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Joseph Smith


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Cultural Resilience Is Not a Barrier to Elearning


Cultures influence the beliefs, attitudes, values, behavior of individuals. If you have heard of the term ‘culture shock,’ then you will also know that many immigrants, students, new employees, learners face this when they go to new countries, new schools, new workplaces respectively. Our capacity as individuals to learn and to be able to adapt to new situations is a hallmark of human learning. So why do we face difficulty? It is because of these unconscious cultural influences on our beliefs, values, attitudes, gender roles that we have trouble in adapting.

Teachers/Instructors/Mentors are those individuals who can make a difference in the lives of students/learners/new employees. However, what are some characteristics that make up a culture?

What is the foundation/ bedrock of Culture?

  • Beliefs: Belief may be defined as an acceptance or having faith that something is true
  • Attitudes: Attitudes are a positive or a negative way we respond/react to something. The feeling defines how we behave toward specific stimuli in the environment.
  • Values: Values may be defined as rules of conduct or standards of behavior.
  • Behavior: Behaviors may be defined as an organism’s external reactions to its environment.
  • Gender Roles: In all cultures, there are explicitly defined roles of the male and the female gender. These roles too have an impact on the attitudes and behavior of individuals which in turn can impact learning.

The relationship between Online Learning and Culture

Apart from learning in a physical environment, that can pose a severe challenge to learning, the culture of the students is of a bigger concern. The above resiliencies such as beliefs, attitudes, values, behavior and gender roles among many others tend to play out in the physical environment. In an online environment, the students may remain anonymous, and interaction may happen more freely.

However, with synchronous online learning, this problem is not going to be a hurdle. How can online learning push learners imbibe more knowledge? By using the following ideas, online tutors can push the boundaries of online learning without cultural factors hindering learning.

  • Constructionism: Help student to learn a concept and explain it to others in their own words/ create a presentation/ or a project – that would help in retaining information better.
  • Collaboration: Allowing the students to interact with each other through moderating discussions and activities.
  • Student-centered learning: Here the students decided what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will assess their knowledge.

Online Tutors, Please Take Note

Sunniva Heggertveit-Aoudia, the owner of NORSUN Diversity and Cross-Culture Consulting, states that “we tend to judge other’s behavior based on our cultural norms, the “lens” we see through. Moreover, here we have lots of opportunities for potential conflict, misunderstandings, and miscommunication. Different values lead to different behavior; behavior you may not understand. It is important that we try to learn and appreciate these differences to work effectively with people from other cultures.”

Instructors and Teachers who deal with students from around the world in an online environment must ensure that they know some subtle differences in each of the student’s way of functioning. How do we do that?

  • Read up on the cultural background
  • Enquire if the person is task or relationship oriented
  • Does she/he come from a high-trust or low-trust society? In a high trust society, people have to do less to prove themselves worthy in the eyes of others
  • Figure out if the learners share information willingly
  • How many students belong to a direct communication country versus an indirect communication country.

There are culture maps which help tutors/ instructors to be able to understand and create an online learning culture map easily. These maps indicate how different cultures

  • Communicate: explicit vs. implicit
  • Evaluate: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  • Persuade: deductive vs. inductive
  • Lead: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  • Decide: consensual vs. top down
  • Trust: task vs. relationship
  • Disagree: confrontational vs. avoid confrontation
  • Schedule: structured vs. flexible

According to the culture the students are from, it will be easier for the teacher to plan communication.

There are other helpful guides for first-time students studying online. Such published rules of engagement for online students are widely available and are acceptable to learners of all cultures. For example “Reply to your classmates' posts in thoughtful ways, and ask questions to promote further discussion,” and “Often, instructors, set ground rules and online meeting netiquette to help build a healthy learning community. Be sure that you understand the ground rules and ‘netiquette’ before you jump in and interrupt someone’s presentation!”

What is cultural resilience?

The Western world knows that introduction of western education to colonized countries was a source of threat and tensions among the native population. There have been instances such as the introduction of schooling to Australian Aborigines, where they were forced to learn English. Practices of taking away Aboriginal children against the will of parents, ignoring Aboriginal way of education and not allowing children to learn the Aboriginal way of life- were rampant. The traditional way of teaching a physical environment of learning can sometimes be liberating and at other times restrictive. In retrospect, this policy, created fear and hatred in the hearts of the Aborigines. What the Australian education system is now acknowledging, is that they must include Aborigine epistemology and relevant knowledge – molding the education system to, accommodating the Aborigine culture and value system.

The above is an extreme example – yet so relevant to developing our understanding of culture in the context of learning.

Sometimes instead of adapting to a new environment, our cultural resilience set in. We must discuss this aspect, as instructors/teachers/mentors do not have much room to ensure interaction in a physical environment. Hence they must study the cultural background of their students, to make effective communication strategies, in an online environment. Examining the cultural quirks of his/her students, the instructor can efficiently navigate lesson plan and discussions during the class.

So what is cultural resilience? It is the capacity of any culture to ‘maintain and develop a cultural identity and critical cultural knowledge and practices. A resilient culture can maintain and develop itself if faced with any challenge’.

Resilience may also mean the following

  • Competence in dealing with threats to the well-being
  • Competence when under stress
  • Positive functioning indicating recovery from trauma

Impact and Learning of Cultural Resiliencies on Online Learning

In an online environment, the first threat is not present. The third stressor which may be true in war-torn areas from where students are taking an online course. Hence what is the solution to these resiliencies? The answer lies in: 

Culturally Responsive Teaching

There is a massive impact of culture on certain aspects/ characteristics of students which will impact learning in an online environment. Researchers claim that one strategy is not enough for engaging students. Content has to be created in such a way that the cultural background of the in incorporated for the student to relate to the content.

Why is this important? Researcher, Olneck (1995), has stated that “teaching that ignores student norms of behavior and communication provokes student resistance, while teaching that is responsive prompts student involvement.”

A culturally sensitive curriculum has an impact on the following

Motivation – An engaged student’ motivation is a reflection of emotions which are socialized through culture.
Strategies for increasing motivation – The reward and punishment/ carrot-and-the-stick approach is still prevalent. Here the teacher is asked to assess ‘at-risk’ students – who are not motivated to study. However, research says that these students are usually poor and people of color and ‘this label is now a euphemism for “culturally deprived” (Banks 1993).
Evaluation: Researchers specify that “noncompetitive, informational evaluation processes are more effective than competitive, controlling evaluation procedures (Deci et al. 1991, Deci and Ryan 1991)”

Two researchers Landso-Billings (1994) outlined the following parameters to engender culturally responsive teaching

  • A positive perspective on Parents and families – when teachers interact with parents, they get n insight into the hopes and aspirations of the child, needs, suggestions as to how teachers can help. This also involves enlisting the help of parents as ‘partners’ in the educational journey of the child. In the online context, this can easily be done via web-conferencing or surveys that can be filled by parents.
  • Communication of high expectation – Communication of high expectation by the teachers is related to the development of a healthy self-concept in a learner. In the online context, this can be quickly done – as the instructors can give strict guidelines for students to stick by.
  • Learning within the context of culture – Children can learn better when the environment at home and school closely match. Children who do not get this type of educational support tend to be disengaged and their cognitive and emotional development may result in academic failure. This factor to can be incorporated in the online setting.
  • Student-centered instruction – Teachers should support collaboration, cooperation, and community learning as it leads to students becoming confident, self-directed and proactive.
  • Culturally mediated instruction— Encouraging students to develop multi-perspectives based on their own cultural and social experiments. 
  • Reshaping the curriculum—Curriculum which incorporates culture ensures that issues and topics and skills which are relatable to the student. This, in turn, promotes ‘high-order knowledge and skills.’
  • Teacher as a facilitator— Teachers act as mediators, consultants, instructors and advocates for the students, helping them to connect their cultural learning to classroom learnings.

Online teaching can effectively incorporate all the above guidelines and more to have culturally responsive teaching.

Tony Bates, (President and CEO of Tony Bates Associates Ltd, a private company specializing in consultancy and training in the planning and management of e-learning and distance education) explicitly advices online tutors to create their own learning culture by outlining values that would constitute an online learning culture.

For example, the outline of the online learning culture can revolve around

  • Mutual respect 
  • Open-ness 
  • Evidence-based arguments and reasoning. 

There are many others that online teachers can write down and share with students ahead of the session.  Here, despite cultural differences, the students would take note of these rules and regulations to function appropriately in an online learning environment.

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Joseph Smith

Content Manager

Read more from Joseph Smith

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