May/June 2000 // Commentary
The Internet and Transnational Education
by Stephen Downes
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Stephen Downes "The Internet and Transnational Education" The Technology Source, May/June 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The Internet is rapidly evolving into a global medium (Thompson, 1999). As more schools and universities from around the world enter this marketplace, educational services will be offered increasingly across international borders. The prospect is alluring. Students studying Spanish in San Francisco will be able to learn from an instructor living in Madrid. Historians interested in the Incan empire will be able to correspond with Peruvian professors working in Cuzco. Prospective entrepreneurs in Moscow will be able to study under economics professors based at Stanford or Harvard.

What are the implications of transnational education, where the instructor is in one nation and the students are in another? And in particular, what issues will transnational educators face in the day-to-day conduct of their enterprise? This article surveys a number of these issues and points to the impact they will have on distance learning policy.


One obvious issue is language. Monolingual students living in North America will not be able to converse in Spanish, Incan, or Greek. And professors living in those nations are unlikely to be fluent in English, even if it is the lingua franca of the Internet.

But language will not be a major issue. People already routinely read Web pages published in French, German, and Spanish, even though their grasp of those languages may be minimal. Instant and automatic translation of written text is already feasible and very shortly will be quite inexpensive. And though automatic translation can be a bit rocky at present, smooth and polished translation capacity will be developed over time.

Perhaps the best known online translator is Babelfish, a project launched by Alta Vista. Visitors enter the URL of a Web site that they would like translated; the Babelfish software returns the translated page. Systran, the company behind Alta Vista, also offers a plug-in for the Eudora e-mail client.

The major issues associated with transnational education will center not around language but around economics and culture.

Economic Issues

Teaching faculty living in the less developed world (that is, outside the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia/New Zealand) will command much lower salaries than those living in the more developed world. Demand for higher salaries will decrease because living expenses outside the more developed world are significantly lower.

It is likely that faculty will be recruited into alternative teaching environments. A university based in Antigua, for example, can offer a pleasant environment and high quality of life on a lower salary than that required by instructors living in Tokyo, Toronto, or New York.

Two trends are probable. Institutions based in less developed nations will recruit faculty, especially from more developed nations, to obtain improved expertise and credentials. And institutions based in the more developed world will begin to recruit faculty from around the world in an attempt to add breadth to their teaching staff and to take advantage of the lower salary requirements of those teachers. To be sure, faculty associations will resist these trends. But their influence will be minimized by new institutions such as corporate institutions that do not rely on tenured faculty to offer alternative forms of education.

Salaries are a significant expense in online delivery and one of the major reasons why courses offered online at traditional institutions are not significantly cheaper than their in-class alternatives. Fees for courses taught from Brazil, Russia, or India, for example, could be significantly lower than fees for courses taught from the more developed nations.

In established universities—where faculty associations will delay or derail major changes in hiring policies and salaries—these trends will be less significant. But as competition from alternative institutions increases, traditional institutions and their staff will face significant pressures for change.

How will institutions in more developed nations react? Historically, economic competition from overseas has been met with resistance. Online learning will probably face the same issues; representatives from an industry threatened by overseas competition will likely call for trade barriers of one kind or another. The primary restraint on overseas competition has been the imposition of tariffs and other duties. But while such mechanisms are feasible against the import of tangible goods, such as Japanese cars or Australian fruit, they will be more difficult to implement in an online environment.

If anything, the online environment favors overseas educators. As has been the case with online commerce generally, online courses would be exempt from local taxes and associated fees. But an Internet tax applied locally would affect all online transactions, not merely international transactions. And a differential tax would involve a significant intrusion into a user’s browsing habits, a loss of privacy not likely to be accepted by the community.

Another tactic involves the use of non-economic barriers, such as product standards that restrict imports. Europe, for example, prohibits the importation of American beef treated with certain hormones. The United States has barred the importation of tuna caught in Mexico and has enacted fuel consumption restrictions on Rolls Royce and Mercedes Benz. (For background information on environmental management and trade, see Cosbey, 1998.)

In the academic world, product standards are defined by accreditation bodies. Accreditation is primarily intended to maintain quality and discourage fraud, but it may also be used as a barrier to transnational education, as indicated in the title of the 1999 Global Alliance for Transnational Education conference, "Access or Exclusion: Trade in Transnational Education Services."

Cultural Issues

Transnational educators will need to address the different aspirations, expectations, and worldviews they bring to their programs. They will face four major types of issues: pedagogical issues, acceptance issues, content issues, and political issues.

Of these, pedagogical issues are the best understood. Similar questions have arisen in previous cross-cultural educational undertakings, such as English as a Second Language training sessions (see McGroarty, 1993). Students and instructors may have conflicting views on the role of the instructor and other students. In some cultures, student participation is neither expected nor required. This conflicts with the more interactive nature of traditional North American education.

Issues related to acceptance will arise in several varieties. Students from more developed countries may not appreciate the wit and wisdom of instructors from less developed nations or accept these instructors as their academic equals or superiors. Students from some cultures may not accept women as instructors or even as classmates.

In matters of content, instructors and students from different cultures may have very different assumptions about the nature of economics, democracy, geography, history, and a myriad of other subjects. The depiction of Turkey as a European nation, for example, may delight some students while offending others (Mason, 1998). Introducing some ideas in online coursework may have political consequences: just as DeTocqueville's Democracy in America was a destabilizing influence in pre-revolutionary France, so also ideas and opinions arising in transnational education may be viewed as subversive in students’ home nations.

Similar cultural gaps will exist in any case of transnational education. Instructors will have to decide, for example, whether to bow to the Chinese government’s policies on unacceptable speech or to risk a student’s life or liberty by sticking to the course outline.


Language will not be a major issue in transnational education; however, educators will have to address a variety of economic and cultural issues.

Educational institutions in more developed nations will encounter increasing competition from abroad. This competition will drive instructional costs down and will probably also cause a critical reassessment of accreditation and standards related to transnational education.

Educational institutions will need to become more adept at cross-cultural relations. They will have to address pedagogical, acceptance-related, content-related, and political issues. Those colleges and universities best prepared to work with a variety of cultures will have an advantage over their competitors, and it is likely that institutions from multicultural environments, such as those in Europe, will have an advantage over those from less heterogeneous cultures, such as the United States.


Cosbey, A. (1998). Environmental management and international trade. In B. Nath, L. Hens, P. Compton, & D. Devuyst (Eds.), Environmental management in practice (pp. 341-357). New York: Routledge. Retrieved 27 December 1999 from the World Wide Web:

DeTocqueville, A. Democracy in America. Retrieved 27 December 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Mason, R. (1998). Globalising education: Trends and applications. New York: Routledge.

McGroarty, M. (1993, July 1). Cross-cultural issues in adult ESL literacy classrooms. Retrieved 7 December 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Thompson, M. J. (1999, September 7). European net adoption spurs worldwide growth. The Standard. Retrieved 27 December 1999 from the World Wide Web:,2149,970,00.html

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