Culture and diversity in the asynchronous learning

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Dr. Richard Brosio (1994), in his book A Radical Democratic Critique of Capitalist Education, writes that "Marx understood that a human being is not an abstract being who 'squats' outside of the world; instead, he/she exists with and in relation to others-up to their ears in the thickness of everyday experience" (p. 195). Everyday we negotiate being an individual while moving in and out of different communities both face-to-face and online. For better or worse, our world is rapidly changing due to rapid technological advances. The face of education is changing as well. More and more we are asked to learn and use technology in our classrooms. While fully online asynchronous courses have the opportunity to reach many people all over the world, courses must be designed with diversity and culture in mind to reduce the elements leading to isolation and high failure rates. Therefore, in this paper I will look at the effects of diversity and culture in a fully online asynchronous course.


I chose to look at fully online asynchronous courses because it is in this environment that one never sees the people on the other side of the messages and material. Asynchronous courses "enable a group of people to use computer-mediated networks to learn together, independent of time, place, and individuals' pace" (Chang & Lim, 2002, 83-4). Students, through online asynchronous courses, can interact with one another without having to be in the same place, at the same time enabling them to complete assignments in a flexible manner at their own time and pace. This means that cultural diversity can not be seen physically, but remains residually through messages and interactions. When designing or instructing an asynchronous fully online course one must try to "understand the needs, backgrounds, characteristics, and expectations of the target learners" (Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka, & Conceição-Runlee, 2000, p. 6). This is especially important as online courses have the ability to cover large distances and bring learners together from different areas of the locality, state, nation, or world.

Of course, it is also important to realize that "online courses that attract participants from diverse locations may have learners with different needs" (Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka, & Conceição-Runlee, 2000, p. 6). Therefore we must learn the differences in communications between cultures. First, before exploring the differences between cultures it is important to look at what culture is, how it is defined, and what it means for individuals. Chen, Mashhidi, Ang, and Harkrider (1999) define culture "as the beliefs, philosophy, observed traditions, values, perceptions, and patterns of action by individuals and groups" (p. 220). Every person carries with them a mix of beliefs, values, and perception from past experiences within their environment that can affect the way they interact and learn in an online learning environment. Some theorists describe culture as something that is always changing. Gundawardena, Wilson, & Nolla (2003) write that "culture is constantly changing and that individuals belong to more than one culture, some voluntarily and some involuntarily" (p. 753). Often people belong to more than one culture and carry a mixture of components from each-some that they have chosen to take part in and some that have unconsciously retained from prior experiences or past environments.

Even though "culture and learner are interwoven and inseparable" (McLoughlin, 1999, p. 232) we must also take into account that "culture is a 'moving target'-not only are learners increasingly participating in the values of multiple cultures, but many are very likely to transiently take up and drop identifiable dimensions or characteristics of recongised cultures, especially when they are required to work across cultural groupings" (Wild & Cowan, 1999, p. 195). This means that while we understand what it takes to become a member of a community by dropping or picking up integral cultural components that our diversity truly stays with us even though we might not portray it on the outside. Now that we have an idea of what culture is and what that means for individuals that want to become a part of a diverse group, it is important to look at why we, as educators, even have to take culture into account in the first place.


Our world is changing which means that education is changing as well. The new knowledge-based technical economy requires that more and more entry level employees have skills one would learn through the attainment of a bachelor's degree. Therefore, universities and colleges around the nation are working diligently to capture enrollments by providing programming to a larger geographical section of society. This means that learners are more likely to take part in an online course and have members of their class have a basis in a culture and retain cultural components that may not resemble their own. Courses can now reach "potential students who are homebound or physically remote from a college campus, as well as students who find it extremely difficult to fit their family and work responsibilities into a traditional academic schedule" (Higher Education Program and Policy Council of the American Federation of Teachers, 2000, p.1). Learners are more likely to take part in courses with women, minorities, immigrants, and older individuals due to the rise in education and skill requirement for employment that the new knowledge-based technical economy requires (Sanchez & Gunawardena, 1998, p. 48-9). In the end "it is critical that we better understand the impact that learners' cultural beliefs have on the use of these communication technologies" (Hornick & Tupchiy, 2006, p. 33). Therefore, in order to truly understand the complexities inherent in online learning situations we must reflect on the true differences that exist between one another.


Sanchez and Gunawardena (1998) write that "Sanders and Wiserman (1990) point out that classroom demography is becoming increasingly multicultural, thereby creating a critical need to pay attention to diverse learning styles associated with various ethnic groups" ( p. 49). This indicates that it is necessary to look at culture so educators can design a successful learning environment and be aware of differences that could effect the learning environment they created. But what truly makes one person different from another? Many researchers separate cultural differences into individualistic and collectivist. Hornick and Tupchiy (2006) "indicate that the individualistic-collectivistic dimension of culture affects the use of the Web-based communication technology in addition to perceptions of social presence (the feeling of closeness with other learners), sense of community, and learning outcomes (learner satisfaction, perceived learning performance, and actual learning performance)" (p. 33). Therefore, it is incredibly important to understand the differences between those that reside in an individualistic culture and a collectivist one.

Individualistic cultures, like those commonly referred to as being "West" in nature, tend to create circumstances where their "personal needs and goals take precedence over the needs of others" and "see themselves as separate and autonomous individuals" (Gunawardena, Wilson, & Nolla, 2008, p. 754). The focus on personal needs and autonomy can be seen in a positive manner or a negative manner. On one hand "one could come to the conclusion that individualistic tendencies, due to emphasis on 'task,' should ceteris paribus be positively associated with perceived and actual learning outcomes" (Hornick & Tupchiy, 2006, p. 35). In an online course an individualistic person is highly motivated based on personal wants and needs. Therefore, they are very likely to get tasks completed fully and on time to secure the desired outcome. On the other hand, "individualistic cultures tend to have more ingroups because individuals have more access to ingroups; however, members are not strongly attached to any single ingroup" (Gunawardena, Willson, and Nolla, 2003, p. 754). Further, they tend to drop out of groups that are too demanding, and their relationships within their groups are marked by a high level of independence of detachment" (Gunawardena, Wilson, and Nolla, 2003. p. 754). This is incredibly important to keep in mind while learning about your course audience and designing correlating activities. While individualistic persons are highly motivated to complete tasks that are clearly linked to their personal needs and wants, they often have trouble maneuvering groups and group activities because of their natural independence and focus on task-only communication.

Hornick and Tupchiy (2006) further break down individualist culture into two further categories: horizontal and vertical individualists. They write that "horizontal individualists are characterized by seeking individuality rather than distinctiveness, that is, they tend to 'do their own thing' and not to compare themselves with others" (p. 36). Those individualists with horizontal tendencies focus on completing tasks on their own without competition in mind while "vertical individualists are especially concerned with comparing themselves with others…believing that competition is the law of nature, and they desire to win in all kinds of competitions" (p. 36). When thinking of what competition creates, one can easily see how it sometimes helps us to create superior work. However, it can be detrimental when it hinders learning by creating competition that does not foster collaborative learning efforts.

Individuals that are part of the collectivist culture are quite different than their individualistic counterparts. Collectivist cultures, like those commonly referred to as "East" in nature, "individual needs are sacrificed to satisfy the group" and "depending on the effective functioning of the group, a member's commitment to an ingroup is greater" (Gunawardena, Wilson, & Nolla, 2003, p. 754). Having a true commitment to an ingroup means that the "collectivists keep stable relationships with their ingroups no matter what the cost and exhibit a high level of interdependence with members of their group…seeing themselves as fundamentally connected with others" (p. 754). In an online learning environment collaborative effort and communal relationships are integral to the learning process because they reduce the probability for isolation by creating learning through interaction.

Like individualism, Hornick and Tupchiy (2006), also break down collectivism into both horizontal and vertical means. They write that "horizontal collectivists merge with in-groups (e.g., family, tribe, coworkers, nation); the well-being of their in-groups is important to them…but they do not feel subordinate to their in-groups" (p. 36). This means that horizontal collectivists thrive in groups and they do their best to make the groups work without losing power and feeling inferior to their groups or group members. Contrary to the horizontal collectivists "vertical collectivists submit to the norms of their in-groups and are even willing to sacrifice their personal identities for their in-groups" (p. 36). Dangerously, horizontal collectivists value groups to the point where they are willing to lose themselves in it and to it. In both cases-individualistic and collectivistic-"the horizontal aspect emphasizes the equality and similarity of people, whereas the vertical aspect accepts inequality among individuals and views differences among people positively" (p. 35). Therefore, it is important, as designers and instructors of online learning environments, that we create and foster an environment where we highlight the focus on the good things the culture may provide and decrease the impact of the aspects that will hurt the community and its collaborative efforts.

Individualism and collectivism are just two of the ways researchers have categorized differences in culture. Other categories include: Power-Distance, Uncertainty-Avoidance, Masculinity-Femininity, and Low-High Context. While I don't have enough space to look at all of these at length, it is important to mention their existence because they also work to influence the online learning environment. Therefore, I created this reference table based Gunawardena, Wilson, and Nolla's (2003) explanative text.





Extent to which less powerful people accept inequality equating it to the norm

People can be high or low power


Value based on risk and ambiguity as well as the extent to which people are made nervous by things they see as unstructured, unclear, or unpredictable.

Strong uncertainty avoidance have less tolerance of ambiguous situations


Fostering of traditional gender roles

Men as assertive, ambitious, and competitive and women as caring for nonmaterial quality of life, children, and the weak

High-Low Context

High: indirect messages

Low: explicit messages

High: Mexico, Japan, and Native Americans

Low: US

*Gunawardena, Wilson, and Nolla, 2003, p. 755

Many of these categories and their ramifications can be seen as vital in an online learning community. The US is typically seen as being highly individualistic having high power-distance, low uncertainty-avoidance, a sometimes wavering masculine-feminine focus, and a low context. In an online learning environment, especially now that people are more likely to be from various cultures, it is important to see how a typical US student could be very different from a student from the "East" where the focus is on low power-distance, high uncertainty-avoidance, high masculine-feminine, and a high context.

An interesting example of how this develops is described by Bates (2001), as cited in Gunawardena, Wilson, and Nolla's (2003) text. In it, Bates indicates that "there is a tendency in 'Western' courses from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia to encourage critical thinking skills, debate, and discussion, where students' views are considered important and where the views of teachers can be legitimately challenged and student dissent is even encouraged" (p. 763). However, those "in other cultures [like the "East"] there is a great respect shown by students for the teacher, and it is culturally alien to challenge the teacher or even express an opinion on a topic" (p. 763). In collaborative online learning environments instructors often place students in discussion groups, appointing a new student weekly to facilitate the discussion. It can be seen that students in the "West" would feel more comfortable being a facilitator, than their "Eastern" counterpart due to ability and past experiences with scholarly critical thinking exercises, debate, and discussion with peers and instructors within a classroom setting. Therefore, it is important that as instructors, one gets to know their students and aid their students in getting to know one another, as well as understanding diversity.

It is important to note that people, when merging into new groups-especially online learning environments assimilate into the environment, but retain their cultural components within themselves. Carabajal, LaPointe, and Gunawardena (2003) write that "each online group member brings his or her existing explicit and tacit knowledge, belief systems, cognitive abilities, and individual ways of constructing new knowledge to the group" (p. 225). These things often find their way into messages about how the learner correlated the learning materials to their own life. However, it is important to understand how people change and assimilate to others as they enter a group. Gunawardena, Wilson, and Nolla (2003) believe that people act differently depending on who they are interacting with at the time and that "a person could have collective tendencies at home and with close friends and individualistic tendencies with strangers or at work" ( p. 754). While this is true, instructors, designers, and students alike have to be aware "you, and most other people, have a strong tendency to insert a default set of values for the nonverbal components when they are not supplied" and that "these defaults are usually base on the culture in which you were raised" (Carabajal, LaPointe, & Gunawardena, 2003, p. 134). In online environments this is especially the case because there is no conversion to a physical classroom-the "other participants are still in their environments and you are still in yours" and "the chance that your fellow participants, or you will stay true to your local culture is greater" (p. 133).


The fully online, asynchronous learning communities can end up being a confusing place for those from diverse cultures. What one may mean when typing, may come off differently in words-or to the person reading the message than one might expect. Piskurich (2004) writes that "specific numbers can vary between studies, but it is usually accepted that 20 to 45 percent of the communication between two people is carried by words, with 55 to 80 percent carried by nonverbal cues, such as body posture, eye contact, and hand gestures" (p. 132). These statistics are so staggering that anyone reading them can fully understand the importance of nonverbal cues. In an online environment this can truly be difficult to manage if instructors and designers do not create an environment where diverse student learners feel comfortable with one another and communicate in a manner which takes into consideration cultural differences.

We must be aware that "the Internet can magnify the issues of nonverbal communication and cultural difference in two ways, first by making it possible to meet people from just about anywhere, and second by severely limiting the ways in which you can interact with them" (Piskurich, 2004, p. 133). As indicated earlier, education is changing and students are now coming from different cultures and values. Palloff and Pratt (2004) indicate that due to cultural differences in communication styles, attitudes towards conflict, approaches to completing tasks, different decision-making style, disclosure, approaches to knowing learners and instructors may have trouble connecting through online communication (p. 38). Due to these differences instructors must "be aware that, in an online environment, sensitive topics can much more easily elevate to serious situations that become personal" (Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka, & Conceição-Runlee, 2000, p. 8). Now, this doesn't mean not asking probing controversial content material questions or not having the learners exist together in the same community. What it means, as will be covered at length in the design section, is that instructors and designers must provide activities where learners learn how to act in an online environment and get to know one another. Getting to know one another is truly important in an online environment. What an instructor does not want to do is foster the idea of "personae" where students do not reveal their gender, age or real identity because that actually creates communication barriers instead of taking them down (Chen, Mashhadi, Ang, & Harkrider, 1999, p. 228). It creates barriers because learners do not feel as if they are communicating with a real person on the other end and in turn, this can create a world where students feel comfortable being disrespectful of other people's culture and feelings because the person the other end isn't really real.

An important thing to think about in correlation to online learning is the fact that it can create a digital divide. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (1998) found that "research shows a 'digital divide' and a dramatic disparity of access among urban, suburban, and rural population, and among socio-economic groups and racial and ethnic communities (Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka, & Conceição-Runlee, 2000, p. 29). We, as educators and researchers, must be aware of the potential, with the growth of online learning, of a large amount of people to be left out-not having the ability to learn via online means. Those people in rural areas with dial-up connections and urban communities with low socioeconomic status will not have adequate and constant access to their own reliable internet connection, as required by university online learning courses. Further, "since most of the interaction in an online course is written, a learner may be at a disadvantage if he or she has a low literacy level" (Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka, & Conceição-Runlee, 2000, p. 28). Due to the large amount of written text that must be read in order to understand the material, in juxtapose to the oral in-class face-to-face discussions, students with low literacy, typing, and computer usage skills will have to circumvent many obstacles to succeed in an online environment. When you take a glance at our current urban school crisis in Milwaukee many of the students that acquire a diploma and head off to university would, initially anyway, have difficulty contributing in an online environment due to their lack of reading, critical thinking, and time management skills. This makes one wonder about the power distribution in our nation today.

The more and more you look at the world, the more you realize who is in power and what information is valued. Online courses and the Internet can "offer an unprecedented opportunity for under-represented groups to showcase their aboriginal languages and cultures, there can be few real social and cultural exchanges as long as the English language and Western values dominate" (Joo, 1999, p. 248). As we can see from our daily experiences "the reason is that people around the world have already been submerged with, and accustomed to, Western mass media, inevitably making them more receptive to online materials originating from Western countries-in the same way an Indian child can more easily enjoy a Disney movie than an American child can enjoy an Indian cartoon" (Joo, 1999, p. 248). While one might laugh this off as a trivial matter, it shows the power structure in action in our daily lives. The "West" sees themselves as central and always correct, with the "East" (being more collective), not judging, and looking for harmony play into this as well. This is especially disconcerting because ""the Internet tends to reinforce the World Information Order, i.e. the flow of information from industrialised to developing countries; and fails to ensure mutual respect and the protection of the diversity of information, languages and cultures" (Joo, 1999, p. 247). This creates many problems in that "the temptation is indeed very strong for school administrators in developing countries to simply copy or translate existing materials on the Internet, to save money and time, without considering their own social, cultural, historical, and educational contexts" (Joo, 1999, p. 247). In the end, the copy and paste method, while cost effective, can only add to the gap in informational power amongst developing nations and those with low socioeconomic status.


For some students, the online learning environment helps them to gain confidence by being more active members of a discussion. Salmon (2002), as cited in Conrad and Donaldson (2005), "points out that the lack of these cues need not be viewed as detrimental, because it can mean freedom from the distraction of physical presence" (p. 16). Many learners, in a face-to-face course, become introverted due to physical insecurities creating in themselves, a passive classroom persona. In Harasim (1989), as cited by Carabajal, LaPointe, and Gunawardena (2003), in an online leaning environment "status development and differentiation is likely based upon influential messages rather than hierarchical status based on physical and social cues such as gender, race, socioeconomic status, and physical features" (p. 222). When learners, who fear their oral debating abilities or feel uncomfortable speaking their ideas aloud have the opportunity in an online classroom to think through their messages before posting. This allows the focus to be on the message rather than themselves. Having more learners become active in the learning environment creates a much more rich learning experience where learners "often bring a wealth of life experiences to the course that can be used as a springboard for meaningful activities" (Conrad & Donaldson, 2005, p. 85).

Due the different learners in an online course bringing different life experiences to the course online learning environments can in fact become rich learning environments. Chang and Lim (2002) indicate that "although face-to-face is a rich learning medium, technological systems can potentially help to perform the pedagogical activities, and enable individual learners to work independently and asynchronously in groups" (p. 86). The technological abilities that now exist for the creation discussion forums and different activities aimed at learning styles and preferences make a truly successful learning environment possible. Further, by working in groups in an asynchronous learning environment "learners from an individualistic cultural context might emphasize more on group achievement or relationship than before, and learners from a collectivistic context might become more independent and insistent on their own opinion during the reasoning process" (p. 101). While the completion may not be seamless, this gives learners the opportunity to learn from others in a way they are unaccustomed to.

In online learning courses groups and interaction within those groups are truly important as they create a culture within themselves. McLoughlin (1999) indicates that "the on-line environment was designed to replicate the essential features of a dynamic, socially active community where members support each other and have a common goal" (p. 237). In fact, Hanna writes that many online learners say they end up knowing their online co-learners more deeply than they would in a class where they would all be physically present with each other" (Hanna 25). If an online learning environment is designed with interaction, collaboration, and community-building activities in mind, learners will feel like they know each other just as well as if they had been in a face-to-face course. But, what things must a designer or instructor keep in mind while designing a course for diverse learners?


In an interview on February 19, 2007 with LaToya Dennis of WUWM Simone Conceicao indicated that online learning can leave people feeling isolated without the proper design. She went on to relay the importance of creating interactive activities where learners can interact with one another to complete a task. This cannot occur when instructors post "little more than the schedule, a brief outline of the course content, PowerPoint slides of the lecturer's notes, and sometimes, sample examination papers" (Naidu 349). Instructors that post little more than bare content materials create a learning environment that is independent in nature which ultimately leads to feelings of isolation. Without creating interactive activities that allow students to get to know one another the learning environment can never be as dynamic as a face-to-face discussion seminar. Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka and Conceição-Runlee (2000) believe that "activities that support learning communities include class discussion, individual and group research, group projects and presentations, and collaborative problem solving" (p. 14). Activities like icebreakers, class discussion, and collaborative problem solving allow group members to get to know one another, decreasing the chance for confusion and increasing the chance for the creation of an online learning community.

What does it take to create an online learning community when you have diverse learners? Most importantly, it takes creating an environment where learners are comfortable using the technological tools and comfortable with each other. To do this instructors must provide activities, like a scavenger hunt [see attachment A], aimed at learning the course tools and prompting them to post messages to get to know one another. As you can see from the scavenger hunt example put together for another course, the document prompts learners to visit areas and use the tools that they will be using throughout the semester like the content page, discussions, and the dropbox. To drill down and get students to post messages to begin the getting to know you process the scavenger hunt will often ask students to post biographies or some other icebreaker activity [see attachment B]. Also, the scavenger hunt requires learners to fill out documents that allow the instructor to place learners in different groups. In a fully online course I took last semester a professor used the "Learning Style Indicator" [see attachment C] to split the class participants up. As you can see from the document it asks specific questions aimed at getting you to understand how you think. In the end you are categorized as a "doer," "watcher," "thinker," and "feeler." This activity has a huge value when you are instructing a course with diverse learners because due to their answers you can place different learning styles with one another so they can learn from each other throughout their group activities.

As an instructor, it is important to create an environment full of rich interactions that are learner-centered. To do this, instructors must create places for groups to discuss and complete collaborative efforts. In a dynamic online environment instructors and learners must take on roles they may not be used to. For instructors this means giving the students power to facilitate their own discussions and direct their team tasks, acting more as a guide who chimes in if the group is going on the wrong track or to provide extra resources. The learners must take more responsibility and become more active learners, rather than passive listeners. This means that they must assign roles for weekly facilitation and be active in group discussions. It is only when people from different backgrounds share their knowledge, in correlation to the reading content material, that the topic comes alive and the group truly learns.


I have been interested in online learning for about a year now and only began writing course papers on the subject this semester. I have to admit that I am quite surprised at the amount of resistance I have come across, many rebuking its value as a learning environment. While online learning does have its limitations, it can provide, under the correct design circumstances, a rich learning experience for people of all background and cultures. While online learning has the potential to create a digital divide for some, for others it provides an opportunity to study when they never thought possible. When instructors or designers take into account culture and diversity when learning about their audience, activities can be designed to teach an individualist how to work within a group dynamic and that there is value in a collective, noncompetitive challenge. Vice versa, it can teach collectivists how to be an individual within a group and not to sacrifice yourself when your individual ideas from your background may be integral to project and course success. As for instructors, it is important to understand that not everyone that comes into your online course will be just like you. In fact, few will fit that bill because everyone carries their past experiences with them. Therefore, it is necessary to constantly work to understand where each individual is coming from to be able to serve your learners.