 official languages and many cultures, we are working towards intercultural friendliness." In the Southern African region: "From the cultural point of view, globalization is seen with some degree of resentment. But in the main, the newness of technological development [precludes] its general acceptability and utilization." For Southeast Asia, in the Philippines: "People are taking globalization negatively, since … locally manufactured products and local companies have suffered from the WTO ... In terms of culture the people are not actually that bothered." In Indonesia there are "Mixed feelings about both issues, but there are also people who have no idea about the issues yet." In Malaysia "there is some fear of globalisation." In Japan the culture remains strong and well protected by an insular mentality and the language barrier. Most people would like to expand their options to select from the outside world without being overwhelmed by globalization or losing their cultural identity. Overall there were varied responses, for, against, or ambivalent, depending on how different sectors of each society see globalization affecting them. While everyone seems aware that it is a serious issue, non-Westerners do not seem to dismiss globalization pejoratively, such that they would shun educational opportunities from abroad made available through the Internet.

Can you describe any debates within your society about other issues such as language, democratization, equalizing of opportunity, or resistance to change by governments? For Latin America, Mexican "people want democratization, justice and the rule of law." In Argentina "[p]eople are more worried about ordinary, daily issues, such as social, economic changes badly needed at the moment, and education is one of the crucial issues." In Finland some issues are telecommuting, information overload, and Finnish vs. English, but not to the extent of protesting current trends. In Israel debates are on religion vs. secularism, the Jewish-Arab conflict, right vs. left political orientation, and Eastern-origin vs. Western-origin cultures. In Turkey some issues are geopolitics, human resources, cultural wealth, social sub-groups or regions vs. national priorities. In Russia "[t]he government supports new technologies and methods in education, but there is a drastic lack of money. However, a centralized mentality and system of education makes educators wait for governmental funding." In South Asia "[t]he Government of India is promoting infotech growth ... The State is promoting Internet kiosks in rural areas to promote education." In Africa one issue is language, such as in broadcasting … English is the main language of communications (among 11 languages in South Africa). Government control vs. freedom of speech is also at issue. "Transformation, democratization, accessibility, equity and gender sensitivity are the concepts now in vogue in societies here and common also in educational institutions." For Southeast Asia: "Most Filipinos know that the only way to bridge the gap between rich and poor or to equalize opportunity is through education. Most families strive to send their children to higher education, which is why about 95% of Filipinos are literate. However, even after a proper education they suffer from unemployment because there are no job opportunities in the country, which is why they usually resort to working abroad ... The government is not resistant to changes; it is just taking all these challenges in a step-by-step manner." In Indonesia some issues are "democratization, decentralization versus centralization, tolerance and unity." Malaysia is a multiracial society with an urban-rural digital divide. "There has been a major debate on the government decision to reintroduce English medium instruction for some primary school subjects. The new policy reflected the realization that falling behind in English proficiency could prove to be a serious disadvantage in this ICT era." In Japan there is a perennial tension between the attractions of the outside world and the unspoken prohibition against crossing over by being unlike other Japanese. Overall, language and democratization seem to be vital issues indeed, but rather than blame governments, the obstacles to a better life for citizens seem to be viewed more in economic terms.

Do leaders or the media see using the Internet as heading towards positive outcomes for education, international and intercultural relations, or not? For Latin America no one replied in the negative, but progress is slow even in professional sectors. A Brazilian added that "E-mails are intensively used to spread news and sometimes also to send suggestions to politicians." In Finland the Internet itself is well-covered, but representative educational issues arousing interest are not VLE pedagogy but rather news about hackers, university costs, and "children's use of computer games (are they good or do they make children passive?)" In Israel, South and Southeast Asia it was an unequivocal "Yes." In Russia and Africa the public and educators want to use the Internet but funding and access are limited. For Africa the answers were positive, yet even in South Africa "a lot of money seems to be allocated to help solve the situation, but I do not notice a vast improvement in South African educational resources output or the improvement in access or training of teachers." In Japan the educational potential of the Net is not widely recognized, and there is some protectionism precisely because Westerners are more advanced in online education. In media and governments worldwide, there do not seem to be significant Luddite or atavistic trends against technological advancement. The perceived problem is rather the expense, yet there may be some unspoken difficulties as the Internet to some extent allows users to go beyond the nationalistic ideologies and control mechanisms that empower their leaders.

Are there virtual universities or other virtual schools? For Latin America it was yes with two examples given for Brazil (hereinafter cf. the Appendix for names and Web URLs). But two of the four respondents did not seem to know. In Finland it was yes with an example. For Israel specifics were not cited, just the general embrace of e-learning. Israel's Open University was introduced earlier. In Turkey: "There aren't any virtual universities. Only some universities use virtual education for some courses." Then quite a number of ambitious projects were listed. In Russia there are very large scale distance education projects involving the Web as well as video-on-demand lectures, but entirely virtual universities were not mentioned. Similar to Turkey and Russia, in South Asia several virtual campuses of major universities were cited. For Africa, in South Africa, which is not representative of the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, it was yes, with just one private institution cited. Actually the Kenyan respondent is associated with the African Virtual University, so it may have gone without saying beyond "Yes." For Southeast Asia, in the Philippines they exist but are not popular. For Indonesia the informant wrote "No." For Malaysia it was "Yes" and an example was cited. Moreover, "most public universities have incorporated elements of virtual learning to complement the traditional face-to-face classroom." Later in this chapter there are more details on Southeast Asia. In Japan the established universities can now have virtual programs covering up to half their credits, but there are not yet any wholly virtual universities that are accredited. Overall, it seems much more common for established universities to branch into online programs. If the informants are not cognizant of virtual universities that do exist, then they have not yet made much impact. The following question elicited more details.

If so, are they accredited or recognized, or considered notorious? For Latin America a virtual university based at the Technical University of Monterrey in Mexico was cited, which may render one-sided another response from Mexico pointing to notoriety., viz., "they are not recognized; they give their own degrees." For Brazil it was just written that "[t]hey work together with private high schools." There were no responses for Finland, Israel or Turkey recorded. For Russia: "The problem of recognition is understood and there are well defined quality criteria for distance education." In South Asia "many are accepted and recognised by suitable authorities." Some Indian institutions are formally recognized internationally with branches abroad. For Africa, in Kenya they are "[h]ighly recognised." In South Africa: "[t]hey are accredited with our accreditation authority … and some of the courses have international accreditation." But elsewhere in the same region there has been a perceived "infiltration of such virtual institutions from America and Australia, [which] have become issues of Cabinet debates in Parliament as to whether or not to recognize them." For Southeast Asia, in the Philippines "[t]hey are not yet accredited. The Commission on Higher Education is planning to come up with an evaluation instrument intended for ODL [Open and Distance Learning] institutions, [not yet encompassing] totally virtual universities." In Malaysia they are "[a]ccredited by the National Accreditation Board." In Japan, since wholly virtual programs are not accredited, for-profit online programs could be considered notorious to hunt for customers in Japan. But if accredited domestic universities provide online programs, they are recognized. Overall the trend seems to be towards educational reforms recognizing virtual universities, especially as they emanate from established institutions. Rather than stemming from prejudgements about virtuality or distance from the instructor, notoriety, like recognition, has to be earned.

Have many people considered studying at institutions in other countries through the Internet? For Latin America there was just one response: "No, language and costs are a barrier." For Israel: "Yes, and quite a few get degrees through distance learning (not necessarily through the Internet)." For Russia: "Not so many, because Russian salaries are … 5-20 times lower than the salary for an equivalent job in developed countries. For many students not only knowledge, but also a formal diploma is of great importance. Free education online cannot provide a solid diploma, but to receive a foreign diploma one must spend a huge sum of money as compared with the average salary. And the language barrier is also a serious obstacle." For India: "Yes, for some online certificate courses like those for corporations like Microsoft and Oracle, but not yet for traditional courses." For Africa, in Kenya: "Not many, but there is a gradual increase in interest." In South Africa: "Yes, I am currently helping some students with courses from an Australian online institution." In the Southern African region, "not many people even in institutions of higher learning have sufficient provision of computers on their campuses, while it may be a mirage for individuals to have personal computers at home with Internet connectivity." For Southeast Asia, in the Philippines: "Yes, however it is so expensive." For Indonesia the answer was just "Yes." In Malaysia: "There is still some hesitation in this area, but foreign universities with online distance learning programmes have recorded the participation of Malaysian students." In Japan there have been advertisements in national publications especially for online MBAs that some working people would consider as an alternative to studying abroad.

Are there many local companies going into the e-learning business? For Latin America overall, "Yes." In Mexico: "There are few, and we are one of them." In Argentina: "Business companies may be more aware of the advantages of the Web. There is a bit of a movement for English language acquisition due to the need for English for job applications, living abroad, and computer literacy." In Brazil: "Yes, several, including IBM." In Finland: "There are some." In Israel: "Not [many]." In Turkey: "Many companies are going into the e-learning business." A nationwide-scale example was cited. In Russia: "There are some, primarily dealers of foreign software companies, that advertise online education technologies." For South Asia: "Yes." A nationwide example was cited for India. For Africa, in Kenya: "Yes." In South Africa: "Yes, but they are quite expensive and not all that user friendly." In Lesotho the informant did not know of any. For Southeast Asia, in The Philippines: "Only a few." In Indonesia: "Yes." In Malaysia: "Yes for multi-national corporations mainly, for whom e-Learning businesses span from primary education to university and even professional courses. But the 70% of the workforce in small to medium enterprises lacks the capital and expertise to invest in e-learning training solutions." In Japan, yes, the big electronics companies and some entrepreneurs are trying to precipitate a market for e-learning.

Are there academic associations working on the professional development of online educators? For Latin America: "Yes, there are regional and national associations." Yet in Mexico: "Mostly this work is done within each institution." In Brazil: "Yes," there is a national distance education association. In Finland: "Yes … there is a national ICT Teacher Training Project." For South Asia: "Yes, such as the Indian Association for Online Education." For Africa two responses from the southern region indicated that there are few online educators and hence few if any associations. For Southeast Asia, in Indonesia: "Yes." Online educators in Malaysia "remain affiliated to academic associations related to their respective disciplines." In Japan, educational organizations concerned with distance learning or computer-assisted language learning have changed their agendas with the advent of the Net.

Is the infrastructure for Web access an obstacle for most people or not? For Latin America: "Basic literacy, infrastructure, communication costs and computer literacy are obstacles for the population." In Mexico: "Yes, because in Mexico only 3.36% of the population have access to the Internet, but this number is growing." In Brazil: "Yes, at our federal university, students have free access to only 8 computers." For Finland: "In a very few cases; usually not." For Israel: "For some, but not for most." Turkey: "the infrastructure for web access for most people is not enough." Most users go to cyber cafes. For Russia: "In big cities access is affordable, but rather expensive for regular use in distance education." For South Asia: "Yes, outside of institutions, slow telephone lines hinder Web access." For Africa, in Kenya: "It is an obstacle considering the fee levied which is generally not affordable to many people." In Southern Africa: "Emphatically yes." For Southeast Asia, in Indonesia: "Yes, it is an obstacle, but also computer literacy." In Malaysia: "Sadly, this is true." In Japan, no, access is hardly an issue anymore. Computers, mobile phones, PDAs, game consoles and an increasing number of appliances are becoming Net-enabled.

What are the main obstacles to acceptance or use of the Internet for education? For Latin America: "Access is number one." In Mexico: "Training, independent learning skills, and cultural perceptions." In Argentina: "computers have become a luxurious tool at the moment," yet e-mail use is rapidly increasing. In Brazil: "Access. Many of our students come from humble families." In Finland: "Lack of knowledge about technological possibilities for helping learning." In Israel: "lack of time, partial replacement of [existing] teaching/learning processes, [and] costs." In Russia: "Low quality of telephone communications and high price for Internet access as compared with the average salary level." In South Asia: "Ignorance!" For Africa, in Kenya: "The cost of equipment, its maintenance and servicing." South Africa: "Access costs, infrastructure, poverty, and ignorance of what the Internet has to offer for education." In the Southern African region: "Dearth of infrastructure, financial problems, scarcity of telephone lines, and inadequate supply of electricity to many houses, districts, and villages where people live or work." For Southeast Asia, in the Philippines: "The Internet is already being used, but expensive infrastructure and all the equipment needed is an obstacle." In Indonesia: "Computer literacy and computer culture, privacy of information and information rights, and ownership." In Malaysia: "Cost of access and infrastructure." In Japan, to change the status quo is usually difficult, and there needs to be much more awareness by the general public of the opportunities for education and self-improvement made possible by the Internet.

Are there any other global or local issues that affect the acceptance of online education or the use of virtual learning environments in your region or country? In Latin America: "Communication costs are very high[,] technology is more expensive than in the U.S., and much of it is obsolete." In Brazil: "The government intended to connect all public high schools by computer, but the funds were redirected to the electric company to prevent blackouts." In Finland: "Commercial education is not an option, so the fear of having payments for the courses could be one issue. Another is that virtual learning takes time from other traditional learning activities, so there are worries about the quality of the content." In Israel: "the academic culture." In Russia: "There are strict traditions in the educational system and opposition of old teachers to new technologies. Computer classrooms in many schools have obsolete equipment, such as old PCs without Internet access. There is also a lack of interest in short online courses or events, which have not yet proven their effectiveness in Russia. An exception is online courses to receive professional certificates from foreign companies, such as Microsoft. [Furthermore], there are difficulties in organizing a complete distance educational system granting professional diplomas." In South Asia: "awareness and access seem to be among the other reasons." For Africa, in Kenya: "Cultural tendencies and attitudes." In South Africa: "We currently have a severe food shortage in the region as well as high HIV/AIDS infection rates. Online education becomes a luxury. Basic education itself is in crisis and very many schools do not even have electricity and books." For the Southern African region: "Ignorance, low level of awareness, apathy, and insufficient funds." For Southeast Asia, in the Philippines: "Older people are unable to use it and are very resistant to ICT. They argue that nothing can really equal the value of face-to-face instruction, and that a personal human touch better encourages study, whereas the younger generation is embracing the challenges and maximizing the use of ICT." In Indonesia: "National issues: infrastructure is expensive, therefore access is low and difficult, while the users are computer illiterate, and technical expertise is rare." In Malaysia: "The major challenge would be having enough quality online educators who can develop good online courses that offer the kind of support that Asian students look for." In Japan, mental attitudes in a traditional culture with elaborate face-to-face rituals raise many barriers. Yet the Internet allows Japanese people to browse world cultures from a safe distance and to consider becoming more involved in the outside world.

Discussion of the Overall Results

Factors such as the state of VLE use for education, Internet infrastructure, access, and involvement of companies are closely correlated with the level of economic development of the countries reported. It can be inferred from that correlation that countries will proceed into educational and other uses of the Internet insofar as they can afford to do so. On the one hand, fully developed countries like Finland and Israel are at a state-of-the-art level by all indicators surveyed. Whereas countries like India and Russia are keen to do the same but lack the national budget to spread these opportunities to their large populations. There is no sign of a deliberate elitism to restrict wider access. From Mexico to South America, wide sectors of chronic poverty and limited infrastructure make online education a luxury that many cannot afford to discover. Much more so in Africa, more pressing public problems must be dealt with, lest awareness of what people are missing breeds further discontent.

Next to economic factors, cultural attitudes tend to determine which opportunities are embraced or avoided. Japan is fully advanced economically and in the Internet infrastructure to use VLEs, but does not compare with Finland in realizing the possibilities of online education. India has meager resources but reaches out internationally, taking advantage of English-medium education, whereas Japanese people are largely content to insulate themselves in their culture and language. Cultural attitudes also extend to gender roles, yet the results were mixed. Besides a widespread tendency for women to shy away from mechanical and technical things, or to be denied access to such education, they also may either have more free time than men or else be heavily represented in the teaching profession where they encounter opportunities for online educator development. India and Malaysia reported what points to a global issue, a city-country gap or digital divide within countries.

Then there are more nuanced issues like globalization, where individuals in each culture can take up the pros and cons and arrive at different conclusions -- or ambivalence. Generally, people would like to expand their horizons but without incurring a threat to their cultural identity or acceptance by their peers. There was no sign in the responses that any sectors of societies would decline the opportunity to use the Internet if it were accessible and affordable. Similarly, globalization would probably be embraced in most developing countries if it were not accompanied by a perceived exploitation that widens the gap between rich and poor. In the context of online education, it is vital that distance education providers deliver the concrete benefits they promise in terms of valuable information and marketable skills, so that learners' life prospects are improved. Fast-buck operations claiming to provide knowledge, in effect from the high-tech center of world civilization to the benighted low-tech periphery, without intercultural sensitivity and due respect, can rapidly sully the frontier of global education. Whether globalization is good or bad then depends on the fruits of global initiatives, but the uncertain outcomes at this stage may account for much reported ambivalence about globalization.

Furthermore there are local issues reflecting the circumstances in different regions and cultures that result in unique debates or variations in adopting global phenomena such as the Internet. Systems of accreditation affect the development of virtual universities, and whether courses taken over the Net from other countries are recognized or marginalized. Where there tends to be suspicion about the outside world, as reported from Russia, Malaysia and Japan, the sensitivity is liable to be greater towards bogus educational enterprises, viewing them as representative and confirming doubts rather than as the aberrations that they are. Then language barriers loom large in many countries where English is a foreign language, compounding other barriers, making it difficult to discern spam and so forth, which reinforces distrust of strangers. While it is not surprising that literacy presents a vast barrier to Internet-based education, it may be surprising the extent to which communication costs are inversely related to income, more expensive in developing countries, which exacerbates the global digital divide.

Thanks to the representatives of countries at various stages of development, fruitful comparisons could be made and patterns discerned. An overall conclusion is that online education can represent a positive form of globalization welcomed in most of the world, provided it is not technologically or economically but rather pedagogically driven. Academic standards and ethics provide the foundation for a new professional discipline of online education.

Global Virtual Organizations for Online Educator Empowerment

by Nick Bowskill (England), Robert Luke (Canada) and Steve McCarty (Japan)


The authors of this text have never met. We live in different continents and different time zones. We do however share the same space and the same organisation for at least some of our professional development. We are all members of the World Association for Online Education (WAOE), which is a virtual and voluntary organisation for those interested in online education. Entirely virtual organisations represent a significant new form of social organisation. The world community of scholars with shared academic standards and ethics is well poised to utilise the online medium for mutual empowerment and relevant social action in the so-called real world that originates, organises and builds strength in cyberspace. So as a virtual organisation and professional development vehicle for educators, WAOE itself can also be understood as a virtual learning environment (VLE).

... distributed learning. Defined as that learning which is distributed in time and space and enabled by new technologies (such as VLEs), distributed learning is a particular catch-phrase for learning within the networked relations of the digital world. Distributed learning may be formal or informal; it is marked by the "any time, any place" ubiquity afforded by the Internet and the World Wide Web, and the manner in which people engage and interact in learning activities both locally and globally. The WAOE itself is a distributed environment, and one that supports learning. The WAOE functions as a distributed learning environment?a virtual learning environment in support of learning about learning and learning about learning online.

... The WAOE is a non-profit public benefit corporation registered in the state of California, but its membership spans five continents without being dominated by any geographical region. The WAOE is a chiefly virtual association serving the needs of academics and educators concerned with turning online education into a professional discipline. The WAOE focuses on combining dedication to online learning with social and cultural exchange. The objectives and purposes of the WAOE explicitly promote humanistic ethics and global collaboration in online education, specifically:

(i) to maintain a global perspective as a world organisation, supporting multi-lingualism and multiculturalism in online education, preserving human rights to diversity and mutual respect despite differences, and encouraging intercultural sensitivity and world reconciliation through intercultural communication among global citizens,

(ii) to be as inclusive as possible in scope, serving the aspirations of all members and working for equitable access to online education and to membership. For more information see: ...

History of the WAOE's Use of VLEs

The WAOE originated appropriately at an entirely online conference (McCarty 1997; Shimabukuro 2000). At the First Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference in April 1996, McCarty contributed a 'paper' to the conference Website, exchanged asynchronous e-mail discussion list messages automatically posted to Web archives via hypernews, and joined other presenters not only in synchronous MOO (Multi-user chat rooms utilizing Object-Oriented programming) sessions to discuss papers, but also in 'digging' one's own Webbed MOO room accessible either by chat programs or via a Web interface. In such text chat, descriptions of the environment and a repertoire of communication gambits rely mostly on the imagination of literate participants to share a virtual reality in the virtual learning environment. To the extent that participants took advantage of opportunities to interact with one another at a distance through such communication tools, evaluations showed that little was left to be desired compared to face-to-face conferences. Such online conferences were open to all kinds of educators, especially those outside of North America, with the access, content, and educational technologies all empowering to participants.

So then, with such tools available, why not try to network with educators globally all year round? The keynote address of the Third Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference (McCarty 1998) proposed the need for an organization to turn the new frontier of online education into a professional discipline. Online conference discussions continued for months until an independent, almost completely online organization was born, the WAOE. Through an Estonian organization the domain was registered, and a professor in California's capital registered the WAOE as an NPO. However, the location of Web servers makes little difference, and NPO status turned out to involve no tax savings but to represent the WAOE's idealism. An e-democracy from the start, founding principles, then Bylaws and Directors were voted upon entirely online with impartial procedures supervised by a Cyber-Parliamentarian.

WAOE was announced in November 1998 and quickly approached a thousand participants from 50 countries, showing that a need had indeed been met."[O]fficers hail from nine countries thus far, so WAOE is not dominated by any geographical region. WAOE is open to all those who are committed to pedagogical principles and interested in networking with other online educators worldwide (McCarty, 1999). Wandering from list to list,Website to Website, like so many nomadic masterless samurai, what online educators have been missing is a real organization."

That WAOE has shown sustainability belies the notion in business circles that a virtual organization is ad hoc and temporary. Communities of practice such as WAOE are organic wellsprings of like-minded people engaged in learning together. Though people do not meet face-to-face, a virtual organization like WAOE using all sorts of electronic means of communication to bring people together for information exchange, mutual support and collaboration in a new field demonstrably serves real needs.

It is human nature to shy away from trying something new, and educators are no less susceptible to technophobia. So WAOE has made conscious efforts to use the widest range of VLEs. WAOE officers have also expected to field questions about the options available or comparisons thereof. Even the legitimacy or motives of VLE vendors and purveyors of experiences therein have been at issue. So WAOE officers have had to be particularly bold and take every opportunity such as executive meetings to try mastering yet another VLE.

E-mail discussion lists have provided a sort of environment for WAOE communications and, archived on the WWW, have left a trail of WAOE's proceedings. During and after the TCC Online Conference, from April to October 1998, 320 messages still available at the University of Hawaii at URL <> show how WAOE was incubated by the conference registrants. Within weeks of the conference per se a moderated news list for the nascent organization was secured at the University of Idaho, with 71 messages from April 1998 to June 1999, recording milestones still available at URL:<>. In July 1998 the unmoderated discussion list WAOE Views, open to anyone interested, was established and continues to this day with over 2,500 messages as of September 2002 available at URL: <>.

While the Views discussion list has been archived through Yahoo Groups, the listserv has actually been based at WAOE's ISPs. In terms of environments, the new organization needed a (virtual) home, especially with no particular office in so-called real life. About a month after the online conference, in early May 1998, Mihkel Pilv in Estonia registered the domain name <> and found an economical ISP in the U.S. Among the Charter Members and a Steering Committee that gathered, some of the latter started developing the Website to give the group a permanent central residence in cyberspace.

Other VLEs were nevertheless utilized as the ISP could not serve all the kinds of communication called for by WAOE activities. An unconventional Constitutional Convention was convened at a bulletin board system in Connecticut. There was also a cgi form with which to respond to messages from one's browser. Already a pattern was emerging of leveraging the skills and institutional resources of active members' institutions rather than waiting for grants or other types of funding. Also in May 1998, the WAOE-affiliated Journal of Online Education was established at New York University, available at URL <>.

In June 1998, Prof. Jenna Seehafer of California State University started incorporating WAOE in Sacramento as an NPO, after intense discussions on what kind of organization WAOE should be. In August 1998 Charter Members voted to approve WAOE Founding Propositions and the first slate of elected Directors, with a view to establishing formal Bylaws. A cyberspace equivalent of non-partisan face-to-face parliamentary procedures was developed to hold all voting and elections online, through Web forms feeding into confirming e-mail messages, conducted by disinterested scholars. The State of California Attorney General's office readily accepted the WAOE Bylaws despite all the Directors being in different countries, never meeting in person as is customary for NPO proceedings. Rather the State was watching WAOE with a view to future online elections.

American facilities were conspicuous at the beginning, with Westerners providing most of the VLEs, but always sensitive to the international membership. A wholly positive form of globalization has been evidenced in the way Westerners have often stayed behind the scenes, amplifying non-Western voices and encouraging their ownership of the organization, which has manifested in a balanced geographical and cultural composition of the officers. WAOE-commissioned Websites in an increasing number of countries lent a palpable sense of a deliberately distributed organization actively avoiding centralization in any geographical region or cultural norm. The intent of the W in WAOE was to start from that goal.

In 1999 the Multilingual WAOE project was launched, strengthening the commitment to multiculturalism. A number of cultural events were also planned from that year so that members worldwide could learn from one another and exhibit cultural diversity while enjoying their shared interest in online education. The WAOE World Culture Festival in February 1999 utilized an array of VLEs, with synchronous chats and WebBoard events along with asynchronous e-mail discussions. Web-based presentations with photos captured festivals taking place at that time of the year from the Balkans to Brazil. In July 1999 WAOE collaborated with the Child Research Net on Summer Festivals in Japan, discussions accompanying a Web presentation. At the end of 1999 New Year's greetings for the year 2000 were compiled in 20 languages with photos of Brazil and an interactive game by Prof. Roberto Mueller.

WAOE's affiliations have followed a similar pattern, promoting online educational efforts in Latin America and Malaysia as well as the U.S. and Japan. While some founding members had donated funds to start WAOE's online presence, dues were deemed necessary from mid-1999. But paying the $US10 yearly figure online was problematical especially for those using other currencies, so there was a significant loss of participation. Within a year WAOE found modest sponsorship through officers' services to a Tokyo educational NPO, so in mid-2000 WAOE abolished dues and returned to its desired ideal of access for all concerned with the improvement of online learning. All along WAOE maintained a dual mission of serving international society as well as serving members, so there was always free access to WAOE's information and the public discussion list Views.

Prof. Jenna Seehafer conceived of the mid-1999 Annual Members' Meeting in the form of a Web tutorial, where members could follow a certain sequence of steps, and visitors could learn about the organization in that way from then on. Remaining valid so long as WAOE needed membership dues, the tutorial format intuitively appealed to the human need for an orientating structure to navigate the complex labyrinth of cyberspace with a sense of situatedness.

In 1999 Nick Bowskill proposed the idea of a notional WAOE Online Educators Course as a shared experiment to explore the issues and concerns to be contained within such a course. It was also a problem-solving professional development exercise for sharing ideas and to try and make a pilot implementation to apply some of the learning in a meaningful context. This was done with the BlackBoard learning management system free version, and a number of officers were eager to evaluate its functionality and possibilities. The guiding concept of a library of experience meshed well with the sense of responsibility among officers to know the terrain of a new discipline and to provide signposts for others who follow. An organizational library of experience could be found in Web-based records of the collaboration of individuals through WAOE. This library would function as an Open Source Learning document, continually updated as a living archive. Officers have shared access to different learning management systems among each other and then freely to members during the Annual Members' Meetings mandated of an NPO but held online.

Officers have learned from each other in a continuous process of professional development. The WAOE Coordinating Ring had its own listserv for organizational communications first based at California State University, then with WAOE's ISP. But there was a constant effort to reach out to other VLEs to explore how WAOE's mission could be better fulfilled. In this process it was discovered, for example, that an issue was the cobbling of free or nearly free VLEs, which was a very economical form of empowerment but with a lingering sense of frustration. The fragmentary inability of various tools to add up to a coherent experience led to unrealistic expectations that some learning management system (LMS) would provide a satisfying answer. That is, human nature in cyberspace yearned for a seamless and consistent VLE that would fulfill all the knowledge-building, interactive and communicative needs one would envision or expect. But the reality was that prices soared as the imperfections of such systems were reduced but not eliminated. Discussions in the free Blackboard environment and later with an inexpensive version of the MetaCollege LMS leased by WAOE have been preoccupied with what the systems cannot do in terms of functionality and so forth. But these realizations about human nature were necessarily the fruits of collective experience, which each individual can then pass on. The nature of this collective intelligence reinforces the contextual and situated nature of learning online within a community of practice. WAOE thus functions to legitimise knowledge production within this context, particularly as it relates to the personal professional development of each participant.

If there were now wholly virtual organizations, there should be virtual organization software for all of an online organization's needs in a networked infrastructure. But there, too, it was found that only fragments of such functions were available. WAOE officers therefore investigated what groupware or teamware was available for free. There was already a WAOE WebBoard at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University available for formal events in addition to the Ring discussion list, but WAOE explored the possibilities of virtual organization environments by selecting QuickTeam as the venue for the February-March 2000 Board of Directors' Meeting. Limitations in functionality again resulted in a gain mostly of experience, while QuickTeam was eventually absorbed into another company, as its business model of advertisements in the free VLE proved unsustainable.

In a somewhat similar instance, WAOE officers investigated what LMS could be used so that WAOE could operate on the model of a virtual university. Vendors such as WebCT were found to be too expensive for WAOE in their minimum services, so officers selected the free version of MetaCollege for an Online Educator Development Practicum that was opened to members at the Annual Members' Meeting in mid-2000 (AMM2000). Later MetaCollege also apparently found advertising revenue insufficient, and WAOE decided to start paying for the minimum service. A danger of VLE freeware was discovered, in that the companies are vulnerable to going out of business or starting to charge for formerly free services, so educators may lose the work invested in good faith in a certain VLE. This marks a clear need for open source courseware systems that can be sustained by non-profits such as WAOE.

For the following Annual Members' Meeting in mid-2001 (AMM2001), members were challenged to utilize various online venues, voting through Web forms, discussing by mailing list and by logging into WAOE's WebBoard, plus members were e-mailed access codes to enter the MetaCollege Advanced Site. While most individuals would not lease their own LMS, the organization could leverage a tiny budget to provide such experiences to members.

Synchronous events of AMM2001 were held in the combination chat room and whiteboard of WAOE's online seminar course in MetaCollege, hosted by four Asian colleagues and Steve McCarty in Japan. Again the discussion quickly turned to the lack of functionality, such as being disconnected from chat after using the whiteboard for illustrations. With current technology, officers have found that it is still better to separate those communication tools.

Also at AMM2001, Prof. Mike Holmwood offered open house to visit the WebCT VLE at his college in Vancouver, for WAOE members who had only heard of WebCT and wished to experience it. Such individual contributions can increase the services to members, expanding collective expertise and a growing library of experience. And a continuously learning organization is an increasingly empowered educational organization. The iterative process of a learning organization such as WAOE reveals the fact that, to a large extent, any particular VLE is almost incidental to the working of an online community of practice. For it is the aggregate knowledge produced as part of the Open Source Learning process that marks WAOE as a learning environment in and of itself.

WAOE was cited as a model for collaboration at a conference in China by K. Narayanan of the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia in New Delhi: "Various patterns of collaboration can be envisaged. They range from individuals voluntarily sharing resources to institutionalized collaboration in course and credit sharing" (Narayanan, 2001). He quotes extensively from Bowskill et al. (2000), including two of WAOE's 22 stated Objectives and Purposes (see URL: <>). "The reference to WAOE has been made to highlight voluntary collaboration for offering professional development courses online, with a concern for multilingualism and multiculturalism in online education. The success of the WAOE as a voluntary organisation would suggest that similar organisations with like objectives be multiplied for deeper collaboration amongst educationists for offering online courses of study, training or professional development" (Narayanan, 2001).

As part of WAOE's dual mission to serve international society as well as members' professional needs, a global digital divide policy was passed at the 2001 Annual Members' Meeting. The idea was to leverage the services offered for the same fee by WAOE's ISP to offer many more free services to members and even to non-members in developing countries. WAOE officers just needed to master the Web-based functions offered, and to volunteer the time. WAOE paid for four mailing lists, so four different types were set up. E-mail accounts, aliases thereof and Web directories were virtually unlimited, so officers were encouraged to make the most of them or to help others.

Those who were using free e-mail accounts or Web services with limits and intrusive advertisements were thus invited to have addresses at E-mail aliases further serve to form sub-groups of the Coordinating Ring: for example, e-mails sent to <> are forwarded to everyone in that Committee for better service. Aliases are also better than individuals' e-mails for mailto: links on WAOE's Web pages.

In 2002 the WAOE Websites and e-mail accounts of officers have become quite numerous and have been extended to general members. The Indian Association for Online Education (IAOE) inspired by WAOE is led by WAOE member Dr. Sanjaya Mishra who has changed to WAOE's Web-based e-mail and is one of those who receives e-mail to the alias <>.

In a similar vein, at the Annual Members' Meeting in mid-2002 (AMM2002) officers resolved to step up WAOE publications to institute more visibility for WAOE as a virtual learning environment. An e-mail newsletter WAOE Electronic Bulletin (WEB) will be hard-pressed to keep up with new developments, while an e-journal is under discussion, with volunteers already for languages in addition to English, and a suggested title of Intercultural Cyberspace Journal.

Another virtual environment WAOE would like to expand into is a relational database whereby members could manage their own membership status through a Web interface and network with other members having similar research interests through the database of members' information.

On the agenda of AMM2002, business included elections, with candidates from Singapore, the U.S., an Indian in Germany and a Mexican in Hawaii, which showed that non-Westerners are identifying with WAOE and making the organization their own. Aside from business, WAOE annual meetings also feature discussions on the Views mailing list and other venues. At AMM2002 the discussion of online education turned deeply philosophical with balanced participation from all over the world. Prof. Asif Daya specifically led a discussion on accessibility and e-health technology. As a result, it was decided at the following Board of Directors' Meeting in July-August to hand over the designer role of WAOE's MetaCollege LMS license to Prof. Daya for courses in of Kenya.
Another topic of discussion was the Future of Universities, with Dr. Parker Rossman, formerly a dean at Yale, to discuss his online book. WAOE collaborated with the TappedIn Summer Carnival 2002, holding a synchronous discussion in their MOO. The transcript is available at:<>. This in turn led to Dr. Rossman deciding to accept the offer of the WAOE WebBoard for continuing asynchronous discussions of his online book and specifically how to attain education for all in developing countries through the Internet. As with TappedIn, which is predominantly at the K-12 level, this discussion starting in August 2002 is also not particularly for WAOE members but has WAOE's cooperation. WAOE provides the venue for the invited participants with international development experience, and offers orientation for those new to the technology.

When Dr. John Afele, on the Executive Board of the Global Knowledge Partnership and a prolific author of original scholarship, lost his International Program for Africa at a Canadian university, it was WAOE's privilege to revive its Web presence in August 2002, available at:

These are some of the milestones of WAOE's brief history as a virtual organization delivering palpable results, seen through WAOE's use of VLEs. In sum, this history reveals WAOE itself as an expansive VLE serving those concerned with online education. The open knowledge structure of WAOE exemplifies how Open Source Learning environments are those that foster collegiality, cooperation, and learning within shared interests of communities of practice.

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