One of the many storylines in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina regards the diffusion of agricultural innovations to Russia from the industrial revolution in Europe. Konstantin Levin, the protagonist and an early-adopter of innovations, repeatedly watches the peasants admitting that industrial-revolution tools like mechanical harvesters are useful and easy to use, but rejecting the tools anyway. Levin eventually concludes that systemic reforms in Russian agriculture will never succeed unless they consider the cultural mindset of the Russian peasants, who really valued the social fun of good, old-fashioned harvesting. (Tolstoy, 2015)
Tolstoy’s point about the relation of culture to the diffusion of innovations, made nearly 150 years ago, is often overlooked by theorists studying the adoption of new technologies. For example the Dispersion of Innovations theory (DoI) does not account for cultural, socioeconomic, or infrastructure problems that may appear when applying an idea from an innovation from the developed world in a developing nations (Minishi-Majanja & Kiplang’at, 2005; Perkins et al., 2003). On the other end of the economic spectrum, wealthy countries may place different emphasis on hedonic motives, social influence, or price than their counterparts in other parts of the world. (El-Masri & Tarhini, 2017)
Simply translating a lesson, software, device, method, or theory from one culture to another may not only follow different dispersion patterns, but may likely to lead to unexpected negative consequences.
I wonder if technology-assisted development might progress more effectively if developers began by studying the local cultural values and building backwards to find an emerging trend in educational technology that seems likely to fit the culture well.
The Historical Context of Teacher Education in Kyrgyzstan
Take, for instance, the barriers constructivist methodologies have faced in diffuaing in Central Asia. Though Lev Vygotsky, the founder of constructivism, taught at the University of Moscow, his works were banned by Stalin two years after his death in 1934. (Gindis, 1995) It seems likely that Vygotsky’s basic premise of socially-constructed knowledge ran counter to the premise of centralized control advocated by the Communist Party. Since the collapse of the USSR, and the general realization that the Soviet education system was not the best in the world, there has been an increase in instruction in connectionist theory. However, very few teachers have seen constructivist methods applied effectively, and the term “curriculum”, translated as учебный план, (literally: “lesson plan”) is understood to include not only objectives, outlines, and assessment, but daily reading assignments from a specific textbook, detailed outlines of every class for an entire year. (Ismailova, 2004) As Professor Askarbek Membatiev of Arabaev University, Kyrgyzstan’s largest pedagogical university, told me, the Ministry of Education’s goal was to allow a teacher to move from one school to another, anywhere in the country, step into a classroom, and know exactly what to teach because all of the students were learning the same thing at the same time. (Membatiev, A., personal communication, May, 2007)
Cultural Considerations in the Adoption of Educational Technology in Kyrgyzstan
This centralized, standardized educational practice has been in place since the Soviet Union took over Kyrgyzstan’s educational system in the 1920s, but it runs counter to many core aspects of Kyrgyz culture.
The Kyrgyz people tend to pride themselves on their nomadic independence. Unlike the Uzbeks to the east and Tajiks to the south, they never built large cities or developed literary or concrete-arts until forced to do so by the Soviet Union. The culture is often characterized as collectivist, traditionalist, closed. However, these terms, while well-defined in anthropological literature (Augsburger, 1995), they have unusual applications in nomadic cultures. Nomadic cultures are collectivist, but within a small network of familial relationships. They’re traditionalistic, but with a deep awareness of the need for adaptation. They’re static in avoidance of large-scale or long-term initiatives, but likely to respond quickly to an innovation that brings immediate benefit. Kyrgyz culture tends to desire close family ties and parental involvement; have flexible attitudes toward religion, philosophy, ideology, political alliances, or cultural identity; value personal time over career advancement, value individualized learning (e.g. mentoring) over formal education, value flexibility in scheduling, value spirituality but are suspicious of doctrine or organized religion, and place little value on long-term financial planning or strategic change. (Anderson, 2013; Pelkmans, 2007)
As Graham Harden, a community-development worker in Krygyzstan since 2004 and the director of one of the country’s oldest non-government organizations remarked, “For a nomad, everything is about what can help me most now. They have five words for ‘unexpectedly happen right now.’ The decision that will pay off right now is what they want, and if it doesn’t pay off right now in a way that will help their close group of loyal family or friends, why not just relax?” (Harden, G., personal communication, July 6, 2017).
That observation brings up an unexpected parallel: this cultural description of a young Kyrgyz person looks a lot like that of an American Millennial. (Rainer & Rainer, 2011)
An Argument by Analogy for Attempting an Adoption
If the deep values of the digital nomads – America Millennials – align so well with those of the physical nomads – the Kyrgyz -then the emerging trends in educational technology that are adopted most effectively by the Millennials might be adopted by the Kyrgyz as well.
While many emerging technologies would not be applicable in Kyrgyzstan due to cost and infrastructure, micro-credentialing through digital badges, which is growing among the Millennials, (Diamond & Gonzalez, 2014; Gibson, Ostashewski, Flintoff, Grant, & Knight, 2015) be equally attractive and effective in Kyrgyz culture. Within the field of teacher education, micro-credentialing for learning and applying Web 2.0 tools and techniques could motivate teachers to apply the tools in classroom settings, resulting in more application of constructivist-based methods.
What if someone developed a micro-credentialing program through digital badges for their local teachers, and encourage their teachers to develop similar systems for their classes.
Receiving the digital badges would require teachers to attend online or hybrid seminars that require the use of wikis, collaborative projects, forums, and similar tools. This course would explicitly train participants in topics like constructivist theory, communicative methodologies, differentiated learning, and collaborative learning through readings and videos. However, it would also require the participants to apply this information through projects with their colleagues.
As participants go through the course, they will receive online badges for achievement (i.e. completing assignments) and proficiency (i.e. applying the concepts). Badges would be given for activities such as having students having students create wikis that demonstrate mastery of course content, having students participate effectively in an online forum, or having working with students to create a course website. Collecting certain badges or collections of badges could be tied to performance-based bonuses, giving an extra incentive to apply the knowledge.
Although the extrinsic motivation of the bonus may motivate teachers more than collecting badges or teaching constructively, the badges add legitimacy to the performance bonuses, and obtaining the badges requires applying constructivist methods.
At the highest badge level, teachers could be licensed to train others. In other words, teachers who seize the immediate opportunity will be able to monetize it immediately: the nomad-culture dream. Following that dream will result in more teachers receiving and using the training, resulting in more students experiencing and coming to expect the type of individualization and collaboration allowed by this model.
The use of digital badges for this type of professional development of teachers could result in the wide adoption not only of digital badges, but of teaching methods that are more effective for an emerging democratic country.
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