Saturday, February 26

Cross-cultural issues in learning

Four days ago I was leading a workshop on facilitating online learning for the faculty of the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi. One professor pointed out that most eLearning pedagogy was created by North Americans, for North Americans.

A typical student attending the Colleges is an Emerati whose English-language skills can't be taken for granted. Prior to coming to college, all schooling was in Muslim schools. In all likelihood, the student is weathy and drives either a BMW or a LandCruiser. He'll be studying engineering, computer science, or management. The distance learner will be coming online after work.

Can anyone share some stories or point to resources about tailoring online learning environments to non-U.S. cultures?


Peter Isackson said...


I'm eagerly awaiting the anecdotes as well, but the one you mention may sum it all up. I take the remark to have two complementary meanings:

1) Everyone perceives spontaneously that the pedagogy has a North American bias to it, not only in its style but also in its method (linear and oriented towards control rather than acquisition of knowledge, which in "high context" culture -- in contrast to the low context US culture – usually grows out of relationships rather than the mere presentation of "canned truth"),

2) eLearning itself -- as a concept, an industry, a science or an art -- conveys North American values (efficiency, productivity).

Like most things modern, Western and technological (including BMWs and LandCruisers) eLearning may appear to people from other cultures – especially in the leisured classes --- as appealing, exotic and as representing a kind of universal standard for social promotion. But at the same time they “feel” it to be foreign and therefore somewhat unreal.

This leaves two possible strategies for the eLearning vendor:
1) flatter the penchant for emulation and play on the West’s economic superiority,
2) seek to adjust to the local culture.

If one follows the second strategy, two choices are possible:

2.1) superficial adaptation to show you respect and are taking into account the local culture (careful avoidance of cultural gaffes, concessions to standard ideas about local tastes, such as acceptable color schemes and layout principles, etc.),
2.2) attempting some deeper synergy with local pedagogical traditions, which in high context cultures mean creating some sense of relationship (which may follow extremely variable rules).

I’m amused by the work I’ve seen concentrating on 2.1 and looking for ways to “adapt” minimally but effectively to various cultures. These are usually based on the standard generalizations or stereotypes of what I would call “first level interculturalism” (which often fails to go beyond lists of dos and don’ts).

Conclusion: just taking into account basic and well known cultural factors such as high vs. low context, or monochrony (i.e. linear progression) vs. polychrony, it’s easy to see that as in much of U.S. foreign policy there’s a kind of uncritical faith that the emulators – willing to identify for personal reasons with Western values -- represent the future of the marketplace rather than the masses who may actually need the training. They are willing to live with a low context, monochromic model. And in this case – unlike foreign policy -- it isn’t such a bad bet, because they are clearly the ones with purchasing power. But as your anecdote shows, even they are beginning to achieve some critical distance from a stance of pure emulation.

The real work will be to develop technology assisted learning strategies that rise from the best local traditions rather than dressing up Californian models in exotic costumes.

jay said...

Peter, mon ami,

We are in sync. I am trying to look at this as a citizen of the world, not as an American looking to make a quick buck through "localization." One of my least favorite neologisms of all time is "repurposing."

Sure, some people gravitate to eLearning because it's hip. In the Arab world it probably comes with a free laptop attached. These are not the learners that interest me.

If we could start from scratch, what sort of learning environment might we propose to the Emerati who wants to continue learning engineering skills via distance learning?

Do you know of any good work on this?


Mark said...

Peter and Jay,

Recently I did some research in the United Arab Emirates around Communities of Practices, and whether or not the building blocks of Wenger's model apply to an Arab Educational culture.

What I found was not surprising, however, the degree to which the trend was apparent certainly was startling. There were several highlights, however, the most glaring ones consisted of differences between Western models of Communities of Practice in terms of a Shared Leadership philosophy, and a Social Context for learning.

Wenger proposes that a shared leadership model is a building block for a CoP to prosper, whereas this concept was clearly not one that Arabic students adhered to, nor desired. Even when leadership roles were requested from students without these natural (social, political, or personal) characteristics, the role of leader was quickly relinquished to someone with these innate qualities. This makes teaching concepts such as group dynamics and leadership somewhat mute, as social and cultural norms prevail. In the West, these are topics that everyone learns, and ones that we strive to incorporate in an online environment. – Pretty egoistical of us!

Second, the social context of learning is paramount. Where we might seek out education for personal (sometimes selfish) goals (such as employment or advancement at work), the Arab National students placed a greater value on the social value of learning. Some interesting insights into this tendency can be found in Brown and Duguid’s book, The Social Life of Information.

These two points, among other more minor points, proved to be ‘show-stoppers’ for implementing an online learning environment based on a Western philosophy of a community of practice.

I continue to believe that an international, culturally inclusive CoP is a desirable objective, however, I don’t think it’s as simple as transplanting our Western model into an international setting.

That’s all for now,
I’d welcome your comments.

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