There is little that stresses me more than preparing to teach or give a talk in a country where I am not familiar with the culture. I have been doing research on higher education in Argentina for almost 25 years. I know quite a bit about the history of education, reforms during recent decades, how the system is structured, attitudes about teaching and learning, etc. I have a pretty good feel for the controversies, issues being debated, and challenges faced by most universities. All of this helps me to plan my work better and target themes appropriately. I also know what issues I can joke about and which ones I dare not.
So, when I was asked to deliver a series of informal workshops to faculty and administrators at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), I was excited, but also nervous.. I have minimal Portuguese and limited historical and cultural knowledge of Brazil. At least it was Latin America where I have some global perspective and I did have some prior experience traveling in Brazil and researching issues in higher education, even if not on par with my experience in Argentina.
When I was invited to teach at the Princess Nora University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. it was even more stressful. I knew almost nothing about Middle East or Arab cultures. I had no idea of the way the individuals in my classroom had been educated or the perspectives they would bring to the issues we would discuss. I had no idea which topics were culturally sensitive.
Why am I discussing this? All of this was brought to mind by Ghanashyam Sharma’s recent blog, “A MOOC Delusion: Why Visions to Educate the World Are Absurd.” I share Sharma’s enthusiasm for making education more accessible but also his skepticism about MOOCs as a panacea. He notes, “Academic disciplines and teaching/learning environments (or, put simply, courses) are almost always highly specialized and situated in local academic systems and cultures.” This is where my personal experience comes in. I am convinced that our teaching effectiveness is enhanced or diminished by the extent of our knowledge of our audience.
I think most people today are inclined to agree that successful teaching requires, in part, engaging students at many levels, not simply providing them with information. MOOCs leave professors teaching “blindly” with very little idea of who is the audience, let alone which cultures have educated them. Sharma goes on to quote Bakary Diallo, a professor from the African Virtual University, who asserted that students in other parts of the world have their "own realities," their "own context and culture" [and that it] would be absurd to ignore how significantly those realities shape students’ participation in our virtual classrooms. As we move forward with MOOCs, let’s not forget this.
Even if we come to a virtual classroom with the same number of years of previous education, graduated in the same areas of study, we do indeed bring our own reality with us that invariably shapes the way we receive and process new ideas. That is why when I teach in the US or teach in Argentina, I am more confident that I can engage the people in my classroom because these cultures and languages are familiar. This is why I think I am a better teacher in Argentina than Brazil, better in Brazil than in Saudi Arabia and unavoidably less effective teaching a MOOC.