Networked learning : Cross-cultural learning : Creativity & Innovation

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07 July 2003


This posting is a result of a question in the Evaluating Elearning yahoo group ( that asked for examples of cultural adaptation in elearning. It’s on this blog because it’s a little long for the group. So…


There’s no question in the wider training community that training and education must adapt to different cultures. This has largely arisen from the very difficult and unconstructive experiences of what happens when you don’t. There’s a small but important consulting industry in this area, and most global multinationals adapt classroom courses routinely. Have a look at or


There’s also ample research that brings together educational theory and the various theories of culture. A good paper on this is JL Francis’s Training across cultures. In M. Albrecht (Ed.) International HRM: Managing diversity in the workplace. Oxford: Blackwell, p 190-196, (2001) – sorry I can’t find a link for it. Geert Hofstede’s original research on cultural difference, recently re-worked, includes frequent and very useful comments on how education systems vary in different cultures.


There’s some well-researched speculation in our (myself with Alessandra Marinetti) early article for LineZine and some excllent commentary about elearning in Europe in


Obviously, the issue of intercultural training and education is part of a much larger issue of adapting many forms of behaviour and practice to different cultures. Again, most multi-national organisations do this routinely, and there are many cases where not doing so has resulting in organisational and/or commercial disaster.


So I’d reverse the question: what is it about elearning that makes us think that it doesn’t need adapting to different cultures, when most other training and education does?


But when it comes to specific cases of adapting elearning for different cultures, we are still at a very early stage. Most cases are anecdotal. For example, Masie told an interesting story at the 2002 Elearning festival in Dublin about a synchronous session he delivered in an Asian country where, in order to overcome students’ reticence in asking questions of their teacher, he invented a fake student – who was actually himself – of whom the other students could ask questions. This approach isn’t uncommon. And I know of a US-produced project management course that was adapted so the introductory piece about the tutor was re-written in a more formal style to suit European audiences. I also know of various cases where, in particular, US-produced courses were consistently rejected by non-US audiences, yet once trivially adjusted, were accepted.


A straightforward, if possibly simplistic, approach to cultural adaptation is one that I, along with a colleague, Alessandra Marinetti of DigitalThink, have been advocating in various articles, for some time. Our principle focus was on asynchronous elearning, generally delivered to learners working either alone or with a limited amount of collaborative activity. Our approach has been to recommend finding the components (e.g. learning objects) that most needed to vary between cultures, and only change them. The decisions as to which components/objects to change should be based on well-understood models of culture, such as Hofstede’s or Trompenaars’s. Using some kind of 80/20 rule would make this approach cost-effective. We’ve talked about this in two recent articles:


But of course, how you answer the question depends on your definition of elearning and what form of elearning you’re talking about. As many more models develop – communities of practice, multi-player gaming, document repositories with tutors etc. – a more sophisticated approach needs to be taken. So I’m now looking through Hofstede’s data in some detail and mapping key elements of each dimension against some of the principles of current learning theory. This should output a model that is more broadly applicable to many forms of elearning.


I’ll answer the question about the difference between localisation and cultural adaptation very briefly: we’re currently in the localisation era. This means that learning content is translated and key items of context are changed (including visuals, interface etc.). What localisation generally does not cover is pedagogical approach. So, for example, a culture whose education system is based on rigid, teacher-controlled environments is unlikely to take easily to open-ended, exploratory learning without explicit guidance and support, yet a localisation approach generally won’t change this. The italics are important: I’m not saying that a particular culture alters learning style or approach irrevocably, but that the pedagogical strategy will require some adaptation or further support. So cultural adaptation is about explicitly taking cultural considerations into account when forming the learning strategies for a particular culture.

3:07:46 PM    Any comments?  []

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