Several co-learners in this course have raised the matter of cultural diversity in online learning “environments’ — particularly in Alaska. I am intrigued with this issue and so it inspired me to some greater investigation. This review will focus on a single article:
Xiaojing Liu, S. L., Seung-hee Lee, Magjuka, Richard J. (October, 2010). Cultural Differences in Online Learning: International Student Perceptions. . Journal of Educational Technology & Society., Vol. 13 (Issue 3), p177-188.
but this is only a starting point.
The authors examine seven themes that arose out of their research: Assessment, Instruction/Interaction, Asynchronous/Synchronous Communication, Collaboration, Case Learning, Academic Conduct, and Language. Students were from the U.S., China, India, and Russia. Rather, than extensive review of the article itself, the methods and so on, I would like to focus on the findings since this is practical and immediately useful. The authors offer a table that quickly summarizes these:
One of the themes that came out of last semester’s ED 631 — Culture , Curriculum and Community class was “both-and’ that is Native Alaskan youth needed to be able to navigate both Western ways of education and Native cultural practices. In the recommendations for assessment practices we see “Multiple assessment strategies: Structured and flexible assignment schedule’ this strikes me as a way to accomplish the Alaskan goal for “both-and’ assuming we can actually strike a balance between process-oriented vs. exam-oriented assessment for example. Turning to instruction/interaction we are encouraged to “Incorporate features that accommodate different cultural pedagogy.’ And to my mind this is the rub of exclusive online instruction, however, it might also be a place for young learners to gain esteem in the eyes of elders. As an example, working with spruce roots, I can imagine a young learner setting up their iPhone and recording a video of their work with the roots, harvesting, preparing, and finally basket making. They then use video editing software to polish their product and submit it asynchronously through the LMS, for peers and elders to watch and comment on. The Dragonfly Project out of Haines has shown how this has opened doors between youth and elders where the roles reversed and the youth taught elders computer use. It is a small stretch to imagine another youth creating a video comment refining a technique and that inspiring an elder to seek out a youth to help them add a video comment with additional improvement, or at least the Instructional Technologist at the hosting institution.
Turning to balanced use of asynchronous/synchronous communication I am forced to wonder about blended courses as perhaps most appropriate for cultural content. As I think about online instruction and Alaskan communities and schools, the role of elders is the most perplexing. This video, Passing On worth watching in entirety but particularly at minute 7:31 poses a question that has stumped me, certainly both when I first encountered it in the 1980s as a student at Sheldon Jackson College and again this past spring — why can’t a learner simply ask for what they need? “Yo, I’m a dufus. I forgot the words to the jump rope song can ya drop me a clue?’ I suspect that as a white guy from away I may never understand the answer I hear. Perhaps the best I can achieve is sensitivity to my ignorance. However, there is something going on here that is subtle and culturally unique — I am not at all certain that it can be captured in online learning. I suspect then that online instruction must necessarily be in conjunction with face-to-face interaction — particularly in Native Alaska and particularly when focused on cultural preservation.
Addressing the fourth and fifth themes together, collaboration and case learning, I am reminded of a leadership training I attended for managers in libraries and IT in higher education this summer. The national statistics for CIOs show 97% are white males. We were fortunate to have a woman and two African American men in the room as instructors all at that level in their organizations. One of the most telling comments made by one of them was “if you want to recruit for diversity then you need to create your interview committees so that when I walk into the room I see people like me.’ I think this is at the heart of these themes. If I as a learner cannot find myself in the course content, I can barely begin to connect or construct with the material. In thinking about Alaska Natives, we often focus on the diversity, the differences, the factors of cultural uniqueness. I suspect that in areas of politics, law, economics, and health care, tribal groups across the nation share a great deal of similarity in the problems they seek to correct. This article offers a place both for cultural diversity and shared issues through case studies in online instruction. The student interviews conducted by the authors highlight how the cultural diversity enriched their thinking about both the local and global issues.
Owen, in a comment on this blog, pointed out that in teaching remedial math he felt he had to write a guide for the guide. For different reasons I suspect that is also the case in a culturally diverse online course. The authors say: “Several international students have expressed frustration at being severely punished for their inappropriate citation of others’ work according to the academic rules of the U.S. universities. They felt that the instructors lacked an understanding of the cultural differences in regard to educational practices’ (Xiaojing Liu, October, 2010). So here we see the need for both cultural sensitivity and emotional intelligence and as instructor learns from their mistakes, hopefully that increasingly involves front loading the instruction — offering guidelines for decoding educational practices rather than reactive punishment for not even understanding that a coded message was in use.
Finally, dealing with language differences, or in the case of Alaska Natives building occasions for language practice into the curriculum — the project is one of preserving languages. This is, I think, the real value of online instruction. We have an opportunity to combine the talents of content experts and instructional designers in ways that are far more rich and productive then the “solitary sage on the stage.’ I joke that English is my only language and for a non-native speaker I do ok. Therefore, in this I would need the help of a native speaker and probably an instructional designer to build language into any courses I wanted to create. However, the value is in both preserving the language and showing respect to the cultural diversity in the class. Course creation is necessarily an iterative and collaborative project.