Online distance education reaches worldwide. The U.S. student population is no longer homogenous, making cultural sensitivity vital to education (Baltes, 2010). The online instructor must recognize not all students will have the same background, culture, ethnicity, and religion (Elbaum et al.). “Be sensitive to different cultures and religions (e.g. don’t pass out [real or virtual] Easter eggs when folks celebrate Passover)” (p. 50). Provide definitions when using American slang or jargon.
Walther (as cited by Rovai) found computer mediated communication can result in negative cultural stereotypes when the quality of the text-based communication is poor such as incomplete thought, grammatical errors and misspellings. Where cultural bias may already exist and “cultural differences are not understood,” sense of community will suffer (Rovai, p. 78).
When you have a diversity of cultures, there are likely to be misunderstandings” (Hamilton, 2009, p. 49). An awareness of low context and high context cultural dimensions can help the online instructor avoid common cultural communication patterns.
Cheryl Hamilton explains low and high context cultural filters as (p. 50):
- People who communicate with low context messages tend to come from individualistic cultures. Low context/individualistic cultures expect messages to be clearly spelled out – directly and explicitly. They feel it is the speaker’s responsibility to make sure the meaning is provided by the words and that the message is well organized and structured. Words are all important.
- People whose messages are high context tend to come from collectivistic cultures. High context/collectivistic cultures expect messages to be brief, indirect, and implicit. As receivers, they take responsibility for determining the speaker’s meaning. They expect words to be used very carefully – words can hurt and cause loss of face.
Most online classroom discussions are text-based asynchronous meaning most of the communication is written (Rovai, 2007). “Because of this situation, low context communication is often presumed in computer mediated communication (CMC), possibly placing a disadvantage on those whose cultural background relies on high context communication (p. 84).
Rovai (2007) suggests incorporating the following principles to reduce misunderstandings among groups of diverse learners (p. 84):
- Get students to know each other and learn about their respective backgrounds and learning goals.
- Ask students to post an image of themselves in their self-introductions. Pictures provide a visual cue and help create a social presence (Yildiz, 2009).
- Create a variety of social learning activities that allow multiple opportunities for demonstrating knowledge and skill proficiencies designed to address the diverse range of learning preferences and communication patterns that students bring to instructional environments (Bangert, 2004 as cited by Rovai).
It is important instructors respect and affirm diversity and be aware of possible misunderstandings that may develop in the online classroom. Poor communication will hinder “the exchange and exploration of diverse perspectives that can enrich our lives and promote a strong sense of community” (p. 86).