A bull that went blind during the monsoon forgets that the world is not always green. — Nepalese proverb

Thanks largely to the advent of MOOCs, more scholars around the world are engaged in conversations about cross-border higher education today than ever before. As teachers who are interested in the prospects and pitfalls of emerging academic technologies and pedagogies for learning and teaching across national, social, and cultural contexts, we have been sharing our experiences in different venues. While the hype about the private higher education industry’s push for massive open online courses as the future of cross-border education rages on, we find ourselves much more interested in smaller-scale conversations about teaching and learning in all their confusing complexities in different contexts. Essentially, we are brought together primarily by our different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives; it is within the interest in difference that we share ideas, interests, and concerns.

One of us, Maha, is a faculty developer and teacher educator at the American University in Cairo who got her PhD from Sheffield, UK; the other, Shyam, is an assistant professor of writing now in New York, a man who hailed originally from the hinterlands of western Nepal (via the routes of education and professional careers in east India, Kathmandu in Nepal, and Kentucky in the US). Because we value (and indeed benefit from) our different identities, ideas, experiences, and perspectives based on our respective backgrounds, we come together in that valuation of difference. However, we are also aware that we are connected by our shared appreciation of difference as it is defined in Western or Westernized academic communities that we are part of.

We started our conversation through a common interest in MOOCs. Our collaboration seems worth noting as a powerful testimony to the idea that networks build communities (rather than the other way around) these days. We had been reading each other’s work for about a year, due to our critical, skeptical, “outsider” perspective on MOOCs. The spark for our professional dialogs came when Shyam noticed a twitter conversation Maha was having using the #FutureEd hashtag, which spilled over to emails and responding to blog posts that we and others in our networks wrote. We critique MOOCs from a global South perspective, providing constructive feedback because we are both interested in the possibilities of what could be called a “humane” pedagogy where educators exchange ideas and students participate in learning across contexts, rather than a one-way traffic of information in the name of education. During those email exchanges, we felt that what we were discussing privately needed to be shared with the world, and we started the Google Doc that became this article. [As a slightly humorous side note, we co-wrote this paragraph synchronously while chatting on the margin, and when the paragraph was complete — with the two of us completing each other’s sentences — Shyam wrote “Wow” and Maha said “keep it keep it keep it” when he tried to delete it. Several paragraphs in this article have our voices interwoven such that we cannot differentiate where one’s voice starts and the other’s ends.]

Our ultimate interest is to offer anything constructive that we can to the conversation of emerging academic technologies and pedagogies on the front of cross-border higher education. We are both cognizant of the limitations of technology, and passionate about exploring its potential, as “digital agnostics”. This article will focus on some of the major concerns that temper our enthusiasm about emerging academic technologies for cross-border education; in a follow up article (coming soon inshallah), we will focus on the positive potentials of the same developments, giving concrete examples from our personal experiences as academics from the global south who are participating in the emerging spaces for learning and teaching.

We found Hybrid Pedagogy’s call for papers on pedagogical alterity especially appealing because the editors invited a cacophony of voices. While the variety of voices that the call seems to envision does not cover the marginality of academics in and from non-Western contexts/backgrounds, at least our Western-educated selves largely identify with the key issues and perspectives in this conversation. Like the editors, who draw on the idea that “Difference is not our deficit; it’s our operating system“ from Fiona Barnett and Cathy Davidson of HASTAC, we are inspired by the idea of looking at difference positively, as a resource and not a problem. And yet, while parts of us want to positively respond to the call to challenge the tendency to view difference as a deficiency, we are also keenly aware of the potential risks that the call may embody insofar as it assumes the desirability of difference, originality, reinvention, and such other ideals/objectives as universal rather than local. We share experiences of how the very attempt at inclusion can inadvertently lead to exclusion. As a simple example, using the metaphor of the “operating system” in order to describe difference as an ideal can exclude many in our communities who will not draw the same inference from the vehicle and/or the tenor of the metaphor. We find it problematic to refer to human beings as machines, all with the “same” operating system (in itself a denial of “difference”, if we ever saw one). We are aware that the idea of “difference” itself has different meanings and values for members of different contexts and communities. In certain contexts in our social and professional lives, diversity, divergence, and dissent mean different things for us compared to our colleagues with whom we “theoretically” find common bonds in the celebration of difference.

Bonds of Difference

Educators are increasingly embracing the idea of diversity around the world. Many even go further and value dissidence as means of constructive and productive exploration of ideas and rethinking of educational practices. This may make it seem as if educators around the world are teleologically moving toward the idea of promoting difference, reinventing education, challenging conventions and so on. But the challenge arises when the very attempts to pursue the above objectives are based on assumptions, contexts, and perspectives that those who try to follow those objectives may not be able to relate to from where they are in life, society, and profession. So, in spite of all the good intentions, the harder one tries to challenge the current exclusionary systems in favor of accommodating diverse agents and issues, the more entrenched one can be in one’s own “local” context, worldview, and frame of reference. For example, a teacher of philosophy who is based or educated in the Euro-American culture may try to promote critical and independent thinking, originality and rejection of convention, novelty and creativity; but a young man in, say, Nepal, may find these “concepts” more fascinating than practically useful. Participating in the philosophy course may still provide him some cultural capital based on learning the ideas; but unbeknownst to the philosophy teacher, the young man may jeopardize his standing in and prospects in his local society, education, and workplace. An Egyptian woman, on the other hand, may be familiar with the notion of criticism on the street, but have no educational experiences of critiquing the authority of the teacher or the text. It may take years, not just a semester or two, for her to be able to behave critically in an educational setting. She may feel a nagging discomfort, a loss of her innocence as she is encouraged to question hidden agendas. Her initial attempts at critical thinking may create social problems as she starts to rebel indiscriminately against other authorities in her life and becomes perceived as “rude”.

There are also contexts/times when critical thinking (as understood in the North American context as leaning towards skepticism) as a prerequisite to citizenship is not necessarily the highest valued approach: during times of political uncertainty and conflict, people might be in need of a more constructive, empathetic approach to citizenship. In these cases, the teacher who is trying to teach the importance of critical and creative thinking might need to learn that these ideas will need to be translated very differently in different contexts. The Nepalese young man may first of all have to reject the terms of creativity that consider it synonymous with novelty, originality, and reinvention; in his local context (with all its attendant realities of material, social, political, and economic forces), he may be creative by not being critical, by exploring rather than questioning conventions. At first, it may seem as if the Nepali scholar should and will eventually “get there,” but it is possible that the merits of the “there” are as contingent, provisional, and questionable as those of the ideas that he and his local community are driven by. Thus, we argue that if educators are really interested in taking their projects from contextual to cross-contextual paradigms, they should first recognize that paradigm shift. Needless to say, no local value systems can be valid and meaningful universally.

Difference tends to induce discomfort, which individuals and communities try to overcome or avoid in some way. One of the responses to difference — as when scientists deny the influence of context/culture, politics, economics, and material conditions on the shape and direction of their inquiry — is to “deny” it altogether, to say that there is no difference but a universality of subjects, methods, perspectives, and understanding. A second problematic response to difference — as when those who study society and culture “reify” cultural differences — is to seek and find distinctions, creating silos of sociocultural values, norms, and practices. This approach makes people look for difference, and find it, as when they try to understand cultures and societies by “contrasting” them wholesale, instead of paying attention to how people and societies are increasingly malleable and complex. Its puts people and societies in containers defined by distinctions. Thus, the celebration of difference goes in the opposite direction of denying it and it tends to overshadow complex overlaps between differences and similarities among societies and cultures.

A third response to difference is to try to recognize differences as a normal and default condition of human life and society. At first, this sounds like an absolutely true description of reality, a practical middle ground between the two extremes above. But on a closer look, this view can also easily go too far. This view “universalizes” difference on the basis of certain local conceptualizations and valuations of difference. Those who assume the universal value and meaning of difference don’t realize that it means different things in different contexts to different people. The universal valuation of difference starts by assuming one’s own ground as home, one’s own terms as the fulcrum around which everything else has to turn. Different from what, different from whom, different in what way?

Thus, we postulate that we cannot find common bonds if we forget the paradox of trying to find similarity in difference. If differences are to be valued, they may need to be understood in their own terms, the confusions that they create being tolerated, the complexities that they give rise to appreciated. That is, for instance, when we say that we can and should all question conventions, be critical and creative, strive for originality, and so on, certain assumptions and conventions still undergird these ideals and ideas. The attempts to create “bonds” through shared spaces, agreed-upon ideas, common denominators, collaboratively derived perspectives may ultimately fail when the foundation of the entire attempt is one party’s familiar territory, when participants of a discussion are from many and vastly different contexts/backgrounds, and when the perspectives are only common via mimicry of those at the center by those in the peripheries. Thus, we urge our readers to be aware that whenever we try to “find” bonds by embracing differences, we might be impoverishing our ideas, weakening the basis of our bonds.

Fake Universality and Illusions of Inclusion

What are some of the ways we experience exclusion as young non-Western academics? There are the small ways. like the joking cultural reference on Twitter to having a beer or tattoos (excludes Maha as a practicing Muslim). There are the well-intentioned claims that show lack of awareness of global injustice, like a claim that university should not be about getting jobs. In theory, this may sound right almost universally, but claims of “learn before you earn” are slogans that mean nothing for someone who needs to earn so they can live. Some people cannot afford to learn first and earn later. This tendency takes more serious forms when canons of knowledge are assumed to have inherent value and referred to repeatedly. For example, as Martha Nussbaum attempts in her 1997 book to reform liberal arts education by making it more inclusive of other cultures (including opening up space for knowledges of marginalized peoples) she continues to refer to liberal arts education from the perspective of the ancient Greeks. She insists that the study of philosophy is inherently valuable for a liberal arts education, despite the fact that the majority of academic philosophers in the US are white and male. And of course, she accepts liberal arts as the ideal approach to “reinvent,” rather than one approach of many that could have been explored. This is not unexpected given that she is an American philosopher. What is strange is that she does not recognize that her recommendation of inclusiveness was paradoxically not used in her book even as she advocates it.

Then there are mind-bending claims that MOOCs are about to make “quality education” accessible for millions of students around the world who “have not had such access so far.” In the absence of considerations about the relevance of content, linguistic, technical and intellectual accessibility in the delivery, and appropriateness and effectiveness of pedagogy, the idea of “quality education” just becomes absurd. So, for instance, a biology professor in Britain who gives a lecture on the subject of “whether there is a gay gene” may create a whole array of barriers for participants/students from different places around the world — in spite of his original intention of making the course focus on “genetic issues of daily life” as he knows it is in his British context! The teacher may use bland and non-context-restricted questions and learning objectives in the course, but such an attempt is also bound to find a common ground by denying, reifying, or universalizing contextual differences. For many disciplines, subjects, and issues, it may be ultimately impossible to educate anyone in the entire world by using a one-size-fits-all course and from the convenience of one’s laptop.

We have observed that quite often, in the attempt to make their teaching more inclusive, teachers in the global north include superficial or incidental references to other cultures. Such attempts are laudable but they are unable to address what the teachers are trying to address because one cannot be more egalitarian, open, and inclusive by simply using superficial references.

Teachers who want to create meaningful learning environments for participants from vastly different backgrounds must construct and design their courses with an awareness of the fractals of contextual, cultural, and material differences from the ground up — not by treating those differences as an afterthought and by using superficial gestures. As long as the teaching and learning experiences are only envisioned within the dominant worldview, incorporating patchwork elements about or from diverse others will only serve to distort or reify the differences rather than allowing the stakeholders from different backgrounds to truly participate in learning and sharing ideas. Without rethinking the assumed universals underlying the course design, content, and pedagogy, the canon of established Western knowledge will live on, embellished here and there by some exotic accessories.

Of course, we all have our own unconscious, habituated ways of thinking about the “world out there.” And of course, what we say above does not diminish our appreciation and regards for teachers/scholars who are trying to be inclusive and respectful toward diverse groups of people from around the world. But we do want to emphasize that the moment teachers try to cross their local contexts and invite participants from other contexts, they should also start becoming aware about how their local worldviews and understanding are bound to be incomplete and insufficient; we want to urge teachers to acknowledge that their ideas and teaching methods may not be very meaningful in many different contexts around the world. If educators from dominant contexts were to cultivate and foster such awareness sufficiently, that would add value and incentive for educators from different places or with knowledge about different places to join cross-border educational initiatives, to share their knowledge, to make greater and more positive impacts.

The coming together of educators across borders clearly promises tremendous possibilities for the advancement of education within and across borders. As we will focus in our next article, inshallah, it is the vision of such positive opportunities and possibilities that inspire us to join the conversations, critiquing constructively where we see opportunities for improvement, appreciating what we find beneficial from our local and global perspectives.

Continue to Part II: Bonds of Difference: Participation as Inclusion