MET:Culture and Cross-cultural issues in E-learning
This page was originally authored by Alice Campbell (July 2011) and was revised by the addition of a Stop Motion Artifact by Colleen May (February 2015).
In many e-learning programs, the community of learners is increasingly globally distributed; learning is increasingly cross-cultural. While the prospects of global, cross-cultural collaboration are regularly cited as a key benefit of e-learning, learners from different cultural backgrounds do not learn in the same ways. What is considered to be meaningful knowledge to learn, and as effective teaching and learning practices, are both culturally constructed.
In online environments composed of learners from different cultural backgrounds, designers need to be aware of learners’ cultural backgrounds in order to develop or modify designs that will best suit their cultural learning frameworks. Designers need also be aware of how they may be reproducing their own cultural ideas about knowledge and learning in their designs - and how these may not suit all learners.
Culture has proven difficult to identify and define (Williams, 1977); what is clear, however, is that culture is the corpus of institutions, meanings, values, and beliefs which shape how humans make sense of their world.
Anthropologists have long considered culture as that which is not nature. Edmund Tylor’s seminal definition of culture (1871) is that it comprises the whole of human social organization and meaning-making activity (including laws, customs, morals, ethics). In remarking on culture as exclusively human, Sahlins defined culture as the capacity for symbolic thought which distinguishes humans from other life forms. As Sahlins (2011) remarks, only humans can tell the difference between tap water and Holy water - two scientifically identical substances. It is through culture - symbolic meaning making - that this difference is produced.
While it is difficult to identify ‘culture,’ it is possible to observe the effects of culture on people’s practices (Bourdieu, 1977; Ortner, 1984). Therefore, effective analyses of culture attend not to 'culture' as an abstraction, but culture as something that shapes how humans make sense of their world, and that becomes observable when humans express their beliefs, values, perceptions, and actions.
Culture and Individuals
One reason why culture is difficult to define is because the boundaries between individual and cultural behaviour can be difficult to pinpoint. It is not always clear whether an observed behaviour (e.g. competitiveness) is a product of personality or cultural traits.
While culture shapes and strongly influences individual action, culture does not determine individual action. Not all individuals will necessarily and equally participate in all cultural practices. As an example, following the sport of soccer (football) is widely acknowledged as part of contemporary Latin American cultures; however, not every individual Latin American person participates in this particular cultural practice (following soccer).
Culture and Learning
How one learns, what one learns, and what one perceives as important to learn are intrinsically cultural; after all, culture profoundly affects how people see and understand the world, and guides their actions within the world - all of which are intrinsic to learning.
Culture and Constructivist Education
Culture is particularly important to consider in constructivist  educational designs that emphasize learning through interactions with other students (Jonassen, 1999). These designs are often premised on shared values, beliefs and cultural practices. There are two primary ways that culture affects learners' experiences within constructivist learning environments: (1) communication and collaboration, and (2) constructivists' emphasis on 'authentic' learning problems.
(1) Communication and Collaboration : learners' cultural backgrounds strongly influence their communications styles (as direct or indirect) and modes of working with others (individually or more collectively). Culture also manifests in individuals’ different expectations of how to work collaboratively within a group. One frequently noted distinction concerns American and East Asian students (Chen et al, 2006; Vatrapa, 2008). Chen et al. (2006) note that American students’ collaborative work often involves dividing tasks, and recombining pieces into a whole. In contrast, Taiwanese students show a marked preference for working collaboratively through the duration of the project. Culture also manifests in individuals’ communication styles - Taiwanese students report that American students are unduly ‘aggressive’ in their communication.
(2) Learners' experiences of 'authentic' learning tasks. Constructivist designs are often premised on developing ‘authentic’ learning tasks that are relevant and hence motivating to learners . One major challenge to cross-cultural social constructivist inquiry is whether learning tasks are ‘authentic’ to learners from various backgrounds.
Culture and E-learning Technologies
The effects of culture on learners' experiences in e-learning environments can be particularly acute. Culture profoundly affects social behaviour (including what is perceived as appropriate or inappropriate behaviour), communication, cognitive processes, and how one interacts with learning technologies, such as computers (Vatrapu, 2008). All of these components are central to e-learning designs.
The design of e-learning programs is therefore not culturally neutral. Vatrapa (2008, p. 159) notes that “socio-technical affordances vary across cultures.” Vatrapa (2008, p. 160) defines "socio-technical affordances" as ‘action-taking possibilities’ and ‘meaning-making opportunities’ in a socio-technical system relative to the action capabilities and meaning competencies of the actor.”
The variation in how cross-cultural learners appropriate these affordances  relates to cross-cultural differences in cognitive processes. Nisbett (2003) demonstrates that the ways that people organize and understand visual and textual information varies cross-culturally - often starkly. Masuda and Nisbett’s controlled experiment (2001) assessing American and Japanese perceptions of visual information revealed crucial differences in how American and Japanese peoples see and process visual information. Japanese participants focused on the relations between different visual elements and gave different ‘contextual’ descriptions of the information presented. American participants focused heavily on the individual focal object, and were more proficient than Japanese participants at recognizing the focal object when they were shown it again in ‘novel’ visual fields.
Vatrapa (2008) has also noted that communication styles also vary cross-culturally within students taking the same e-learning program. In a controlled experiment that compared American and East Asian graduate students at the University of Hawaii, all using the same e-learning program on global health, Vatrapa found that Anglo-American participants made signiﬁcantly more individual contributions, were more likely to explicitly discuss information sharing strategies or techniques, and were also more likely to explicitly discuss knowledge organization strategies or technique (193). He concludes that e-learning programs must include “alternates for action” (195) - such as multiple ways of participating - in order to ensure the best learning outcomes for all learners - not just those who share the same cultural background as the designer. Chen, Hsu and Caropreso (2006) similarly report radical differences in American and Taiwanese students' communications styles. Whereas American students' responses on discussion boards were short and frequent, Taiwanese students posted in the later stages of discussions - which was perceived as a weakness by the American students (Chen et al., 2006, p. 23-24).
Edmundson (2007), Vatrapa (2008) and Young (2008) all argue that e-learning programs have been predominantly developed, used and evaluated in Euro-American contexts. Young further argues that these technologies are culturally coded as Western, and have marginalized cultural objects and “remnants” developed and used by non-Western peoples. Her case study of the history of African-American learning technologies indicates that these technologies - and indeed all technologies - are strongly cultural through the use of local vernaculars, ways of distributing knowledge, and particular forms of graphic design or use of images.
Culture, E-learning Technologies, and Linguistic Barriers
Most e-learning depends on a lingua franca  - typically English  - and students for whom that language is their second language can acutely experience this as a hindrance to their full participation. In course designs that rely heavily on student participation for learning, 2nd language students often participate less, due to concerns about dragging a group behind, or appearing less competent (Chen et al., 2006, p. 23).
Much e-learning depends quite heavily on text technologies (i.e. written words through distributed reading texts, chat rooms and discussion boards) on CMS websites . Socio-cultural cues towards meaning - including gestures, tone of voice, changes of speed or pitch, emphasis, and facial expressions - are typically flattened through written communication. This makes text-based learning increasingly challenging for 2nd language learners; Chen et al (2006) report that Taiwanese learners more frequently used emoticons in their e-learning program in order to convey emotion. As audio and video become increasingly important in e-learning through the wide availability of Web 2.0 programs  such as Skype, a video-conferencing software available universally for free download, and the popular site Youtube, the affective dimension of communication that Web 1.0 (Alexander, 2005) lacks  may enhance cross-cultural learning.
Indicators of Cultural Variability
There are several measures of cultural variability that can help to predict how learners from a given culture will interact with an e-learning design (Hofstede 1997; Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner 1998). These can be used by designers to both self-reflexively identify how their cultural backgrounds influence their design choices, and also to modify course designs for the intended learning audience.
Hofstede's 5 cultural dimensions
The most prominent of these indicators was developed by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede (1997) through his research in IBM offices around the world. Hofstede identified 5 overarching cultural dimensions, through which we can identify major differences in cultural beliefs, values and behaviours. These are each considered to be a continuum between two polar ends, with most cultural groups landing in the middle. This model of cultural differences, though controversial, is nonetheless considered influential and seminal (Edmundson, 2007) by educational researchers examining the cross-cultural use of e-learning tools. It is equally as influential, and controversial , in studies in cross-cultural management.
Hofstede considers cultural differences on national levels (e.g. Japanese culture, Danish culture). In his publications (1997), he provides scores for the following 5 indexes for over 50 nation-states. Many of these are also published online on Hofstede's website .
- 1) Power Distance Index (PDI)
This index establishes to what extent members of the culture accept the uneven distribution of power.
High values: Teachers are considered authorities, and students do not question their expertise.
Low values: Teachers are considered as facilitators of students’ education, and are perceived as relative equals to students.
- 2) Individualism Index (IDV)
This index establishes to what degree members of the culture define themselves in individualist or collectivist terms.
High values: Students expect to be treated as fundamentally equal to peers and faculty. They often prefer working alone, and receiving individual recognition for their accomplishments.
Low values: Students show a greater dependence on social relationships, and have a marked emphasis on working with others. Societies with low IDV scores are considered “collectivist,” and make up the bulk of the world’s cultural groups (Edmundson 2007).
- 3) Masculinity Index (MAS)
This index establishes the prevalence of gender roles in the culture- on the assumption that masculine values are competitive and assertive, while feminine values are modest and nurturing.
High values: Students are openly competitive with each other, driven by achievements, and disappointed by failure.
Low values: Students have more relaxed expectations, and the learning environment is less competitive.
- 4) Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)
This index establishes how comfortable members of the culture are with uncertain, ambiguous, or unstructured situations.
High values: Students perceive teachers as experts, and seek learning environments which are tightly defined and scheduled, with clear objectives and precise answers. They look to be rewarded for the accuracy with which they carry out their work.
Low values: Students perceive teachers as facilitators, and are more comfortable with vague objectives, multiple answers, and loose schedules. They look to be rewarded for the originality with which they carry out their work.
- 5) Long Term Orientation (LTO)
This index establishes the extent to which members of the culture direct their attention towards the future, or to the past and present.
High values: Strong orientation to the achievement of future goals; qualities such as thrift and persistence are highly valued. Students are likely to attribute success and/or failure to independent effort.
Low values: Strong orientation to values that pertain to the past and present; qualities such as national pride, fulfilling social obligations, saving ‘face’ and preserving traditions are valued.
File:Hofstede dimensions - Canada.jpg
The image above shows Hofstede's cultural dimension scores for Canada (as of July 2011). Retrived from http://www.geert-hofstede.com/hofstede_canada.shtml.
Criticisms of Hofstede
There is considerable critique of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model. The most prominent critique is that he too closely equates nation-states with cultures - it should be noted that nation-states and cultures are not coterminous entities (Vatrapu, 2008). The peoples within nation-states are not culturally homogenous, but are rather increasingly diverse, through mass migration around the globe (Hewling, 2005)  . If one is to apply Hofstede’s model, one must measure for cultural homogeneity within a given nation-state (Vatrapu, 2008). Another critique leveled at Hofstede’s work is that he treats culture as static, rather than as dynamic (McSweeney, 2002); historical change is not accounted for in his model. Certainly, feminists and scholars concerned with masculinity and gender relations would take issue with Hofstede's universalist characterization of gender roles. Lastly, he overlooks diversity within cultural groups; specifically with respect to education, Hofstede’s work does not differentiate between learners in different kinds of institutions (such as K-12 schools and higher education), nor does it accommodate differences in race, age, gender, location, ability, class, or any other major axis of social difference (Signorini, Wiesemes, & Murphy 2009, p. 259).
Alternative models to Hofstede
Signorini et al (2009) propose an opposite, and more anthropological model, to Hofstede’s model of national cultural dimensions. Rather than beginning with Hofstede’s nationally-bound constructs of culture, and working to identify them in local settings, they argue that one might more productively begin with small scale, site-specific studies of the impact of cultural practices on education, and gradually build up more generalizable models (Signorini et al., 2009, 262).
Adapting E-learning programs cross-culturally
In order to facilitate the adaption of existing e-learning programs for different cultural settings, Edmundson (2007) has developed CAP (Cultural Adaptation Process). Although Edmundson follows Hofstede's model of national cultures (as well as the substantially similar national cultural dimensions index developed by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1998)), the varied pragmatic areas she identifies can help designers effectively adapt their courses for cross-cultural learners.
Particular steps to take to adapt an e-learning program for cross-cultural learners include (from Edmundson, 2007):
- 1) Language translation - do materials need to be translated into languages, or local vernaculars (Young, 2008), including possibly making changes from American to British English? Moreover, are cultural references made within the program relevant to learners?
- 2) Localization - are the learning materials appropriate to the specific cultural context? Is imagery - for instance, the use of colours - appropriate, or do certain colours have negative associations? Are people figured in such a way that learners can ‘see themselves’ in the representation? Is the clothing appropriately modest, casual, and/or professional? Are the gestures culturally appropriate and understandable?
- 3) Access - do users have access to technology that they need to fully use the e-learning program (sophisticated computers, broadband connections, administrative ability to download plug-ins on the computer that they are using)?
- 4) More profound adaptations to critical cultural distinctions in learners
- Are the learners more motivated towards cooperative or individualist learning? (see Hofstede IDV index)
- Are the learners primarily motivated internally or externally?
- How do the learners typically experience control over their learning - do they have a preference for following sequential instruction, or do they discover different aspects at their own pace? (see Hofstede UAI index)
- What role do learners expect teachers to take - authoritative experts, or facilitators? (see Hofstede PDI index)
- What value do learners place on errors - are errors considered a crucial part of the experience of learning, or are learners considered to be educated after they can perform a given task without errors?
- Are the learners more motivated towards cooperative or individualist learning? (see Hofstede IDV index)
Developing Cross-cultural e-learning and considerations of power
Edmundson (2007) recommends pilot testing versions of a culturally adapted program before widescale application to ensure that it meets the needs of the particular cultural learners. However, this does not address how education has historically been used as a tool of marginalization (Young 2008) and reproduction of the values of the dominant group (Foley, 1990). Young (2008) argues that people from the culture in question, in addition to experts on that cultural group, need to be involved in all aspects of pedagogical planning. From this wiki author’s experience in indigenous research and education, it would also be highly advisable to ascertain whether there are particular protocols in place for developing educational programs with and for a given population - to ensure the meaningful inclusion of learners' values and interests throughout the program's development. See also Etec 510 wiki entry on Indigenous Cultures and Globalization.
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