Localizing, globalizing…who owns the means of production?

A view of Earth with blue light networks circling it

One thing I thought about here: making sure you have "alternate text" for the image is helpful for a wide range of people with impaired vision.

In my prior day job working for a small K–12 textbook publisher, I was fortunate to glimpse a little bit of the localization process with printed materials for which the company was trying to gain an international market. At a meeting with the sales staff for the east and southeast Asian region, who traveled very long distances to illuminate us about their market, I learned to look at our materials a little differently. It was quite an experience.

In just one example, the textbooks they wished to offer in their schools contained pictures of boys and girls, age-matched to the level of the program, with a precisely calculated range of diversity (meaning, racial and gender proportions in the United States—all textbook publishers have very precise ways to log and count this). We sat down in a conference room to go over the program. One of the sales representatives looked at every single girl’s photo to determine whether any skirts were too short; we asked whether those photos of girls in pants were okay, and she thought that generally the schools that would use our materials would be okay with that. We would not likely gain entry anyway into schools with strict religious affiliation (within that region, Islam). We asked whether the U.S. diversity of race in these images would be acceptable, and she thought it would. In the end, we changed only one image in one book to better fit within the boundaries of that market.

That experience was brought to my mind when I was reading about making open educational resources more accessible and global. The issue of accessibility to me is not really a question: if you want to reach as many people as you can, pay attention to whether they can access what you have to say in different ways: through text-to-speech applications, for instance, or through the ability to magnify your text easily. However, trying to be too “universal” in your approach often ends up being vague; the best writing (and teaching) comes from the depth of detail. From a writer’s perspective, you want to clearly define your audience, your reader/user, and address particularly their possible context and needs. 

McDonald's menu choices in IndiaWhen I searched for “globalization” and “localization,” I found a variety of marketing-related agencies, conferences, and information about localizing one’s content (translating, too). Small agencies seem to be springing up to help countries penetrate a market that’s foreign to them. This isn’t a new impulse. Certainly McDonald’s in India has a different set of menu items than does McDonald’s in Lancaster, Ohio. I looked at past conference programs for the Localization World conferences and saw a lot of process-based sessions (e.g., so different departments of your company aren’t translating and retranslating the same materials), adding translated metadata, “best practices” in the field, crowdsourcing across the globe, international domain names introduction, localizing legal agreements, translation management systems (TMSs), and so on. Clearly there is an ongoing conversation in the for-profit world.

But when I added “OER” to my search, because these seem to me by definition not-for-profit, I found that last year was the “1st International Symposium on Open Educational Resources: Issues for Globalization and Localization” held at Utah State University. (The conference proceedings may be found here.) The editorial opening the proceedings asks

How can we prevent neo-colonization and one-way flow of content based on the massive amount of content published by richer nations? How do we promote worldview and exchange if we do not build systems and capacity so that minority groups effectively contribute? (p. 4)

In my last post I talked about why students using Wikipedia is potentially a good thing that teaches them intellectual skills they need to discern a text’s point of view, etc. A similar logic applies here. It seems to me that the localization and globalization aspect of OER reuse isn’t up to me if I’ve created some resource for my own particular audience. That seems to be up to the colleague who wishes to use it in her context; that’s part of her reimagining what I’ve done. Having said that, however, the question of who in the world actually has the ability (economic, leisure, education, access to tools and electricity) to contribute OERs is a good one. The term “exchange” means more like back-and-forth, so perhaps the question of globalization and localization comes down, like most things, to economics and who owns the means of production.


2 Responses to Localizing, globalizing…who owns the means of production?

  1. Hi Leah,
    Nice posting. We talk about barriers to education and non localized content could very well be one of them. Something as seemingly simple as my ability to recognize myself in a textbook illustration could cause me to conclude the accompanying content is or isn’t meant for me. It seems a small gesture to show respect for your audience by attempting to be “appropriate.” Not to mention, the small extra effort can build relationships of equality between the content producer and the learner. And you are right, those devils in marketing know all about this–their wages depend on “connecting” and knowledge of the many aspects of literacy outside the dominant voice.

    It’s nice to hear positive news from within publishing. There seems to be a presumption of bad intent laid on publishers for their need to pull in profits from their work. They take risks, work hard and have to be compensated. How is that different from a course I’m co-editing / updating for training Women’s Shelter workers? The course was built by two women at our college years ago who were paid wages while they did it. The three of us currently editing it are paid for our work, as will be the instructors and workshop facilitators. When the course is released, tuition will come back to the college and a portion will pay for updating and on the cycle goes. Who along this path is being self-centered by not working for free? Also, this is and has been the only course of its type in Western Canada and up to now has had minimal exposure beyond our tiny college district on the edge of nowhere. Someone has paid to keep that course up and serving a small clientele since 2004. Clearly, no one else has identified this subject as viable in a greater market but but that’s not a failure of publishers to sense an important topic, you can’t know what you don’t know. So our college as “publishers” are willing to take a chance on Women’s Shelter Worker and expect a return–or it crashes like a couple of other courses we stuck our neck out on that just wouldn’t come to life as we’d hoped.

    For a small institution like ours to take a risk like this might be seen as foolish or irresponsible use of funds and I wonder if the OER movement has neglected this aspect human motivation? We need efforts that go beyond “helpful” and low risk to get the kind of content that really does make a difference. Oddly, it might be the publishing industry who are best at doing this. They have the cash and the talent. Publishing has a tradition of challenging safe conduct and only recently it seems the industry has been silenced a bit by their risk management staff.

    Sorry to be so random, too much desk time recently.

    • Leah Good says:

      Thanks, Scott–I appreciate the visits to my blog. But what happened to your blog? The one from CCK11 seems to have been stopped. Are you doing something else?

      I’m also not sure how OERs get created in an ongoing way except by those already “institutionalized” in academia. Professors and their colleges may have the time because they are already getting paid to educate, and developing OERs may be an interesting hobby or an institutional push…still, they have an income. Publishers in the US, too, have the “cash,” as you say, but honestly the restrictions on K-12 content (i.e., “meeting the standards” whether national or state) mean that folks creating traditional textbooks won’t really risk anything. They see their income base decreasing already in the face of online resources (several states have announced their intentions to decrease textbook spending and increase online repositories…who creates these, I dunno).

      Good luck on your course. It sounds like something that can be helpful beyond your geography, yes? How do you let people know it’s there?


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