Documentation:Cultural Issues in Teaching Online/Learning Module

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Intercultural communication is always a challenge, but even more so when it happens online in the absence of visual and oral cues or well-developed relationships. In computer-mediated courses, participants are involved in building learning communities. But culturally diverse individuals may hold widely different expectations of how to establish credibility, exchange information, motivate others, give and receive feedback, or critique or evaluate information. In this module, you will learn about some of the cultural challenges that learners may experience in virtual learning environments. You will consider how your own culture and worldview may influence the ways that you assess and respond to different online learners, and you will have a chance to reflect on how this new learning might influence your future practice as an online facilitator.

Learning Objectives

This module looks briefly at how cultural issues impact online education, discusses what can happen when intercultural communication occurs, examines how this might affect both the quantity and quality of student posts, and provides case studies for further consideration and reflection.

At the end of this module, participants will be able to:

  • identify some of the cultural factors that might affect learner participation.
  • identify some cultural factors that can contribute to effective or ineffective communication.
  • formulate strategies for managing online interaction between diverse cultural groups.


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  • Backroad Connections Pty Ltd (2002). Cross-cultural Issues in Content Development and Teaching Online. (Version 2.00), Australian Flexible Learning Framework Quick Guides series, Australian National Training Authority. [1]
  • Bates, T. (2001). International Distance Education: Cultural and Ethical Issues [online]. Distance Education: An International Journal, 22(1), 122-136. [2]
  • Chase, M., Macfadyen, L.P., Reeder, K. and Roche, J. (2002). Intercultural Challenges in Networked Learning: Hard Technologies Meet Soft Skills [3]. First Monday, 7(8) (August 2002).
  • Joo J. (1999). Cultural issues of the internet in classrooms. British Journal of Educational Technology. 30(3), 245-251. [4]
  • Lanham, E. & Zhou, W. (2003). Cultural Issues in Online Learning –Is Blended Learning a Possible Solution? International Journal of Computer Processing of Oriental Languages. 16 (4), 275-292. [5]
  • Marinetti, A & Dunn, P (2004). Cultural Adaptation – A Necessity for Global e-Learning. [6]
  • McLoughlin, C. (1999). Culturally responsive technology use: developing an on-line community of learners. British Journal of Educational Technology. 30(3), 231-244. [7]
  • McLoughlin, C. & Oliver, R. (1999). Instructional Design for Cultural Difference: A Case Study of the Indigenous Online Learning in a Tertiary Context. [8]
  • Macfadyen, L. P. (2006). Internet-Mediated Communication at the Cultural Interface. In C. Ghaoui (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction (pp. 373-380). Hershey, PA: The Idea Group, Inc. [link to Macfadyen2006]|}
  • Reeder, K., Macfadyen, L. P., Chase, M. and Roche, J. (2004). Negotiating Culture in Cyberspace: Participation Patterns and Problematics. Language Learning and Technology, 8(2), 88-105. [9]
  • Rutherford, A.G. & Kerr, B. (2008). An inclusive approach to online learning environments: models and resources. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 9(2). [10]


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Digital Ethnography: Dr. Michael Wesch's blog (Kansas State University)

Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog: A Vision of Students Today

The Imaginative Education Group: Cultural Diversity in the Classroom (Lectures by Graeme Chlamers and Hartej Gill)


Watch 'A Vision of Students Today'(Michael Wesch - Kansas State University), a provocative look at students in today's digital age. Time: 4:44

Watch Michael Wesch (Kansas State University) as he reflects on the anthropological aspects of technologies such as YouTube. In it he explores the concept of digital ethnography and how platforms such as YouTube affect our understanding of the individual and community. Time: 55:34

Intercultural Challenges in Learning Online

Culture and language are intimately interdependent. Singer (1998) describes language as:

...a manifestation – verbal or otherwise – of the perceptions which the group holds. Language, once established, further constrains the individual to perceive in certain ways; language is merely one of the ways in which groups maintain and reinforce similarity of perception.

What happens when culturally diverse learners encounter each other in virtual learning environments? The idealized expectation is that they will engage intellectually with their fellow learners, course materials and instructors/facilitators, through such intellectual performances as elaborating arguments or criticizing ideas. But this kind of intellectual performance presupposes a wealth of background understanding, and shared assumptions about concepts and methods of argument (Xin & Feenberg, 2006 ) that learners may not share if they do not arrive with a common cultural (and intellectual) heritage.

Culturally diverse individuals may hold widely different expectations of how to establish credibility, exchange information, motivate others, give and receive feedback, or critique or evaluate information. Worse, even if learners recognize that their culturally-influenced worldview may differ from their peers, the only communication channel available to them by which to negotiate new and shared understanding is very narrow: digital text. Most virtual learning environments are still overwhelmingly “discursive and rhetorical spaces” (Nakamura, 2002 ). In spite of some advances in the development of graphically represented virtual worlds such as Second Life, cyberspace is still primarily a “written world” (Feenberg, 1989 ). Intercultural communication is always a challenge, but even more so when it happens online in the absence of visual and oral cues or well-developed relationships. In the disembodied world of virtual learning environments, online learners have no access to important non-verbal tools and cues that face to face communicators can use to help clarify meaning: context perception, dynamic real-time repair mechanisms, a parallel visual channel, eye contact, gestural information, and in general the flexibility we normally expect to obtain or emerge between conversational partners. It is apparent, then, that one of the major pitfalls in networked learning programs for culturally diverse participant communities may be miscommunication. And if learners cannot establish effective communications and shared understanding, opportunities for creating cognitive presence and intellectual engagement are lost.

Nevertheless, it has been widely assumed that all that is needed for meaningful online learning is to deploy standardized technologies worldwide, and that ways of communicating will simply become standardized for cohorts of culturally diverse learners and teachers participating in local, national or international programs.

In Xin & Feenberg’s 1996 paper on “Pedagogy in Cyberspace”, the authors state that part of the task of online facilitators is “fixing communication problems” whenever there is a weak link in communication or any threat of breakdown due to misunderstanding. Together with learners, facilitators must manage difficult communications, repair challenging situations, clarify confusions, and correct glaring misunderstandings. These tasks demand that facilitators can anticipate problems before they get out of hand, and intervene strategically to smooth communications and promote better learning. Expanding our understanding of the process of intercultural communication in a virtual learning environment is therefore a critical step in facilitating exemplary online learning in international/intercultural situations.

Emerging Themes

By examining hundred of discussion forum messages, these authors identified nine main (somewhat overlapping) arenas in which they frequently observed miscommunications, or 'mismatches' between communicator expectations. These themes are summarized in the Table below. A key finding was the discovery of the creation of an online culture within the course.

Online Culture

There is an "online culture", and the courses under study have a sub-culture all their own. There is evidence that the course culture reflects the values of its developers, that this culture is overtly maintained by guideline creation, and covertly maintained by facilitators and participants. Features of the observed cyberculture include 'etiquette', rules of formality/informality, flexibility, interaction style (including greetings/farewells, use of apology), expectations of response speed, and work ethic (tensions between relationship building communications and 'on-task' communications).

Format and Participation

Distinct communication pattern differences are apparent when comparing e-mail-based and Web-based exchanges. Success rate of some communicators may be inferred from the frequency with which they elicit responses from the group.

Face-to-Face versus Online Issues

Individual discomfort with the 'anonymity' of online discourse is represented by different commentary from individuals.

Identity Creation

Significant cultural differences become apparent in the ways in which participants write about their own identity in online postings. This includes the nature of their short introductions (content, length, style), the degree of 'self-revelation' they display. Other features of identity sub-cultures (age/generation, and gender) also emerge.

Learning Styles

Some cultures are accustomed to rote learning and memorization, while others have been encouraged to learn through questioning of facts and understanding concepts (Lanham & Zhou, 2003). Some students are taught to listen to instructions, while others are encouraged to put forth their own opinions. These differences can be characterized as instructor-centered and student-centered approaches, respectively, and they can affect the way that students encounter online classrooms.

Technical Issues

Technical and formatting issues clearly influence effective communications in these online arenas. There are correlations between frustrations or expertise with the technology and various cultural or sub-cultural themes (age, gender, professional culture). Expectations regarding the role of facilitators in resolving technical problems emerge, and are reflected in a variety of 'housekeeping' messages.

Participant Expectations

Participant expectations of the course, online facilitators/moderators and the medium vary, and may be connected to differing cultural expectations of educational environments.

Facilitator Expectations

Similarly, facilitators from different cultural backgrounds have varying expectations of participants, and express these expectations in various ways.

'Academic Discourse' versus 'Stories' . The authors observe communication differences that might be related to different participant experiences with academic discourse. In contrast, other participants and facilitators incorporate narrative and 'stories' to teach ideas or share experiences. There is variation in participant tolerance of critical debate.


Explicit and implicit assumptions about 'time' and punctuality emerge, and cultural attitudes towards these become apparent from the ways in which participants and facilitators account (or not) for lateness.

What Happens When Culturally Diverse Learners Communicate Online?

Despite rapid advances in information and communications technology (ICT) approaches to online learning, relatively little is known about actual experience in the field using these technologies to facilitate communications between individuals and groups from different cultural backgrounds. In 2002, Chase and colleagues began their investigation into ‘what happens’ when culturally diverse learners communicate online, by examining communications in an online, facilitated course for intercultural learners. The goals of this study were to test assumptions that electronic communication is internationally standardized, to identify any problematic aspects of such communications, and to construct a framework for the analysis of electronic communications using constructs from intercultural communications theory.

Observation One: The Internet has a Culture

Reeder and colleagues note that the observation with the most wide-reaching implications for the success of electronic intercultural communications is that the communicative space or platform created by the Internet is not a culturally neutral or ‘value-free’ space in which culturally diverse individuals communicate with equal ease. Like all technologies, the Internet was and is socially produced – and all social productions are informed by the cultural values of their producers (Castells, 2001) . The creators of the Internet were predominantly Anglo-American engineers and scientists “seeking quick and open access to others like themselves” (Anderson, 1995) . Their ethnic and professional cultures value aggressive/competitive individualistic behaviours. In addition, these cultures value communications characterized by speed, reach, openness, quick response, questions/debate and informality. Schein (1992) attributes similar values to the information technology community in general. The authors observed that these communicative cultural values are embedded in the design of WebCT and similar Internet-based communications platforms. Layered over this foundational but 'invisible' culture of the Internet, the culture of the online modular courses under study here is similarly the product of its creators: predominantly university-educated Canadians, who are Western, English-speaking and female. Within the course environment, communicative cultural values are enforced both explicitly and implicitly. Implicit enforcement is due to features such as the technical infrastructure of the course (a discussion board which requires public postings and responses), and by unspoken assumptions and expectations about how communications should proceed. Meanwhile, the communicative culture of cyberspace and of this online course is explicitly enforced through overt statements, instructions and requests made by course facilitators and by some of the learners.

Circle question.png Reflection

Think about the communication tools and communication ‘culture’ of this course.

  • How would you describe the culture of this course?
  • What are the spoken and unspoken expectations? How do you know?
  • Did you feel comfortable within the course culture from the beginning? Why, or why not?
  • Are there cultural challenges associated with using public discussions forums as the main site of ‘intellectual engagement’ online? Do the email and chat communication tools offer any useful alternatives?
  • How might awareness of an ‘Internet culture’ and a ‘course culture’ influence your practice as an online facilitator?

Observation Two: Culture Gaps Make Way for Miscommunication

The greater the cultural gap between online participants, the greater the possibility for miscommunication Understanding that there exists a real and enforced Internet culture, and that this culture embodies communicative values drawn from North American, English-speaking and academic cultures, one might expect that participants from certain (formally educated, Western, English-speaking) cultures will have the least difficulty in communicating successfully in greatest affinity with the online course environment, whereas individuals from cultures with very different communicative values and strategies might be less successful communicators, according to cyberculture standards. Reeder and colleagues note that this prediction is supported by their analysis of participation patterns. In their study group, non-aboriginal Canadians (individuals born and educated in Canada, within the predominantly English-speaking Euro-Canadian culture) posted a significantly higher number of messages than, for example, aboriginal Canadian participants. It appears, then, that one important cultural ‘gap’, which may function as a predictor of online communicative success, is the gap between the communicative culture of an individual, and the communication culture of the Internet itself.

Cultural gaps can also exist between individual communicators from different backgrounds, and the authors find evidence of these cultural gaps in the communications of their online course participants. For example, they observe in participants’ “self-introduction” postings some large differences in their approaches to online self-revelation, and, indeed, in their notions of how identity is established. Why might such divergent perceptions of personal culture, role and identity contribute to communicative challenges in an online setting? The authors suggest that Gudykunst’s Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory (1995) may be useful here. Gudykunst suggests that all communicators (including online communicators) encounter each other as strangers – and the wider the cultural gap that exists between them, the greater the degree of uncertainty and anxiety. As anxiety increases, the potential for miscommunication increases. Anxiety must be ‘managed’ in order for successful communication to take place.

Individuals from different cultural backgrounds will employ different anxiety management strategies, with varying degrees of success. For example, in the ‘self-introduction’ exchanges above, individuals are giving information about themselves in ways that reflect their experience, the influences of their educational and group cultural “programming”. The likelihood is, however, that neither is providing the other with the kind of culturally-expected and familiar personal information that would serve to reduce anxiety and promote better communications. The door is opened to hasty assumptions on both sides about the others’ cultures.

Circle question.png Reflection

Think about the way you introduced yourself at the beginning of this course.

  • What kind of information did you offer? Why?
  • What kind of personal information helps you form a ‘better picture’ of your fellow learners?
  • As a facilitator, how can you help learners create online ‘identities’ that augment peer communications?

Observation Three: Patterns of Online Participation Differ Amongst Groups

Reeder and colleagues observed differences amongst communication patterns of participants from the different groups described in this study: evidence, they believe, of the different patterns of communicative exchanges which cultural groups may employ. These differences coalesced around two general questions: 1. Who posts contributions to the bulletin board? 2. Who responds to whom?

The evidence for variation in contribution as a function of cultural group is summarized in Figure 1 of the full paper. Most apparent is the finding that the average number of postings made by aboriginal Canadians in this group was disproportionately lower than that of either the Canadian-born Canadian group, or the adult immigrants to Canada. On average, individuals received about the same number of responses from about the same number of people, when comparing these sub-groupings. What this does tell us is that in spite of receiving the same number of postings from a similar array of people, certain subgroups of participants were more likely to interact (or re-post beyond the required minimum) than others. Put another way, we could argue that certain groups were more likely to continue an online conversation. Another contrast of interest is between the proportion of responses in relation to the aboriginal Canadians’ postings compared to proportions of responses to postings of all other groups in the sample. Only the aboriginal Canadian group gets more responses on average than they produced postings. This difference should be interpreted with caution given the smaller number of postings (averages per participant as well as in absolute numbers) this group contributed to the course compared to those of the other two cultural groups. Moreover, the authors observed that aboriginal learners never directly addressed facilitators (the ‘teachers’), while members of other groups did. They also noticed an apparent “drop-off” in participation by aboriginal learners over time, and aboriginal Canadians posted fewer long messages than members of other groups.

Male participants posted significantly fewer messages than female participants, consistent with findings of a larger study of gender-related patterns of online communication by Sussman & Tyson (2000) , and contrary to their earlier prediction that as in spoken communications, male communicators would display ‘power behaviours’ by posting more frequently. Further analysis will be necessary to determine whether or not, as in that study, our male participants offset this low frequency of posting by contributing longer or perhaps more opinionated messages than female participants.

The discovery of differential participation rates across cultural groups in this case study can be interpreted against the background of work in the ethnography of communication (Hymes, 1972) . One dimension of the ethnography of speaking is quantity: how much talking is expected of members of a given cultural group? Such a predisposition could begin to explain why some groups, i.e. aboriginal Canadian and male groups in our study were not as inclined to participate in extended and frequent postings to the same degree as the other groups (Tannen, 1984) .

Circle question.png Reflection

  • Do these observations surprise you? Why, or why not?
  • It is common in online courses for students to receive part of their grade based on ‘discussion participation’. Is this a fair approach to assessment? As a facilitator, what kinds of criteria can you use to assess ‘participation’ that might mitigate such a difficulty?

Examples in Practice: Case Studies

Case Study One

Consider the following Ghanaian poem, which expresses a common sentiment about ‘friendship’ in West Africa:

Beware of friends.
Some are snakes under grass;
Some are lions in sheep’s clothing;
Some are jealousies behind their faáades of praises;
Some are just no good;
Beware of friends.

(Kyei & Schreckenbach, 1975, p. 59 as reproduced in Heine, 2008, p. 475)

Circle question.png Reflection

Although friendship is universal, the nature of friendship is not.

  • How might this apparently puzzling poem be explained?
  • How might the attitudes towards friendship expressed in the poem be manifest in online discourse?
  • How might a learner’s cultural background (collectivist or individualistic; independent or interdependent) affect the nature of the online relationships that s/he forms over the term of a course?
  • How might this affect group participation in an assignment? How might it affect online discussion?
  • What sorts of miscommunication might arise from differing cultural views on concepts such as friendship?
  • What assumptions about culture and friendship have been made by including this poem in this resource?

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