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Volume 9, Number 6: February 27, 2003

Digital Education for a Global Village
by Douglas Savage,
UW System Institute for Global Studies


In an era when American pop culture has penetrated the farthest reaches of the globe, acts of political violence in nations a dozen time zones away send shockwaves down Main Street, and manufacturers in Kenosha must compete with companies in Kuala Lumpur, the education establishment can no longer consider global awareness a goal limited to a small group of international specialists. Much like computer literacy, which was once solely the province of technology majors, the systematic study of the world's peoples and processes has, in the past, typically been confined to a few social science disciplines. However, just as the universal dissemination of various information technologies has transformed computer literacy into a basic skill, the phenomena we collectively refer to as globalization have made understanding of the world's complex matrix of economic, political, and cultural relationships a prerequisite for success for every student.

In response to this need for a more global approach to education across the curriculum, the UW System established the Institute for Global Studies on the Milwaukee campus in 1998. The Institute's primary mission is to provide support for global education efforts of faculty and staff throughout the System. Through its various curriculum and faculty development initiatives, IGS promotes a collaborative, interdisciplinary model of global education among a growing community of scholars.

Increasingly, these efforts involve the use of various digital resources and capabilities that supplement and, in some cases, replace more traditional curricular design. This growing role of technology in global education reflects the technologically enabled processes that drive globalization itself. As technology transforms the world into a global community, it is only appropriate that it also be used to aid students in understanding the reality it helps create.

One area in which the digital revolution has opened new doors is the creation of virtual international exchanges and collaborations. The traditional travel model, in which students and faculty are physically transported to another place, has always been a major component of international education. Indeed, for many people, international education is synonymous with "study abroad." Clearly, there are aspects of this kind of experience that cannot be translated to a digital format. A lively conversation on literature with local students in a sunny Tuscan piazza has benefits that an online discussion of Dante can never provide.

The traditional travel model does, however, have its limitations. Perhaps most importantly, it tends to be exclusionary. Monetary and opportunity costs place an extended stay abroad beyond the reach of many students. Moreover, participants become part of a guest/host dynamic that can impact the academic work they do. By contrast, the virtual collaboration places little financial burden on participants, and allows them to interact with their international counterparts on a peer-to-peer basis.

IGS has provided support for a number of innovative virtual collaborations developed by faculty around the System. These projects have allowed place-bound students to have substantive interactions with counterparts in less commonly studied places like Moldova and Senegal around issues of mutual academic interest. In addition to deepening their understanding of the places occupied by the US and their collaborators' country within the global system, students often also gain insight into the realities of the digital divide. While UW students typically give little thought to access to the Internet, their partners outside the US often have to contend with a host of challenges, from prohibitively high usage fees, to unreliable supplies of electricity and fuel. That one's colleague cannot immediately respond to an e-mail message because there is no gas available to drive the fifty kilometers to the nearest Net-connected computer is a powerful lesson in globalization.

Faculty from around the UW System are using other technology-enabled approaches to help students understand the evolving global society in which they live. The growing use of building blocks of curricular content--often referred to as learning objects--is creating a body of reusable resources that can be shared across disciplines. A learning object can be defined as a discrete unit of educational content that serves to meet a learning objective and, in so doing, is an intrinsic part of a course or module. It may be text, graphics, audio or video. An important property is reusability. The most effective learning objects serve as units of instructional content that can be recombined in different ways to support a variety of curricular goals.

One recent example of a global education learning object is a collaborative effort by several UW institutions to develop a Web-based role-playing exercise dealing with HIV/AIDS policy in a fictitious African nation. The exercise allows students to research various positions and assume the roles of government officials, multinational pharmaceutical company executives, non-government organization leaders, and other key players. They then engage in a threaded discussion on related issues such as intellectual property, public health policy, and international trade. The exercise ends with students translating their virtual experience into an analytic paper in which they advocate their view of best policy options.

This learning object was developed by a diverse group of faculty from a variety of disciplines, including political science, nursing, business, and economics. It is designed to allow students in a number of different course settings to master an expansive body of background information, meaningfully interact outside the classroom, and ultimately come to an informed decision on a complex policy issue.

Once learning objects are developed, a key to their usefulness lies in the ease with which they can be located and retrieved. To assist in this process, IGS has set up the Global Education Online Depository & Exchange (GEODE) on its website, GEODE is a portal that allows users to quickly search for relevant digital curricular resources. It also allows contributors to upload material they would like to make available to their colleagues. As instructors become more aware to the advantages of a learning object approach in designing their courses, the role of this kind of portal site will likely continue to grow.

In the final analysis, the use of new technologies to promote global awareness and literacy is inevitable. Global education is a process by which we seek to better understand the very world that the digital revolution helped create. It is the latest manifestation of the late Marshall McLuhan's observation that the medium is, indeed, the message. An early predictor of an information-driven global village, he would no doubt be pleased to see teachers and learners using the same tools that built the environment in which we all now live.


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