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Embracing Difference in Distance Education

This page discusses some of the education research on the impact of globalization on developing countries that directs attention to cultural differences rather than conformity, and considers this in relation to distance education, online education and open learning.

The discussion in the Globalization section would seem to imply that academic imperialism is inevitable, i.e., that local traditional values and practices will be displaced, if a developing country adopts western educational systems (Evans, 1995b, pp.314-315). However, as Freire (1972) maintains, although education can bring conformity to the dominant system, it can also become "the 'practice of freedom', the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world" (Freire, 1972, p.38).

There is a major change in the way in which the social world is viewed. There has been a move away from the pursuit of uniformity to an acceptance of difference; from seeking to control to seeking to empower; and from an expectation of predictability to seeing change as unpredictable.

"The current multiplicity of uses that surrounds the three words meaning, discourse, and text should be sufficient to indicate that we are not only in an era of blurred genres ... but we are in a peculiar state that I would like to call "postblurring", in which ecumenism has - happily, in my opinion - given way to sharp debates about the word, the world, and the relationship between them" (Appadurai, 1996, p.51).

This major cultural change is reflected in the use of concepts such as: post-modern, post-industrial, post-Fordism and post-colonial to describe the social interactions and institutions of the contemporary period. As Edwards (1995, p.242-3) suggests, we are "lost in the post" and the significance of the 'post' is that "in many ways writers are articulating an ending of something, but without the confidence to put a definite alternative in its place".

According to Appadurai (1996, p.32), the new global cultural economy "cannot any longer be understood in terms of existing center-periphery models". He proposes instead five -scapes: (a) ethnoscapes, (b) mediascapes, (c) technoscapes, (d) financescapes, and (e) ideoscapes" (Appadurai, 1996). These -scapes are

"perspectival constructs, inflected by the historical, linguistic, and political situatedness of different sorts of actors: nation-states, multinationals, diasporic communities, as well as subnational groupings and movements (whether religious, political or economic), and even intimate face-to-face groups, such as villages, neighbourhoods, and families" (Appadurai, 1996, p.54).

It is the withholding of "the global imagination" from ordinary people" that is to be feared, not the global cultural flows that occur in and around the scapes. "Local knowledge is substantially about producing reliably local subjects as well as about producing reliably local neighbourhoods within which such subjects can be recognized and organized" (Appadurai, 1996, p.181). The "postblurring" referred to above, makes Guy (1995, p.79) optimistic because

"the increasing prominence of post-colonial discourses encompassing indigenous voices, local perspectives and epistemologies, together with the post-modern shift within Western academic disciplines that define the field, open up new possibilities and opportunities for understanding and organising distance education."

In this way, "post-colonial discourses direct attention to cultural difference and local productions which resist or transform imperialist and neo-imperialist cultural forms" (Guy, 1995, p.81).

Edwards (1994, p.11) also maintains that with globalization there comes "a pressure for local autonomy and identity" and "the affirmation of local, regional, ethnic identities", and that "the integration of the globe reconfigures rather than supplants diversity". Danaher & Wyer (1995, p.158), in their study of a program of itinerant education for the children of Queensland-based show people, found that "a minority culture has the capacity to refine its own culture alongside the dominant culture, for its future generation to to be able to enter and exit the dominant culture at will and to be able to take from that culture whenever required". Further, they maintain that open and distance learning, by taking on a postmodernist dimension and operating as a border pedagogy, promoted "the particularising tendency of localisation, and with it the recognition of, and restructuring in response to, a minority culture and its associated identities" (Danaher & Wyer, 1995, p.158). Pursuing this postmodernist dimension, Edwards (1995, p.252) draws a distinction between distance education (essentially Fordist and modernist) and open learning (essentailly post-Fordist and postmodernist), noting that discourses of open learning "place greater emphasis on the articulated requirements of diverse learners in diverse settings - to which providers of learning opportunities need to respond". Evans agrees, noting that distance education is mutating "into a complex open education organism" (1995a, p.256), i.e., "the Fordist 'instructional industrialism' of distance education ... is evolving into a post-Fordist global instructional corporatism of open education" (Evans, 1995a, p.256).

"The task for researchers and educators in a post-colonial world is to develop better understandings of the relationships between difference, identity and power and to develop effective pedagogies which acclaim difference as the basis of genuine democratic forms of social and educational organisation" (Guy, 1995, p.81).

The use of ICT in online learning, especially the use of social constructivist Learning Management Systems such as Moodle, and the socially interactive tools afforded by Web 2.0, can assist in this task.


Appadurai, A. 1996. Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of modernity. University of Minnesota Press, London and Minneapolis.

Danaher, P.A. & Wyer, D.W. 1995. Itinerant education as border pedagogy: The globalization and localisation of show culture. In Nouwens, F. (ed) (1995) Distance education: Crossing frontiers. Papers for the 12th Biennial Forum of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, Vanuatu, September. Australia: Central Queensland University. 154-159.

Edwards, R. 1994. From a distance? globalization, space-time compression and distance education, Open Learning, 9(3): 9-17.

Edwards, R. 1995. Different discourses, discourses of difference: globalization, distance education and open learning. Distance Education, 16(2): 241-255.

Evans, T.D. 1995a. globalization, post-Fordism and open and distance education, Distance Education, 16(2): 256-269.

Evans, T.D. 1995b. Thinking globalization: Issues for open and distance educators in Australia and the South Pacific. In Nouwens, F. (ed) (1995) Distance education: Crossing frontiers. Papers for the 12th Biennial Forum of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, Vanuatu, September. Central Queensland University, Australia. 312-316.

Freire, P. 1972. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Guy, R. 1995. Contesting borders: knowledge, power and pedagogy in distance education in Papua New Guinea. In Nouwens, F. (ed) (1995) Distance education: Crossing frontiers. Papers for the 12th Biennial Forum of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, Vanuatu, September. Central Queensland University, Australia. 79-83.