Humans are not born knowing how the world around them works, and how to survive in such a world. The task of educating has been approached in the most diverse ways since humans first realized that passing on knowledge to their offspring meant increasing the odds of the survival of their own species. But mere survival is not the end goal of humans—with each new generation, humankind strives to improve and overcome obstacles in ways that previous generations simply could not or would not.
The current generation has faced its own challenges and educators have attempted to equip students to overcome them. New and difficult challenges are on the horizon, some of which will require novel ways to approach the problems and solve them. Among future challenges for students (and educators alike) in the global environment, three particularly stand out: the technology divide, the rise of non-western cultures, and higher expectations.
In the middle of the 20th century, the invention of computers revolutionized the way humans could process data and generate new information. This leap in both speed and quantity allowed humans to accelerate the pace of innovation and enabled human knowledge to grow exponentially ever since. The latter part of the century (especially the last decade) brought about the mass adoption of personal computers and the Internet, which became the main vehicle for human communication and—in some instances—interaction as well. More recently smart phones and tablets (also known as post-PC devices) have made the usage of technology easier, portable and more widespread.
As much as the paragraph above describes reality in the United States and most of Europe, the picture is not as clear or positive in many other parts of the world. While in developed regions such as North America, Europe and parts of Asia the post-PC Era is alive and thriving, in developing nations and poorer regions of the world very few individuals and businesses have access to the Internet or can afford to have a smart phone. In the United States, thousands of schools have been implementing one-to-one programs where every student receives a computer for personal use and learns very early how to use the technology (Schnellen & Keengwe, 2012). But for most other countries, such a program is inconceivable at this point.
International education concepts can play a vital role in overcoming this technology divide because they include two key points related to this issue: “educational assistance to underdeveloped regions” and “international communications” (Hayden, Levy, & Thompson, 2007, p. 52). Through educational assistance, financially privileged countries may assist less privileged ones to incorporate technology in order to lower the costs of providing educational opportunities to their citizens. Technology can quickly become a wasteful way to invest funds if the funds are not invested wisely according to the local needs. For example, a state-of-the-art laptop may not be as useful in Kenya as it is in Kentucky due to factors such as technology infrastructure, user readiness, etc. But a laptop that can be recharged with alternative battery systems (electrical power may not be readily available in remote areas of the country) and access the Internet independently of location (cell towers may provide data service only in major cities) may be perfect for a country such as Kenya (van Rensburg, 2012). Also, with the western shift towards web-based communications (VoIP, videoconferencing, etc.), poorer countries need options for communicating with the developed West (and North, South and East as well) that are easily accessible and available at a low cost.
Rise of Non-Western Cultures
The dominance of Western culture and language in international education is evident by the official languages of the International Baccalaureate program: English, French and Spanish (IB language policy, n.d.). This preference for western languages is a natural development for a program that was born in the West and is infused with western values despite its mission to educate global citizens. While there is nothing wrong with western values nor with western languages, there is a trend that will pose a significant challenge to educators in the near future: the rise of non-western cultures. As countries such as China, India and Russia become economic powerhouses and expand their influence around the globe via products, services and foreign policy, western nations will find that they can no longer dictate what is vital and what is not essential in education. And because non-western cultures have different sets of values that guide the decisions they make and how they approach life, including education, a culture shock of sorts awaits western educators and students.
One major western characteristic that will likely be challenged by the rise of non-western cultures is the value placed on individualism. Many non-western cultures, such as the Chinese, value community above the individual. This has a clear implication in the classroom, where individual work and grades are the norm and the expectation for western educators. The pursuit of individual success and attempts to “stand out from the crowd” may not be as welcome as they are in the West, resulting in a disconnect between western educational values and non-western approaches to education.
International education can help bridge these two seemingly incompatible worldviews through “the promotion of mutual understanding among nations” and “cross-cultural education” (Hayden, Levy, & Thompson, 2007, p. 52). An education that reaches beyond one’s culture and provides access to values different from one’s own not only promotes an increased level of understanding of the “other,” but it also allows for personal growth that can become a powerful agent for collaboration and cooperation. As researchers and educators from different countries understand each other and accept that each culture holds different values and worldviews, collaboration and cooperation in education is not only possible but likely. Comparative education can play a vital role in this regard by allowing educators to learn from what others are doing elsewhere and adapting successful practices to their own educational needs and realities.
Education has evolved with time, and it may be argued that it has improved with the passage of time. From the ancient Roman times—when students wrote on a wooden tablet by scratching a layer of wax with a stylus—to modern times—when students can dictate their work to an aluminum and glass tablet that can communicate with the rest of the world and fetch information with a simple touch on its screen—the field of education has witnessed revolution after revolution in means and methods. With each leap forward, students and educators come to expect something better and look forward to improvement and refinement that will in turn result in a new leap forward.
This general expectation of something better is in part what drives innovation in education and keeps educators and researchers investigating new and better ways of doing things. One of the main goals of international education is to “continue to practice the melioristic trend more prominently associated with comparative education; that is, the improvement of national education systems by the addition of models, practices, innovations, and the like borrowed or transferred from other national systems” (Wilson, 1994, p. 452).
But higher expectations could become a major challenge in the future for students and educators, especially in countries that either do not have the knowledge, the means or the will to make that leap forward. Dissatisfaction can take root when higher levels of expectation are in place and improvement is neither visible nor quantifiable. And dissatisfaction can lead to numerous problems, such as lower productivity, unnecessary change and a negative attitude towards the perceived source of the problem.
If students and educators feel that they are not reaping the benefits that they should be getting from an educational system or ideas related to education, inherently good ideas or systems may be rejected due to unrealistic expectations. International education can help to set realistic expectations associated with efforts that were imported from other countries or regions by providing concrete data and measurable parameters, allowing local educators and students to set realistic expectations and not be frustrated by what may seem to be failures or shortcomings.
The 21st century is a promising new era full of incredible possibilities for education: from a globalized world where people and goods can travel to distant places more easily than ever, to new technological inventions that allow humans to communicate cheaply and instantly, this is a time of tremendous opportunities and massive challenges. The technology divide, the rise of non-western cultures, and the trend of higher expectations can be substantial hurdles for educators and students in their march toward better education opportunities and systems. International educators, however, have the tools and the will to assist others to overcome these challenges wherever they may be by drawing on various cultures, languages, educational systems and values that are applicable to all humankind and can propel humanity to a higher level of cooperation and coexistence.
Hayden, M., Levy, J., & Thompson, J. (Eds.). (2007). The SAGE handbook of research in international education. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
IB language policy. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ibo.org/mission/languagepolicy/
Schnellen, G., & Keengwe, J. (2012). Digital technology integration in American public schools. International Journal Of Information & Communication Technology Education, 8(3), 36. doi:10.4018/jicte.2012070105
van Rensburg, A. (2012). Using the Internet for democracy: A study of South Africa, Kenya and Zambia. Global Media Journal: African Edition, 6(1), 93-117.
Wilson, D. (1994). Comparative and international education: Fraternal or Siamese twins? A preliminary genealogy of our twin fields. Comparative Education Review, 38(4), 449-86.