Advancing Economic Development and Public Diplomacy Through Online Education

Man studying online.

This article first appeared in the Online Learning Consortium

During my time as a higher education and nonprofit administrator, professor and consultant, I have heard a number times that there must be a way for higher education to advance economic development and public diplomacy. International and domestic students; faculty; higher education, government, corporate and nonprofit leaders; and economic development professionals have made this observation. 

It is important to emphasize that these efforts are not limited to countries abroad, but also to rural parts of the United States whose nontraditional learners often go neglected as their urban counterparts receive more attention, and thus, funding.

To achieve this work, it is important to identify macro (sociocultural) and micro (individual) factors that warrant consideration.           

The macro perspective can help with designing programs that meet student and sector needs and help with student and faculty recruitment. The micro perspective can help the instructor get to know the student and gain trust ­­through discussion posts and e­mail; Skype, Zoom, Google Hangout, and Blackboard Ultra calls; and e­mails.

One country that is on the move is Jamaica. They are poised to become an online education leader through their “Jamaica’s Vision 2030 Plan: Training and Workforce Development Sector Plan.” They have identified as a core tactic the offering of online education to their people to improve their country’s economic opportunities. This includes utilization of online learning technologies and infrastructure improvements to provide Internet access to areas that traditionally would not access.

Online learning can be a great equalizer where those with work experience or those who wish to change careers can participate from any geographic location, as long as they have Internet access. 

My experience has informed the following recommendations in no order of importance:

  • Design online education programs so that they are easily available via smartphone, as even economically­-disadvantaged countries have high­ smartphone use. Institutions can use this tool with scaled technology to provide high­-caliber learning at a price point that works for them. Audio and visual apps that provide recording instead of typing can help.
  • Invest in Internet infrastructure to provide online accessibility and inclusion.
  • Online learning provides a community of practice where students share the bond of wanting to learn. There is no telling the innovations that can come from cohorts of students when they put lessons learned to work to solve practical problems. This can occur in the class or workplace. Make no mistake, it requires investments that include money, ­­ technology, resources, professors, administrators, etc. ­­ but the dividends can reach a far greater community of learners from various socioeconomic backgrounds, level of educational attainment, diversity of thought, and other demographics.
  • Faculty buy-­in is a necessity. Many are now supportive of online education and some practitioners desire to serve as adjuncts, but further education is needed to reach those that are not aware of the benefits of online education that await them as instructors (in many cases, for example they can work from anywhere and at any time).
  • Institutions can cut travel and room and board costs for students. This provides ease and convenience for students, as family and job concerns are alleviated. Many cannot leave work for years on end or desire to leave their families for long periods to achieve the education required to make their dreams a reality.
  • Institutions can lower their costs through use of a new category of academic/practitioner. Both win, as these practitioners enjoy teaching and are well-compensated, and the institutions have respected industry leaders teaching courses who may not need full benefits and salary as these practitioners have day jobs. This being said, many online education providers are taking steps to sweeten the pot for these instructors through offering access to health insurance, partial match to 401(k) programs and non­tenure track development and promotion opportunities.
  • Online education cannot replicate a residential college experience, but some students are not looking for that experience. The non­traditional learner may already possess that developmental experience in different ways and require online flexibility to meet family and job demands to help them achieve economic success and personal fulfillment.To cover the full higher education spectrum, it is advisable to offer online courses in community colleges, especially for entry courses. This coupled with articulation agreements to four-­year universities that also offer online programs can improve accessibility and inclusion. One could build upon this model and offer articulation agreements between four­-year programs and graduate schools to encourage lifelong learning.
  • Higher education institutions can utilize badges – incremental coursework to demonstrate mastery of a subject (for example, search engine optimization [SEO] for those who have participated in communications programs). Schools can form relationships with students to help them return to their institution later in their lives to earn these industry-­specific badges. This could be a major component of the long-­term future of continuing education.
  • As with Arizona State University’s partnership with Starbucks to provide online education to its employees, businesses and countries could replicate this corporate social responsibility effort to generate goodwill with its stakeholders.
  • The U.S. Department of State, World Bank and UNESCO can offer a dedicated online education bureau through which they provide experts and consultants to help both emerging countries abroad and economically­-distressed areas of the United States. Perhaps the U.S. Department of Education could help with domestic needs. A regional approach (local governments, some state government support, foundation grants, city and county economic development offices, four-­year universities and colleges and two-­year community colleges) to help domestic localities is suggested to pool funds to make a real difference both through education provision and infrastructure.

There are many ways to help improve our world’s citizenry chances to earn a sustainable living and to show that their respective governing bodies are committed to and are there for them.

We just have to get to work and invest in our global community — both international and domestic.

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