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What We Mean by ‘Global Learning’

An updated definition

By Hilary Landorf and Stephanie Doscher

October 5, 2023

In 2015, we defined global learning as “the process of diverse people collaboratively analyzing and addressing complex issues that transcend borders.” We crafted the definition to focus and guide our work leading the implementation of Florida International University’s (FIU) Global Learning for Global Citizenship initiative, which aims to “prepare students to be successful global citizens with global awareness, a global perspective, and a passion to make the world a better place.” Our definition of global learning emerged from our analysis of the term’s first uses; FIU’s history, geography, and demographic context; and the results of our research into pedagogies that successfully developed the initiative’s intended student learning outcomes.

Now, eight years on, it is time to revisit our definition by emphasizing the ultimate goal of global learning: to increase quality of life for people and the planet. We therefore assert that global learning is the process of diverse people collaboratively analyzing and addressing complex problems that transcend borders and engaging in actions that promote collective well-being.

Most aspects of our original definition remain the same. We continue to affirm that global learning is concerned with exploring authentic complex problems with interconnected local and global implications such as those encompassed by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We also reaffirm that the process of global learning involves three central conditions: problem solving, diversity, and collaboration.

First, problem solving. In the global learning process, students tackle complex problems that defy containment within defined boundaries and have no obvious or simple solution These problems are characterized by influences and impacts that transcend borders of all kinds: geographic, cultural, political, religious, economic, and generational. They can be experienced locally, are often interdependent, and involve larger social issues such as poverty, immigration, education, and racial and gender inequities.

Problems addressed with global learning affect all aspects of society, and collective efforts are needed to tackle them. Take the issue of affordable housing, for example. When health-care workers, cooks, teachers, and skilled laborers can’t find a place to live in a community, then the elderly, restauranteurs, parents of young children, and manufacturers alike feel the consequences. Numerous interconnected social and economic factors affect a community’s ability to create affordable housing. Significant local efforts are required to provide for all sectors. On a larger scale, sea level rise due to global warming will negatively affect the lives of millions of people throughout the world, and local and global communities will have to coordinate efforts to ameliorate its effects. Addressing these problems is imperative to securing an acceptable quality of life and well-being for both individuals and the communities they inhabit.

Second, diversity. Global learning must engage diverse perspectives because complex, open-ended problems affect diverse people and environments in varied, distinct ways. The process of global learning must therefore connect diverse individuals and their different knowledge, skills, and networks to develop holistic understandings and equitable, sustainable solutions for those affected by these problems.

Third, collaboration, which goes hand in hand with diversity. Collaboration describes the nature of engagement and connection among diverse global learners. Janet Salmons, an expert in using collaboration in education, defines it as “an interactive process that engages two or more participants who work together to achieve outcomes they could not accomplish independently.” The word collaboration is rooted in the ideas that learning is social and that new knowledge is produced when people faced with a common challenge are able to engage in discourse to express and exchange their different experiences and perspectives. Global learning problems demand collaboration because they cannot be understood, much less solved, by any single person, group, perspective, or discipline alone. Through collaboration, groups can combine parts of their diverse individual ideas to produce new innovative ideas, strategies, and actions to address such problems.

Adding the term collective well-being to our definition of global learning reflects the nature of global issues as community issues alongside the attitudes inherent in global engagement. In her work as a health-care researcher at Yale University, Brita Roy defines collective well-being as a “comprehensive, multidimensional measure of the overall health of a community.” For the purposes of global learning, we define collective well-being as the success of a community as a whole, measured in terms of the social, economic, environmental, cultural, and political conditions of the community, and the capacity and capabilities of individuals in that community to achieve health, happiness, and success on their own terms. As Roy points out, every community will have a different sense of what it means to thrive and is entitled to define their own sense of well-being.

Collective well-being is always dynamic and contextual, based on a geographical or digital place, a connection with a specific ethnicity, race, gender, religion, or education movement, or a group convened around a particular concern. Within the concept of collective well-being is also the recognition that well-being can only be achieved by individuals in a community working together and taking actions based on agreed principles and a common sense of purpose. One of the key insights associated with collective well-being is the recognition that individual and collective well-being are inextricably linked, that our individual well-being both affects the well-being of others and is itself affected by the well-being of the communities in which we live. Climate change and other environmental crises also demonstrate the need to connect human well-being to environmental sustainability and to acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature to culture and community.

Collective well-being includes many determinants beyond macroeconomic measures such as gross domestic product. Numerous studies and reports on collective well-being include measures of what people think and feel about their lives, including a sense of purpose, a feeling of belonging, and the ability to realize their potential and their overall satisfaction with life. For example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has created a framework for measuring well-being and progress to issue reports on well-being across OECD countries. The framework uses fifteen indicators, which include civic engagement, safety, work-life balance, income and wealth, housing, human capital, and social capital. Measurements used include averages, deprivations, inequality gaps, resilience, and risk factors. Economists such as Éloi Laurent, senior economist at the Sciences Po Centre for Economic Research in France, have called for using equity due to racism, gender inequality and inequity, and colonialism as a “meta-indicator for all dimensions of well-being.” By any measure, collective well-being must reflect equity, human capability, economic security, health, and environmental sustainability. Collective well-being has always been the end goal of global learning. Today, we must bring this key concept to the forefront with an explicit focus on promoting direct action toward restoring and improving quality of life, individually and collectively. Imperiled by a confluence of intersecting threats, both local and global, the overall health of our communities and environment are at an inflection point. Moreover, the United States is in a profound moment of public reckoning with its history of racial injustice and continuing state-backed racial violence and discrimination, while legislation across the United States is dismantling guardrails meant to protect diversity in education and the workplace. Pandemics, trade wars, autocracies, and artificial intelligence are increasing international isolation and competition, economic disruption, and individual disaffection. The extreme heat of summer 2023 may finally cause a global reckoning with climate change, one of the greatest existential threats to well-being.

Definitions of key terms are crucial for establishing comprehensive frameworks for developing priorities, policies, and practices. We concur with higher education researchers Savo Heleta and Samia Chasi, who have recently reconceptualized internationalization of higher education as a means of the decolonization of knowledge and affirmed that definitions can “broaden our outlooks and influence our thinking about future possibilities.” Higher education institutions of all types across the world have taken up a commitment to global learning, prompting deeper consideration of its goals, outcomes, and strategies. Having offered our perspective on global learning to the world, we now seek to incorporate what we’ve learned from the world into a revised definition of the term. We invite the international education community to engage in a conversation about our updated definition of global learning.


  • Hilary Landorf

    Hilary Landorf

    Hilary Landorf is assistant vice president of Global Learning Initiatives and associate professor of international and intercultural education at Florida International University.

  • Stephanie Doscher

    Stephanie Doscher

    Stephanie Doscher is the director of the Office of Collaborative Online International Learning at Florida International University.