Cross-Cultural and Linguistic Issues in Online Learning

Cross-Cultural Issues in Online Learning
P. Clint Rogers, University of Joensuu, Finland
Minjuan Wang, San Diego State University
Short Article for the
Encyclopedia of Distance and Online Learning
The rapid pace of technological change and development in the world has given those
working in the field of online and distance education great opportunities to extend the
reach of what they create across national boarders and cultural boundaries (Albritton,
2006; Rogers, 2006). Examples of educational initiatives that aim globally include
projects such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare project (; corporate initiatives like
Cisco, already delivering academic curriculum to hundreds of thousands of students in
150 countries (Dennis, Bichelmeyer, Henry, Cakir, Korkmaz, Watson, Bunnage, 2005);
and even private universities such as Global University, based in Springfield Missouri,
offering courses to students in over a hundred different countries and languages (Rogers
and Howell, 2005). And the size and scope of cross-cultural online learning is growing.
Challenges associated with any cross-cultural interaction, such as the misunderstandings
that arise from the assumptions we unknowingly make (Hall, 1976), also influences
teaching and learning. Dewey (1916) observed almost a century ago that deep and
sustainable learning is dependent on the relevance of the curriculum to one’s lifesituation. Relevance itself is individually interpreted and culturally influenced. Berger
and Luckmann (1966) clearly point to the fact that relevance is relative to cultural context
saying that “questions of ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge’ [are] thus initially justified by the fact
of their social relativity. What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an
American businessman. The ‘knowledge’ of the criminal differs from the ‘knowledge’ of
the criminologist” (p. 2). In addition, learners’ cultural attributes affects how they
perceive an online learning setting and how they present themselves online, cognitively,
socially, and emotively (Wang & Kang, 2006; Wang, 2007). Therefore, it is essential that
cross-cultural issues in online learning be more critically examined (Rogers, Graham, &
Mayes, 2007). With the increasing global outreach of online programs and courses, there
is a great need to design and deliver online learning that can be engaging to a culturally
diverse audience. This short article will outline what difficulties exist in understanding
culture and developing cultural competence, explain why culture matters in education,
and give an overview of the existing questions and concerns regarding culture in the
arena of online learning.
Culture and Cultural Competence
Definitions of culture vary (Hofstede, 2001; Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998), but
the essence of them is that culture provides a framework for shared expectations and
values, identifying accepted ways which people live and operate in a shared context with
others. There are larger national cultures and smaller sub-cultures. The variety of cultures
and sub-cultural groups we participate in (e.g. gender, age, religion, socio-demographic
status, etc), combined with the choices we make, contribute to making each of us unique
(Arredondo, et. al., 1996). Bruner (1996) has eloquently captured this dynamic between
the individual and culture, nature and nurture, in his assertion that “Nothing is ‘culture
free,’ but neither are individuals simply mirrors of their culture” (p. 14).
One of the first great challenges in cross-cultural interactions, also evident in online
learning, is that many of our expectations are implicit, below our level of consciousness
and invisible to us. It is usually only when we are in direct contact with another way of
doing things, and when that way of doing things does not meet our implicit expectations
that we can begin to unravel what our original expectations were and how they might
differ from alternative ways of knowing and being.
For an example, Spindler (1963) argues that there is a normative national American
culture which might be invisible to most Americans because they assume everyone in the
world shares the same assumptions. He argued that the traditional values that make up the
core of the Anglo-American pattern encompass the following five characteristics: (1) a
Puritan morality, particularly regarding the establishment of a family and sexual fidelity
of spouses, (2) a belief that hard work will lead to success, (3) a premium placed on
individualism, (4) an orientation of one’s efforts towards socially and financially
rewarding achievements, and (5) a future-time orientation--that is, seeing one’s present
activities and situations in terms of their future yield, almost as if the present were an
ongoing investment in the future (pp. 134-136).
It is in deep and meaningful interactions with others that Americans begin to realize not
all hold the same initial assumptions. Many of the world’s people have socialpsychological characteristics that tend to differ from these to one degree or another.
Nisbett (2003) categorizes societies as relatively independent and relatively
interdependent, which are different in the following four dimensions:
1. Insistence on freedom of individual action vs. a preference for collective action
2. Desire for individual distinctiveness vs. preference for blending harmoniously with
the group
3. A preference for egalitarianism and achieved status vs. acceptance of hierarchy and
ascribed status
4. A belief that the rules governing proper behavior should be universal vs. a
preference for particularistic approaches that take into account the context and the
nature of the relationship involved (p. 61-62).
Hofstede (2001) dissected national cultures along five different dimensions: Power
Distance Index (PDI), Individualism (IDV), Masculinity (MAS), Uncertainty Avoidance
(UAI), and Long Term Orientation (LTO). Rapaille (2006) traced differences in national
cultural patterns to various perceived early survival needs in their respective societies.
Following the recognition of cultural differences, the next great challenge is to avoid the
ethnocentrism of automatically assuming that your particular way of doing things is
better (Bennett, 1993), while at the same time not becoming too relativistic (i.e. thinking
all approaches to truth are equal and should never be questioned). Another common
tendency is to make overgeneralizations and stereotypes (for instance, using Hofstede’s
national level dimensions on an individual level) that do not take into account subcultures and individual distinctiveness. Culturally sensitive people acknowledge how
much cultures (as well as individuals) can change and evolve over time. In other words, it
is a challenge to “learn to address cultural differences without either minimizing them or
stereotyping people” (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, p. 119).
Overcoming these challenges is a process often described as developing cultural (or
intercultural) competence. Unfortunately, this process takes much longer than most
people expect. Bennett (1993), for instance, identified six stages people go through in
developing this competence (Denial, Defensiveness, Minimization, Acceptance,
Adaptation, and Integration). Some of the process individuals experience in developing
cultural competence has also been visible in the evolving literature on cultural issues in
the online learning context as a whole (progressing through and hopefully past ignorance,
ethnocentrism, and stereotyping).
To assist in the learning process, Tyler (1975) identified five questions that are vital to
intercultural communication.
1. What message, or experience, do you – or he/she/they – want to communicate or
2. How important or relevant is the message or experience – to you and the “other”
3. What conditions, customs, concerns, attitudes, and/or values (yours and theirs)
hinder or help communication of the message or experience?
4. What specific interpersonal or media communication methods, or patterns,
succeed most and succeed least? Why?
5. How do you and they determine message effectiveness and the possible need for
further communication experience?
In other words, developing cultural competence is about identifying what “differences
really make a difference?” and what “similarities really are significant?” (Tyler,
Culture and Learning
Teaching is, by its very nature, a profoundly cultural act. There is no such thing as
“culture-free” teaching or learning. Not only is education central to most societies;
cultural norms are central to how teaching and learning are practiced and what is seen as
appropriate material for students to learn. Culture and education are inextricably related-so much so, in fact, that, in a sense, they “define” each other. As Pai and Adler (2001)
The processes of teaching and learning are influenced by the core values, beliefs,
and attitudes, as well as the predominant cognitive and communication styles and
linguistic patterns, of a culture. Further, the educative process, whether formal or
informal, is equally affected by the socioeconomic status of the learner, peer
pressures, the nature of the relationship between dominant and minority groups,
and the impact of technology on the society. Regardless of how education is
defined, from a cultural perspective it can be viewed as the deliberate means by
which each society attempts to transmit and perpetuate its notion of the good life,
which is derived from the society’s fundamental beliefs concerning the nature of
the world, knowledge, and values. These beliefs vary from society to society and
culture to culture. (p. 4)
Although the socio-cultural influence on mental development was discussed extensively
by Vygotsky in the 1920s-1930s, and recognized by Dewey in the 1930s, other
subsequent movements (behaviorism, cognitivism, etc.) seemed to give less emphasis to
these matters, until recently with the reemergence of socio-cultural theories of learning
(e.g. Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Siemens, 2004).
Mayes, Cutri, Rogers, and Montero (2007) describe how in the last few decades, Heath
and Gauvain have contributed significantly to our understanding of the impact of culture
on teaching and learning. Heath (1983) examined the psychosocial development of three
groups of children from birth to elementary school--lower Socio-Economic Status (SES)
African American children, lower SES Caucasian children, and middle-SES children
from both Caucasian and African American families. She concluded that, even before
they first walked through the doors of a school to begin their formal education, each
group of children had learned very different things about patterns of self-assertion and
obedience, the nature and value of printed words, rules of conversation, story-telling
conventions, and, of course, how to express themselves in spoken English. What Heath
discovered was that the middle-class children, black and white, were primed for academic
success (the kinds of ‘knowledge’ taught in schools) whereas the lower-class children,
black and white, were not. Since classrooms are embedded in a society whose norms they
reflect, students from cultures other than the dominant one(s) may be more or less primed
for academic success in Western society, depending upon the degree of “cultural
continuity” between their culture and that of the educational institution (Erickson &
Mohatt, 1982; Gee, Michaels, & O’Connor, 1992; Hewitt, 1984; Woods, 1992).
Gauvain (1995) identified three ways in which a society impresses upon the developing
child what teaching and learning “mean”: (1) any teaching and learning situation rests
upon a foundation--sometimes only implied, sometimes made explicitly clear--about
what kinds of goals and activities a culture values; (2), the culture provides the teacher
and learner with tools and materials to meet the goals and support those values; and (3),
there exist “high-level cultural structures” (e.g., scripts, routines, and rituals) that are
considered appropriate and useful to implement the goals and values in socially
harmonious and reinforcing ways. These three subsystems, Gauvain asserts, both assist
and constrain the cognitive development of the student, show her what it “means” to
teach and learn, and channel her thinking in ways appropriate to and supportive of her
culture. Gauvain (2001) has also shown how culture-specific messages shape the
developing child as she: 1) learns “problem solving skills” (strategies to use and the
knowledge-base to develop in order to recognize and approach and negotiate a problem);
2) constructs “memory” (which entails absorbing values represented as memories of
“exemplary situations” as well as learning specific strategies for remembering); and 3)
learns the rules for “planning” (learning how to coordinate one’s own actions in order to
reach goals as well as the rules for how to coordinate plans with the plans of others).
When learners from cultures aligned with the teacher’s normative culture are more
successful it does not necessarily mean that they are brighter than other learners. It
simply means that they are better prepared for that situation with a cultural worldview is
more consistent with the worldview of the teacher and school than is the cultural
worldview of learners from minority cultures. This issue is the same, only perhaps
magnified in some ways, in the online context.
Culture in Online Learning
Articles about culture in online learning frequently cite Henderson’s (1996) exploration
on how instructional design is culturally constructed, embedded with values, ideologies,
and images of a particular cultural group. When speaking about online instruction,
Spronk (2004) also recognized that “many features of the academic culture familiar to
most learners whose first language is English may strike learners from other linguistic
and cultural traditions as alien” (p. 172). Examples of issues of concern include:
 Educational values: both the value placed on education itself, as well as the role,
purpose, and methods of education (Bentley et al., 2005; Rogers, in press),
 Reasoning patterns: reflected in things like writing structures and problem
analysis. Western societies put a premium on linear logic, contrary to the
traditions of other cultural traditions that foster lateral or spiral reasoning patterns
(Bentley et al., 2005; Joo, 1999; Rogers et al., 2007; Spronk, 2004),
 Ways of knowing: differences exist in levels of objectivity. Western society also
tends to favor an analytical approach that emphasizes dividing reality into its
component parts, rather than more synthetic approaches that emphasize the whole
over the parts (Rogers et al., 2007; Spronk, 2004),
 Ways of communicating: these ways are reflected in relationships between
teachers and learners, and related expectations from each. This includes the level
of debate, discussion, and original thinking that is encouraged along with the
ways in which thoughts are expressed. Westerners tend to prefer an expository,
declarative, and deductive rhetorical style, as opposed to the tentative inductive
approach, and in assessments of knowledge usually privilege the written over the
spoken word (Bentley et al., 2005; Joo, 1999; Rogers et al., 2007; Spronk, 2004),
 General context and content: clearly not all cultures share the same implicit
impressions regarding certain icons, colors, symbols, history, religion, politics
(Joo, 1999; Rogers et al., 2007),
 Technological concerns: assumptions regarding technological access, familiarity
and design should always be checked when working internationally (Bentley et
al., 2005; Joo, 1999; Rogers et al., 2007),
 Language impact: language and culture are interrelated. Significant differences in
culture and learning arise to phonology, syntax, lexicon, semantics, and
pragmatics (Bentley et al., 2005; Joo, 1999; Rogers et al., 2007). And when the
language of instruction is a second language for the learner (e.g. English), ideas
that become critically important include Cummins’ (1995) distinction between
Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic
Language Proficiency Skills (CALPS) as well as Krashen’s (2003) Affective Filter
Hypothesis – the idea that emotional factors such as motivation, self-confidence,
and anxiety affect the process of working in a second language.
These issues have impact on everything from the perceived credibility of online
instruction, to the impact and relevance it will have in the life of the intended learners. It
is wise to critically examine and question the Western influence on the culture of
academia and especially the assumptions about online users.
Over the years, a growing number of authors have researched and written on one or more
aspects of the issues of culture in online learning (Albritton, 2006; Bentley, Tinney and
Chia, 2005; Chen & Mashhadi, 1998, Chen, Mashhadi, Ang, & Harkrider, 1999; Collis,
1999; Kawachi, 2000; Looi, 2003; Mayor & Swann, 2002; McLoughlin, 1999;
McLoughlin & Oliver, 2000; Monajemi, 2003; Robinson, 1999; Tylee, n.d.; Wang,
2007). These additional publications have focused on things as varied as culturally
influenced differences in answering questions on tests (Albritton, 2006), differences in
perceptions of online courses between students form high-context vs. low-context
societies (Morse, 2003), impact of collectivity vs. individualism orientation in online
learning (Clem, 2005), use of the power distance index in understanding learner
perceptions of course components (Wang, 2007), the experience of instructional
designers in working on cross-cultural online instruction (Rogers, 2006), and specific
case studies in creating culturally sensitive online instruction (McLoughlin & Oliver,
2000; Tinney, 2007).
McFayden, Roche, Doff, Reeder, and Chase (2004) observed four main research
orientations regarding the literature about culture and education online: (1) interactions
online involving culturally-diverse adult learners, (2) accessibility of the Internet for
different groups, (3) assessment criteria used in online courses, and (4) designing virtual
learning environments to accommodate learners from many cultures.
Additionally, a couple of articles have synthesized existing suggestions to teachers,
students, and instructional designers involved in cross-cultural online education (Bentley
et al., 2005; Wang & Reeves, 2007).
Several models have been suggested that could assist those creating online instruction,
each illuminating important considerations. In addition to encouraging an iterative
approach to the traditional ADDIE (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate)
instructional design model which others had proposed, Thomas, Mitchell and Joseph
(2002) further suggested adding a cultural dimension. This cultural dimension would
have three aspects: intention, interaction, and introspection. The intentional attribute of
learning would encourage the designer to consider and make their cultural bias explicit.
The interaction parameter would involve the collaboration of designer, subject matter
expert (SME), and end user throughout the model phases to facilitate the melding of
culture into the end product. Finally, introspection on the part of designer ensures that he
or she is considering his or her own thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, desires, and feelings
toward the cultures represented in the instruction.
Based on the original work of Marinetti and Dunn (2002), Edmundson (2007) proposed
the Cultural Adaptation Process (CAP) model, which ideally helps to categorize course
complexity and culturally adapt materials for particular learner groups based on the type
of content, instructional methods, and media used.
In their study of instructional designers Rogers, Graham, and Mayes (2007) identified
three main barriers facing those who wish to create culturally-sensitive online instruction:
(1) there is a general over focus on content development with little to no consideration of
context, (2) there is a relative lack of evaluation in real-world practice, and (3) often
those who are creating the instruction are in a role where they are mainly given
predetermined tasks to accomplish without the freedom, resources, or flexibility required
for culturally sensitive design and development. In response, Rogers and his colleagues
proposed a bridge-building model which includes: (1) engaging in a deeper learnercentred needs analysis, to ensure value and identify gaps where additional scaffolding is
needed; (2) allowing for more flexibility in the design process; (3) investing more
thought and time to separating deeper principles from particular application, and (4)
educating other stakeholders (e.g. the client and subject matter expert) so they are also
invested in adaptations based on cultural considerations.
Henderson’s (1996, 2007) “multiple cultures model” emphasizes the importance in
sustainable learning outcomes of including elements from both the learner’s own culture
and those from the emerging global academic or training culture (from industry,
government, or higher educational institutions). By including the epistemologies of
global, national, and minority cultures, Henderson argues that e-learners are invited to
understand and more critically query both their own and the dominant epistemologies:
how and why they were constructed, in what ways they influence identity and value
certain ways of knowing, and how various epistemologies reveal themselves differently
in mathematical, medical, technical, or social theories and solutions.
With each of these models, it is clear that “culture itself cannot be objectified as just
another factor to be programmed into designing a distance learning course” (Chen &
Mashhadi, 1998, p.10), but rather that “culture is so much a part of the construction of
knowledge that it must underpin not only the analysis phase but all phases of the design
process” (Thomas, Mitchell & Joseph, 2002, p. 41).
Yet, a recurring observation of the literature is that currently there is still a relative lack
of research in this area (Gunawardena, Wilson, & Nolla, 2003; Wang & Reeves, 2007).
Thanks to the efforts of Charles Ess and Fay Sudweeks, however, an entire bi-annual
conference has been devoted to these issues (Cultural Attitudes toward Technology and
Communications, CATAC). This is in addition to the focus on international issues in
other conferences, where this topic naturally arises. With the foundation that has been
laid through research publications and conferences, in combination with an increase in
interest, the authors predict a growing community of researchers interested in this area in
future years.
Recommendations for Future Research
What will be the focus of future research? A summary of recommendations made by a
few of the leading researchers follows.
Gunawardena, Wilson, and Nolla (2003) noted that many of the studies they reviewed
provide guidelines based on personal experience and intuition, and not as many that were
research-based. Wang and Reeves (2007) also point out the need for a more sound and
comprehensive theoretical foundation connecting research on cultural dimensions with
practical design decisions in online learning environments. Rogers, Graham, and Mayes
(2007) recommended several questions for future research. These, along with a few
additional pertinent questions, include:
• How can cultural differences in learners be better understood and
accommodated for, and how can we better measure where learners stand in
relation to each of the key cultural variables?
• What changes in models, methods, and pedagogies are needed to facilitate more
sensitivity and responsiveness to cultural differences, and help overcome the
barriers mentioned?
• How do perceptions differ for students residing in foreign “host” countries vs.
those taking online courses from their native country?
• What is the process by which learners change and adapt to instructional
techniques and approaches that are foreign to them—and how can we help to
bridge the gaps more effectively?
• What is the influence of Western culture on limitations in the field of
Instructional Design and Technology (IDT) as a whole? How should the
education of those creating online learning be changed?
• What is the best way to approach the restructuring of organizations and reenvisioning of the role of instructional designers in order to be more culturally
responsive and helpful?
• Are there indeed universal principles for instructional design (which can be
separated from their particular application)? If so, what exactly are all these
principles, and how can they best be tested and utilized?
• How can “smart” adaptive interfaces be used to responsively customize online
learning for people of varied cultural backgrounds?
• How do online learning platforms and online learning communities get
structured in a way to better understand and respond to cultural diversity and even
gain from it?
There are certainly a host of challenges inherent in cross-cultural research (e.g. finding
equivalent samples for comparison in quantitative studies, confounds due to unrelated
variables, finding construct equivalence when even concepts such as “conflict” have
different meanings in different cultures, appropriate translations, etc). For this reason,
Gunawardena, Wilson, and Nolla, (2003) recommend that new researchers read the
review and critique of methodology for studying culture by Bhawuk and Triandis (1996).
This review suggests subjective cultural studies that maximize both emic (the native’s
perspective) and etic (the researcher’s perspective) views, a multiple method approach
including interpretive and critical approaches to the study of cultural phenomena over
logical empiricist approaches, and that cross-cultural studies be carried out by a team of
researchers representing the various cultures being studies who can jointly determine
research strategy, methods, and materials that would be most culturally appropriate and
enlightening. Wang and Reeves (2007) further note the lack of “thick description,” which
helps form profound narratives that help make the cultural context more concrete for both
researchers and practitioners.
All these recommendations will ideally help research move beyond simple stereotyping
and help practice move beyond claims of e-colonialization, contributing to sound
understanding and culturally responsive application. And, undoubtedly, the questions and
research will continue to evolve as developments proceed in the technology available
(e.g. so called “Web 2.0” and “Web 3.0” tools and interactive platforms), as well as
alterations in the overall conceptualization of educational environments (both formal and
informal) in order to meet the needs of a very globally engaged 21st century.
In this article, we introduced the concept of culture and cultural competence, examined
the impact of culture on learning, and focused on discussing the frameworks and issues
related to culture and online learning. There is still a great need for more research in this
area and we listed specific questions in the “recommendations for future research.”
It has been argued that an understanding of cultural and international dynamics is not
only an important issue; it is arguably the important issue of our time (Fay, 2000). In the
new millennium, one of our main challenges is to learn to live with difference (Lauzon,
1999, in Wang & Reeves, 2007). Wang and Reeves (2007) assert that “within the broader
filed of education, online education may well have the greatest potential for enabling
people to develop tolerance and learn to live with difference.” Of course, the condition is
that “this potential will only be realized if we as researchers and developers take…issues
[related to culture] more seriously” (p. 14). This assertion grounds a “call to action” and
emphasizes the power that online learning environments can have to better prepare all of
us for operating in a global world.
The authors predict that future research will continue to yeild evidence showing not only
how to effectively deal with cross-cultural issues in online learning, but also that the
struggle of addressing cultural issues might even help creatively reshape our view of
technologies and of education itself.
We would like to thank the following people for thoughtful reviews of or contributions
this manuscript: Cliff Mayes, Stephanie Allen, and the IMPDET Cross-Cultural Research
Group members (Sabine Reljic, Javier Lopez, Marcus Duveskog, Temtim Assefa, Diego
Flores, and Adele Botha).
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Key Terms
ADDIE: An instructional design model that includes the following stages: Analyze,
Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate.
Culture: social system that provides a framework for shared expectations and values, and
accepted ways which people live and operate in a shared context with others.
Cultural Competence: (also referred to as intercultural competence) a process by
which people and systems become able learn to address cultural differences without
either minimizing them or stereotyping people
Cross-Cultural Communication: (also frequently referred to as intercultural
communication) is a field of study that examines effective ways for people from
differing cultural backgrounds to communicate with each other.
Ethnocentric: regarding one’s own culture as superior to other and automatically judging
other cultures from the perspective of your own culture.
Relativistic: regarding truth as relative and completely dependent on the groups and
societies that define it.