Tuesday, August 16, 2011

59_Culture and Online Instruction

Cultural Competence and Instructional Design: Exploration research into the Delivery of Online Instruction Cross-culturally, by P. Clint Rogers - Charles R. Graham - Clifford T. Mayes, Published online March 9 2007

Association for Educational Communications and Technology

(this blog entry was previously published in another one of my research blogs.)

The intent of the paper is to explore the perceptions and knowledge of instructional designers who are assigned tasks to design online learning environments for international learners. In other words, deal with designing issues from learners of different cultures, when the designers are mainly Western society cultures.

The question per se brings a safe assumption to the table: the fact that no one can assume culturally-based perceptions and designing guidelines can apply to all learning setting and all learners all the time.

Usability concerns seem to resound as the first place one would be looking into and check if there are discrepancies around learners around the world. And there are. The article claims statistical data that shows discrepancies in general between the North American market and the rest of the world.

One striking comment in the article highlights that:

“Even though people of all cultures find themselves learning and teaching in formal instructional settings; who they are and what they bring to these settings can make large differences in how design is approached.” (p.198)

A very important consideration early at this stage of the article, as it presents one critical view that the authors hold dear: the context and what it entails. By context, designers must consider not only the learning settings (formal/informal; face-to-face/online; with instructors or self-guided) and goals, but also the learners and their backgrounds, their experiences and views on learning and life in general.

The key research questions revolve around two specific ideas: awareness of designers of differences in cultural groups (of learners) and ways in which designers have become aware of such differences, the level of importance they play on those differences and how this affects their ID decisions.

The idea of ‘ecological Fallacy” is also very interesting. The author describes it as the impulse for people to apply group or societal level characteristics onto individuals within a group.

A mistake that can often be made around the idea of using “best practices” and the generalized adoption of principles and rules that would provide solutions to all maladies encountered during instructional designing phases.

The article stresses the fact that to arrive to practical decisions that are valid and effective:

[…] a more dynamic approach is needed to account for both the complexities of the learners’ cultural predispositions as well as their individual uniqueness and ability to change” (p.200)

I believe this basic assumption could be extended to the fact that all instructional designing processes should remain faithful to their dynamic nature. The tensions between achievable goals and the realities of the delivery and contexts through which they can be achieved, can never be solved, but one should remain cognizant of their existence and acknowledge the possibility of circular motions that bring designers to the drawing table on a recurring basis. Embracing the tensions with the understanding that they could teach us something at each stage is a value that should be kept in mind.

One of the interesting observations of the people in the study include (in my opinion) the idea that IDT should ensure that materials used in the learning is as relevant as possible to learners and that they can relate it to their daily lives (in other words the content is useful to learners).

The awareness level of instructional designers in this study was categorized into four categories: a) general cultural and social expectations of learners – these change according to cultural backgrounds and experiences; b) teaching and learning expectations – these should be discovered as soon as possible to clarify the understanding of teachers and students and ease communication; c) the understanding of language and symbols (“language structures can actually influence the way in which people think” – p.204); and d) technological infrastructure and familiarity, in other words understanding user ease of access and navigation across the platform.

It is interesting to notice the observation that: the more foreign a concept, model or process is the more likely it is that people are not going to feel it applies to them. Again, it seems we need to get back to the importance of relevance in the content.

As far as the need these instructional designers felt to actually improve their awareness, the article brings about the idea of incidental versus intentional awareness. Designers may stumble upon differences but they can also seek them and learn from them. A mixture of the two is more likely to occur based on conscious designing efforts.

Three barriers to be more culturally responsive to differences were outlined in the article as being:

• Focused more on the importance of content versus the learner context

• The lack of evaluation in the real world practice

• The less than ideal role that IDs have in organizations

These points are important and should be kept in mind as limitations that could be addressed in exemplar future designing efforts.

Finally, the article proposes the idea of building bridges to promote additional and more intentional cultural awareness and integration of principles in designing processes. These are:
• Separating deeper principles from particular application – the principle and the application of the principle are different. Designing processes must include this understanding to be successful. The principle of respect can be universal – its application and demonstration is culturally different.

• Identifying gaps and building bridges – this can be successful if the extremities of the gaps are actually accurate. Building a bridge over the wrong points may do more damage than good. This brings about the idea of support in multiple ways. Discovering the learner frame of reference is a suggestion to proceed to apply this principle. The ADDIE model was mentioned at this point.

• Allow for more flexibility in processes – expressly teach additional and different metacognitive processes and techniques to help learners surface their own frame of references.
This article is extremely useful in terms of considering cultural differences and how they impact the design and success of delivery of online courses. However, the principles established in the article can be useful to generalize over bigger designing activities when creating or adapting online courses for adult learners.

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