Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cultural competence in the online environment

I am putting together the materials for the course I am about to facilitate called 'Facilitating Online' and one of the things I want students to think about is cultural competence in the online environment. This has become important to me personally because I have a number of overseas students joining the course as informal learners for whom English is not their first language.

What does it mean to be a culturally competent online facilitator?
The definition of cultural competence according to Wikipedia is:
"an ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures. Cultural competence comprises four components: (a) Awareness of one's own cultural worldview, (b) Attitude towards cultural differences, (c) Knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews, and (d) cross-cultural skills. Developing cultural competence results in an ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures."

Working in an online environment adds an extra dimension to cultural competence because we do not have the markers that we have in the face-to-face environment to guide our behaviour. At the same time, being online allows us to break away from traditional, stereotypical behaviour and supports us to communicate in a non-hierarchal way.

Here are a few points that stand out to me about being a culturally competent online facilitator.

1. Be mindful that English may not be the participant's first language.
Have a think about how much language difficulties is going to impact on participants' ability to interact, participate in activities and learn with other students? What can you do as an online facilitator to support participants to overcome this difficulty?

2. Use translation tools to communicate with people using other languages
The ability to speak more than one language is a vital skill for today's life-long learner (Van de Bunt-Kokhuis and Bolger, 2009). In this context I would substitute the works "life-long learner" for "online facilitator". How will you function in an online environment where more than one language is spoken, especially if you can only speak English?

I use Google Translate to help me communicate with people using other languages, especially in blog posts. It usually gives me a good gist of what the other person is saying. I also use it to translate a reply but I have been warned that it can be inaccurate, so you do carry a bit of a risk. I always write my comment in English as well so the reader can double check what I was trying to say. There are a number of online translating tools that you can find on the Internet - please let me know if you find one you think is easy to use but also very accurate.

3. Design your activity or project using appropriate of methods of communication
Is the activity and how it is being carried out using appropriate communication tools for the people you are working with? For example, open discussion forums may not be appropriate for people who do not like to make their thoughts visible, and may not wish to engage for fear that they lose face if they make a mistake (Takagi, 2008). The other thought I have had is about the resources you use - are they enforcing a particular world or cultural view to the detriment of another?

4. Think about how you will engage online with people who ultimately prefer face-to-face communication
Many cultures prefer face-to-face communication so people of those cultures may find online interactions very difficult. I thought about this a lot last year when I was developing an eMentoring program for indigenous Australians. I ran a workshop where we asked Aboriginal and Torres Strait people what they thought about eLearning and online communication. Whilst they preferred face-to-face communication because they acknowledged they were visual learners, they really enjoyed using webcam and Skype because they could see who they were talking to.

5. Do not make assumptions about learners and participants according to their culture or disability
I think it is extremely important not to make assumptions about the online behaviour of participants and students because they appear to be from a certain culture - this in itself may set up barriers to their participation.

6. Remember that culture is about gender and sexual identity as well as ethnicity and nationality
Remember that women in some cultures are subordinate to men (Farmer, 2010). In the online environment, these women may find it very difficult to speak up, argue or disagree with you especially if you are a man. As a facilitator, you will need to think about how to encourage and support their involvement especially if it goes against the social norms of their face-to-face context.

7. Be as flexible as you can to meet everyone's needs
This is tricky especially if you are working in a virtual team that has very prescriptive goals to meet, or you are working in a culturally-diverse group. But be prepared to invest time supporting participants and students, especially if they are new to online communication (McCloughlin & Olivier, 1999).

8. Encourage collegial mentoring
I think that one of the skills of the online facilitator is to connect people up with each other, sort of like a match-maker. As the facilitator you may not be able to mentor every participant or student. However, what you can do is connect people so they can mentor each other, which may be particualrly useful for those who feel marginalised because of their culture. At the same time, it is important to check out people's individual needs rather than blundering about trying to force things on people that they do not want or need.

9. Pay attention to how you transfer specific cultural customs from the face-to-face to online environment
Here I am thinking about my own cultural context in New Zealand (Timms-Dean, 2010). If I am facilitating a face-to-face meeting in New Zealand with Maori participants (the indigenous people of the land), I will invite someone to open the meeting with a mihi or greeting. But it dawned on me the other day, that I never think to do that when I am facilitating an online meeting. It also struck me that a custom that is culturally appropriate for a face-to-face meetings may not be so in the online environment - this is something for me to explore further.

10. Reflect on your own skills as online facilitator
Nancy White (2001) has identified many skills and qualities of an online facilitator in her article: Facilitator Qualities and Skills. Have a look at this list in the context of online facilitation especially when working with people of other cultures. Reflect about the areas that you need to develop, and make a plan for how you will go about it.

This list of issues to consider are in no way exhaustive. I would urge you to dealing deeper into these references and come up with your own challenges to reflect on.

What advice, comments or tips would you pass on about how to be culturally competent in the online environment?

Farmer, L. (2010). Culturally-Sensitive E-Learning Practices for Library Education. Available:

McCloughlin, C., & Olivier, R. (1999). Instructional design for cultural difference: a case study of the indigenous online learning in a tertiary context. Available:

Stewart, S. (2009). Flexible learning, eMentoring, cultural differences and sustainability. Available:

Stewart, S. (2009). Indigenous people, technology and aged and community care. Available:

Takagi, A. (2008). Intercultural communication by non-native and native speakers of Japanese in text-based synchronous CMC. Available:

Timms-Dean, K. (2010). Indigenous learners and flexible learning. Available:

van de Bunt-Kokhuis, S., & Bolger, M. (2009). Talent competences in the new eLearning generation. eLearning Papers, 15, pp 1-12. Available:

White, N. (2001). Facilitator Qualities and Skills. Available:

Image: 'Girls Out!!'


Mike Bogle said...

Thanks very much for this Sarah. Particularly when it comes to open education and open educational resources, incorporating multi-cultural perspectives is really important. I must admit I don't think about that nearly as much as I should. So this post is a great reminder if the significance of the idea.

Sarah Stewart said...

I have to admit this has been a bit of a processing post for me, getting me to think a little harder than I have done in the past. It is just a beginning...what I want to know is how to be flexible as an educator to meet everyone's needs when you are driven by institutional constraints.

Hervé said...

Beware of translation tools!
From experience (I have taught in two languages, sometimes simultaneously, in about 7 countries), these tools are far from perfect, and if something goes wrong, you end up with an inaccurate translation or worse something that could prove insulting for the reader.
I would suggest to always adding the English text first, and then the translation with the name of the tool used upfront to make sure that your public knows that it is a machine translation. I think that the best option could be to provide the text in English, then provide a link towards the translating tool. Most students having English as a second language would only check part of the translation anyway.
For speech interaction, it is important to always be aware or the speed of your speech; usually, this tends to go down the drain after a few minutes and you end up with lost participants. In an on-line conference you could agree on the use of a non intrusive tool such as a 'raised hand' for the students to indicate when they have difficulties following. In face to face communication, incomprehension usually translate with eyes 'popping out'. May be that in online conferencing, a web cam would be useful. Take into consideration that people trying to follow a speech in a foreign language also often unconsciously use lip reading to cope with various accents. The sounds and intonation might be different due to the local accent, but the lips always move the same way.

Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you, Herve, for your wonderful advice which is very timely for FO2010. If nothing else, a translator does give you an idea of what is being said in a "foreign" blog.

Sarah Stewart said...

Thanks for the comment Herve, which I have used in this post about translators:

Carolyn Hastie said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post Sarah. Always good to have a list of considerations for any endeavor. Embarking on the online facilitation process and learning about it as I go means that the list will be helpful to use to check that I'm being cognisant of the many aspects that need to be taken into account in the online medium.

Sarah Stewart said...

This is something I am still thinking about but it has made me a lot more conscious about the resources I use. The trouble is, I am in a bind - I cannot use resources in different languages because I do not know what they say. I'll have to rely on participants of 'Facilitating Online' to recommend resources in their own language.

Barbara Dieu said...

Timely post and excellent sources and links to other blogs.

Facilitating online is not an easy task. Not only do you need to attend to participants' technical and educational needs but also be aware of their socio-cultural backgrounds which may many times act as an obstacle to learning.

Sarah Stewart said...

Hello Barara, thanks for your comment. You are an experienced online facilitator, what tips or advice would you give us in this area?

Anonymous said...

Hi, very interesting post, greetings from Greece!