Can Education be a Global Endeavor?

by Staff Writers

2011 was a year in which many earthlike planets occupying habitable zones around stars were found outside our solar system. This of course got me thinking about traveling to these planets and colonizing them, which got me thinking about how we could engineer a new society to best support the new planet's inhabitants. I excitedly thought about designing an education system for a whole new planet. This idea led me to think about what a global education system would look like for our own Earth, and if it would even be possible.

This artist's conception illustrates Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Establishing a Global Education System 

What are some of the obstacles to creating one system of education for the entire planet? How would creating such a system benefit us? Can creating a global education system ever be more than just a science fiction dream?

Overcoming Obstacles to a Global Education System

  • Language Barrier – The most obvious obstacle to a global education system is the very fact that there are more than 6,800 languages spoken on this planet. Initiatives like the Open Learning Exchange (OLE) address this problem by providing basic content and the tools to allow people in different areas to translate and adapt that content to their unique circumstances. Other solutions to this problem are possible; crowdsourcing translation is one model being employed. TED, for example allows volunteers to translate transcripts of its videos and add subtitles to the videos themselves.
  • Technological Hurdles – Hardware, software, Internet access, even electricity are all obstacles to global education. If we assume that a global education system would need to begin online, we may be arbitrarily limiting the scope of the initiative. OLE employs a face-to-face model based on materials that are available online to allow its content to reach even the most remote areas. Programs like One Laptop per Child attempt to bridge the technology gap by providing free, self-powered computers to children around the world, while other organizations, such as One advocate for basic infrastructure upgrades to help disadvantaged people around the world.
  • Cultural Obstacles – The concept of creating a curriculum that would appeal to a diverse audience is daunting. Cultural differences, while a necessary part of a global curriculum, also present a significant obstacle to implementing one system. Differing opinions of education, accountability, the role of children in society, and other considerations would indicate that, at least initially, a great deal of customization would be needed for any global education initiative.
  • Logistical Issues – Hand-in-hand with the technological hurdles, the logistical issues present external obstacles to implementing this system. Finding people to do the educating, either online or on the ground and distributing course materials and equipment, as well as funding this initiative are all significant obstacles. Funding is probably the most difficult to address. In a world currently suffering global financial troubles, convincing donors, governments, and people in general of the value of such an effort will require a substantial public relations campaign and several successful pilot tests which clearly demonstrate the benefits of such a system.

Benefits of a Global Education System

  • Bridging the Global Digital Divide – The existence of a global digital divide is a serious issue which initiatives such as the Open Learning Exchange are already working to address. There are so many factors that contribute to the education gap globally – poverty, isolation, political climate, racial and ethnic strife, lack of infrastructure – that developing a clear focus on what universal education standards and practices should be and the basic education that everyone should be provided establishes a starting point for a discussion that can eventually address the obstacles to overcoming the global digital divide.
  • Universal Understanding – Much of the violence and conflict in our world is caused by misinformation about others and ignorance of the ways in which the world actually works. Providing a uniform understanding of difference and the ways in which people are all ultimately working for the same goals could provide a significant background against which groups could work out their differences through an understanding that those differences aren't really that big.
  • Global Village – Understanding the interrelationship among our different systems, even at a rudimentary level, allows people to realize that there are consequences for their actions that affect not only themselves but also those in the world around them. For example, a broader understanding of the relationship between industry, pollution, and scarcity of fossil fuels in developing countries will help people in those areas to explore alternative solutions for energy as well as develop an understanding of the long-term impact of overreliance on fossil fuels for the global community.
  • Economic Advancement – The link between quality education, the development of cognitive skills, and education is well-established (Hanushek & Woessmann, 2007). Working to promote not only basic primary education, but also more advanced learning, will help improve the economic outcome of individuals, their local community, and the nation in which they reside.

What Would a Global Educational System Look Like?

A first step in convincing people that a global educational system is a realistic possibility would be to outline what the objectives and outcomes of the program would be and how they would benefit individuals and local and global communities. The following are a few suggested core elements of a global curriculum:

  • Intercultural Communication – Intercultural or cross-cultural communications is an understanding of the ways in which cultural differences hinder communication between groups of people (Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado). An organized program in this field which taught all people, from every culture, the basics of interacting with people from different backgrounds would be an excellent first step in providing a useful world-wide education.
  • Language Learning – Without advocating for any one language being promoted as a global standard, teaching a range of regionally relevant languages to all individuals would help to facilitate global learning and understanding.
  • Global Awareness – Providing everyone with knowledge of the ways in which the world works and how its systems interact establishes a framework for communication and awareness of how one's actions affect others. Individual, community, and national roles in a global community should be one of the areas of emphasis in a global education.
  • ICT Fluency – While the Information Age has yet to reach every corner of the globe, its influence has or will eventually. Teaching the basics of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) literacy in advance of being dependent on sophisticated communication technologies for economic well-being can help make a smoother transition when those tools become more central to everyday life. The economic development potential afforded by the use of communication technology also is a significant benefit that should not be overlooked.

What's Already in the Works?

This is not a new idea and I am not the first to propose it. There are several efforts already underway that provide a basis for future expansion and enhancement of global education. Programs such as the Open Learning Exchange, the United Nation's End Poverty 2015 campaign, and the Universal Education Foundation, to name a few, all have ambitious goals to provide a free universal primary education to children around the world.

While covering intercultural communication, language learning, global awareness, and ICT fluency are certainly possible at the primary level, my own idea is for an expansion of these efforts to include higher education initiatives that would provide learners and their communities with more economically relevant skills and knowledge that would allow them not only to participate in the global economy, but to also become stewards of our global ecological and social systems. It is an ambitious plan and one that almost certainly relies on the establishment of free, universal primary education first. But the potential of the Internet to deliver content, and the speed at which things happen in the 21st Century, makes this a shorter-term plan than people might realize.

Is it Possible?

The short answer to this question is "yes." I am a firm believer that, through technology and human will power, almost anything is possible. I am also enough of a realist to understand that it represents a substantial challenge logistically, intellectually, and politically. This is, however a challenge that is well worth the investment of money, time, and effort as it will open the doors for full participation in the global community for a much wider range of people. That is a benefit to everyone.