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Transnational education: Does it fit, and does it work?

‘Why don’t we repeat the Finnish North Karelia project in the Gulf countries?’ This is the question I have received several times after my talks at health conferences and meetings in the Gulf area. My answer has been: ‘Most likely it would not work! ‘Why not?’ is the next question.


I usually explain that the very successful North Karelia project on cardiovascular disease prevention started in Eastern Finland in the 1970’s when at the same time the project leader, Professor Puska, was disseminating health education and talked about the risks of smoking and dietary fat on the two existing TV channels in Finland. Nowadays there are dozens of TV channels - not to talk about social media - all competing about our attention and interest. It is a different time - it is a different context!


But, in general, can we take lessons learnt in one context (time, setting, culture etc) to another? Do we have tools to assess if an educational program shown effective in one context would fit and work also in another? Yes, and yes; we can, and we do have tools!


Implementation research – too demanding for transnational education projects?


There is a whole field of implementation research nowadays - with its specific terminology, methods and also peer-reviewed journals - to guide bridging the know-do gap, mostly assessing and describing how research evidence or best practices can be implemented effectively in new settings. For an easy language overview, please see https://impsciuw.org/implementation-science/learn/implementation-science-overview/.


However, transnational education/education export is a rather practical field of aiming at delivering educational programs in(to) new contexts. Rather complicated implementation research methods and tools are seldom relevant for this field and market sector. Instead of implementation research tools, more practical, simpler tools are needed to guide the process of taking lessons learned in one context into another. Related to this, my previous blogs emphasized the importance of practical approaches in the multi-level needs assessment when planning education export projects.


Assessing applicability & transferability – a simpler tool more feasible?


Wang et al. already in 2006 (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16249192/) defined applicability as feasibility to carry out an intervention in a new context; it is about the process of carrying it out. Transferability is about the outcome; will the intervention such as introducing a new educational program have the same effectiveness in a new context as it had in the original one? It is self-evident that without good applicability, e.g. without the political and cultural acceptability and relevant local resources and capabilities, transferability does not make sense. For successful transferability there need to be relevant structures, cultural and social readiness to change, collaborate and to apply new information as well as available resources, and local professional and leadership competences and/or training for them.


Where to start from?


When striving to know and understand another culture, we often forget that the starting point should be knowing our own culture and traditions; recognizing our own worldview, beliefs, values, and attitudes, which define our traditions, expectations, habits and behaviors. We all come with a baggage and we wear colored lenses; the education program we aim to transfer is never neutral, ‘pure’ knowledge or practice.


Transnational education journey starts by checking our own baggage, wiping our lenses, studying the map of the terrain, and planning with local guides the journey ahead. Then a rewarding journey can start to co-create education, build competences and infrastructure, and to make a difference in the new context.

Arja (Arja R Aro)


A Finn in a Finnish sauna in Saudi Arabia pondering on applicability and transferability (photo by Arja)


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