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The Virtual Student - Cultural Issues

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
635

What are some of the cultural issues that may emerge in an online class and how can an instructor plan for and deal with them? Joo (1999) identifies a number of areas where cultural issues may come into play: content, multimedia, writing style, writing structure, and web design. In addition, the roles of the students and instructor in an online course may also raise some cultural issues.

Folks:

The posting below looks at ways to take into consideration variations in the cultural backgrounds of students when designing and presenting material in online courses. It is from Chapter Four: Gender, Culture, Lifestyle, and Geography in, The Virtual Student: A Profile and Guide to Working with Online Learners by Rena M. Palloff & Keith Pratt. Published by Jossey-Bass. A Wiley Imprint - 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 [www.josseybass.com]. Copyright ? 2003 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: The Challenges of Teaching With Others

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

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THE VIRTUAL STUDENT - CULTURAL ISSUES

 

The use of the Internet in teaching and learning has increased the array of educational practices available to instructors. They can offer quality instruction to remote students, reach underserved populations, respond to the diverse learning styles o,f and paces at which, students learn, break down barriers of time and space, and give access to students of different languages and cultures (Joo, 1999). Yet, despite all this, there are cultural issues at play that can affect online classes. McLoughlin (1999) notes that technology is not neutral and that when culture and technology interact, either harmony or tension can be the result.

What are some of the cultural issues that may emerge in an online class and how can an instructor plan for and deal with them? Joo (1999) identifies a number of areas where cultural issues may come into play: content, multimedia, writing style, writing structure, and web design. In addition, the roles of the students and instructor in an online course may also raise some cultural issues. Here is a more detailed description of each of these areas:

* Content: Some content may be sensitive, in some contexts, particularly with subjects such as political science, history, and religion. An instructor may design a course that is considered politically correct in Western culture but offensive in another culture.

* Multimedia: Although graphic material can help bring some courses alive, the instructor needs to be careful when incorporating graphic material, audio, and video to be sure not to use material that reinforces cultural stereotypes.

* Writing styles: in many languages, words and grammar are used to convey different levels of politeness. Some students may be uncomfortable with informal language that students use in the lounge area of an online course or with the ways in which questions are asked and answered. In addition, submitting assignments in English may pose significant problems for non-native English speakers taking a course from an American institution; they may lack written English skills.

* Writing structures: The ways in which ideas are presented and arguments are constructed can also be concerns in some cultures. Translated texts may seem obscure or the translations may not be accurate. If the text is in English, non-native English speakers may have difficulty understanding concepts presents. They may need extra time to compose responses to discussion questions.

* Web design: Access to and reading of websites can also be problematic for non-native English speakers. For example, Arab-language speakers generally read from right to left; Hebrew is also read from right to left. These students may have the same tendency when reading material on a website.

* The role of the student and instructor. In some cultures it is considered inappropriate for students to question the instructor or the knowledge being conveyed in the course. The co-creation of knowledge and meaning in an online course, coupled with the instructor's role as an equal player in the process, may be uncomfortable for a student from this type of culture. Conversely, a student whose culture is more communal, and where group process is valued, may feel uncomfortable in a course where independent learning is the primary mode of instruction.

How, then, can an instructor be culturally sensitive when designing an online course and avoid some of these problems and concerns? Instructors cannot be expected to become knowledgeable about the cultures of every student who is likely to take the class. However, recognizing that instructional design cannot be culturally neutral is a first step in the process of becoming more culturally competent. Henderson (1996) has identified three main approaches to dealing with cultural issues in instructional design. The first is the inclusive or perspectives paradigm. This paradigm takes into account the social, cultural, and historical perspectives of minority groups but does so without challenging the dominant culture; thus, it pays lip service to cultural sensitivity. The second paradigm is the inverted curriculum paradigm, in which the instructor makes a greater attempt to design components of modules of the course from the minority's perspective. This paradigm does a bett!

er job of providing learners with an educationally valid experience from a cultural perspective, but because the focus is on only one module or component of the course, it provides an incomplete or potentially inaccurate view. The third paradigm is the culturally unidimensional paradigm, in which the instructor makes no attempt to include cultural difference at all and assumes that the worldviews and educational experiences of all learners are the same.

Clearly, Henderson believes that each paradigm comes up short; none is truly culturally sensitive. Thus, he promotes what he calls an eclectic paradigm, which entails designing learning experiences that are flexible and allow students to interact with materials that reflect multiple cultural values and perspectives. McLoughlin (1999) applies this notion to the online classroom by stating that if instructors are able to recognize the capability of students to construct their own knowledge and apply prior experience and their own culturally preferred ways of knowing to the task, then it is likely that a more culturally sensitive online classroom will be created.

The instructor's job, then, in responding to the cultural needs of the virtual student is to seek out, to whatever degree possible, materials that represent more than one cultural viewpoint. When this is not possible, the instructor should encourage students to bring such resources to the online group. Creating flexible assignments and task completion structures can also assist with this process. Asking students to share from their cultural perspectives not only helps students but also increases the cultural sensitivity of the group. Recognizing the different ways in which students might respond to instructional techniques online and being sensitive to potential cultural barriers and obstacles is yet another means by which the online classroom can become more culturally sensitive.