Cultural Diversity and Instructional Design

Recently a paper was discussed on the ITFORUM list that caught my attention. It mainly caught my attention because of a chapter I am attempting to write for a book CDE is working on. The chapter is currently titled “Differences: Culture, Environment, and the Digital Divide”.

The paper that caught my attention was titled, “Cultural Competence and Instructional Design: Exploration Research into the Delivery of Online Instruction Cross-Culturally“. Once I read it I found that it had some really good information for instructional designers who may moving toward designing for diverse audiences. It also addressed the fact that we may not be giving our instructional design students the tools they need to succeed in these environments.

Here are some ideas that I especially found relevant to my writing and to my way of thinking…

For online instructional design to meet the needs of real people in the processof making practical decisions, a more dynamic approach is needed to account for both the complexities of the learners’ culturalpredispositions as well as their individual uniqueness and ability to change.

This was directed at expanding our research efforts to include international situations, but for me it also sparked thoughts about some of our more diverse populations here in the US. For example, where I am right now in Alaska is significantly different culturally than where I was in Florida. I am sure that most of the students in my graduate program have not really thought about any of this as they were trudging through their course work. When they get into their real life situations, will it come as a shock? How can we help them plan for this future. I know that I have wrestled with the concept of “Global Education” with a culturally diverse population within one course. As technology continues to allow us these rich opportunities, how will we as designers and educators find solutions?

The research conducted in this paper basically collected information from a variety of instructional designers in a different situations where they were serving populations from multiple foreign countries and distinct cultures. through interviews they found that the designers awareness of cultural differences fell into some general categories which I found interesting:

four categories that repeatedly surfaced in the interviews are: (a)general cultural and social expectations, (b) teaching and learning expectations, (c) differences in the use of language and symbols, and (d) technological infrastructure and familiarity

Within the category of general cultural and social expectations, one comment stood out for me:

If nothing else, instructional designers need to be aware of general cultural and social expectations in order “to make the materials very relevant to the learners, to make it possible for them to use their life experience and their work experience and their everyday life environment”

Basically it sounded as if this was initially difficult as the designers were coming from a place of their own experience and needed to make significant shifts in their thinking to add relevance to the materials. So, once again I wonder if we are preparing our students for these types of situations? Are we giving them experiences that will help them with these challenges when they are faced with them?

In the conclusion, a quote was used from Chen and Mashhadi which I found sums of many of the thoughts that I have in this area. My thoughts are two fold, one as an educator attempting to form young instructional design professionals and one as an instructor/designer examining my own experience in culturally diverse design.

Some are beginning to realize that “culture itself cannot be objectified as just another factor to be programmed into designing a distance learning course”(Chen and Mashhadi, 1998, p.10). Aware of the pivotal and complex influence culture has on learning, and thus on the learners interaction with online instruction, an increasing number of researchers have argued that instructional designers needto be more sensitive and responsive to cultural differences.

I think it is very important to remember that the categories determined in this research have significant impact when we talk about culture and diversity in our distance education courses. These diversities are complex systems with many different aspects and we need to be sure we are addressing the root of the issues, not just lumping them all together into one variable. As a reminder, the awareness of cultural differences fell into

four categories general cultural and social expectations, (b) teaching and learning expectations, (c) differences in the use of language and symbols, and(d) technological infrastructure and familiarity

I agree with these categories. They make our job as designers and educators challenging to say the least. However, the biggest point that I took away from this paper was the importance of knowing your audience so that you are able to adjust your design to meet the needs and goals of this audience. This leaves me with one very big question that I have yet to find an answer to…

When we teach via distance and our courses have a variety of different learners from different cultures due to the “global reach” that is now possible, how can we best meet all of their diverse needs?