Consistency is a vital part of workplace training: We want to ensure that all learners receive the same key messages and have equal learning opportunities. As workforces continue to globalize, eLearning offers an obvious solution. Centralized and standardized digital courses are available to anyone in the world with internet access.
But can the same course be equally as effective for learners who live and work thousands of miles apart? Research shows us that the answer is yes – as long as instructional designers respond to their audiences’ local preferences and needs.
Culture is a helpful concept for understanding the distinct requirements of international learners. In her work on multicultural eLearning instructional design, Lyn Henderson describes culture as “the manifestation of the patterns of thinking and behaviour that results through a group’s continuing adaptation to its changing social, historical, geographic, political, economic, technological, and ideological environment. Culture incorporates race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, values, traditions, language, lifestyles, and nationality as well as workplace and academic cultures.”
Identifying different cultures within a training audience can be challenging. Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede, suggested one possible solution in the 1980s. His “cultural dimensions” model rated six categories of difference between societies to describe so-called national character. Hofstede used the categorizations to suggest broad differences in how students and teachers interact in different countries. His approach remains popular within the instructional design community as a tool for anticipating how international learners will respond to different learning approaches.
The Hofstede model offers a tempting shortcut to discovering culturally specific learning needs and preferences. Unfortunately, the real world defies such simple categorizations. Modern societies include multiple cultures that intersect, coexist and compete with each other.
The emerging field of sociocultural theory argues that culture is individual. It is therefore the role of a trainer to understand each learners’ culture and create teaching programs that align with individual experience. Realistically, of course, this is not simple to implement, as online courses may be designed for thousands of global students.
If we are to reject spurious notions of cultural groups but can’t cater to thousands of students’ individual needs, how can we deliver training that is appropriate for all? A few strategies are available.
eLearning for multicultural groups can be supported by regional classroom-based training or social group settings. Local teams can contextualize the training and account for geographical (e.g., health and safety precautions in different climates), legislative (e.g., differing environmental regulations) and other localized differences (e.g., variations in language, etiquette and prior learning).
Creating online social spaces and encouraging interaction between learners and instructors (e.g., discussion boards, email and feedback) can fulfil the same function. Posing questions relating to the learners’ cultural experiences enables the instructor to modify their teaching practice.
An open dialogue allows cultural insiders to shape the training design and ensure that it does not privilege one group above another. Unfortunately, many corporate eLearning courses – such as mandatory training – are designed to be taken without social support, collaboration or trainer interaction. Instructional designers therefore face the dual challenge of identifying cultural differences in their audience and accounting for this diversity without disadvantaging any one group. On these occasions, the following strategies can be used:
This strategy seeks to be culturally neutral. For example, no cultural markers (e.g., symbols, colloquialisms, settings or colors) that may offend or confuse any identified groups are included.
The internationalization approach cannot really respond to diversity in learning cultures. Although the aim is to be neutral, more frequently the product reflects the learning culture that the designer is most familiar with. Nevertheless, the attempt to eliminate culture is an attractive and cost–effective strategy for organizations with a limited training budget and a global audience.
Localization seeks to adapt products for specific cultures and create varied, targeted products. The localization of a course ranges from the simple (e.g., a translated version) to the complex (e.g., profiling with tailored content). Simple localization strategies can be achieved with low levels of input from cultural insiders, as only small graphic, content and language changes will be made.
More complex strategies require a deeper understanding of the cultures represented within the target audience. As a result, there is a risk of relying on preexisting cultural frameworks and stereotypical design ideas without clear supporting evidence. Ideally, instructional designers should be guided by an organization’s cultural insiders rather than external research.
In contrast to internationalization and localization, cultural integration strategies aim for a single, culture-rich course that accounts for cultural diversity among learners.
Methods to incorporate different cultures include cultural research by reviewing learning contexts and strategies, cultural demographics by gaining insight into learner experiences and expectations, and cultural pluralism by targeting audience input. The use of tools such as questionnaires can help identify key cultures and user preferences for the course.
Creating truly culturally integrated training requires careful avoidance of tokenistic inclusivity and stereotypical assumptions, particularly if preexisting cultural frameworks are used. Communication with cultural insiders and the target audience is essential.
Which Strategy Should We Use?
Any of these strategies can be used to create eLearning that meets the needs of a global community. To ensure success, instructional designers must work closely with stakeholders to identify the best strategy for a particular organization.
Designers should prioritize discussing the course design with cultural insiders before development. This collaboration is the first and most crucial step toward producing effective eLearning for a global audience.