How to Make Online Courses and MOOCs Culture Neutral ?

Culture is a part of our daily life – our way of living, our values and beliefs, our thinking and behavior patterns, the ways we express ourselves, and even our sense of aesthetics and beauty. Indeed, it impacts everything we think, say and do. It means that creating culturally-neutral course curriculum and learning environment is a tough nut to crack.


Moreover, in the online education world, audiences are not defined. Hence, instructional designers and teachers have to be extra careful in ensuring that the course content they develop is free of any cultural bias.


Importance of Being Culture Neutral in Online Learning World


In a classroom learning environment, teachers cater to a local audience gathered together at one place. On the other hand, online courses and MOOCs cater to a global audience that may come from different corners of the world. It means that educational institutions and training providers have to be more sensitive to the examples they use, gestures they use, and real-world contexts they employ to explain a concept.


Some of the major challenges that plague instructional designs are:

  • How to come up with the right context for applied learning without being cultural-specific?
  • Which instructional design model to choose for multicultural learning environment?
  • How to remain immune to one’s culture, and the culture of the learners while designing the course content?

Culture impacts how we think, behave and learn. It means learning strategies and teaching tactics are found to be most effective when they are relevant to one’s culture. In inclusive learning, it becomes imperative to be sensitive to various values, beliefs, and styles of learning of the global audience.

A great alternative to being culture neutral is the multiple-cultural model of the instructional design proposed by Henderson in 1996. This model states that rather than trying to design learning intervention programs that are devoid of culture, we should try to incorporate different cultural realities, learning styles and teaching styles in courses that cater to a global audience.

In online courses or MOOCs, student presence and engagement is the key to their performance. Culturally sensitive as well as cultural adaptive courses perform better in such cases.


4 Key Cultural Dimensions of Learning


Hofstede and Hofstede cultural dimensions of learning, 2005

Being aware of cultural differences can help you understand learning styles and preferences of your learners and your own cultural biases. Here are the four things you need to keep in mind:


  • Teacher and Student Relationships


In some cultures like China, India, and Turkey, all the authority and responsibility in a learning environment rests with the teacher. He or she is the primary communicator in the class and students are expected to accept and honor whatever he or she says.

On the other hand, in countries like the US, Canada or Denmark, teachers are treated as equals. Dialogue and discussion between students and teachers are considered a critical activity. Students are considered responsible for their own learning.


  • Level of Individuality


Some cultures focus on content knowledge and how to do something, which can boost social growth. Generally, such environments are more challenging and the hard work is promoted by the greater good of the society.

The cultures that focus on cognitive skills and individualistic growth of the learners are more nurturing in nature, though. Here, students are motivated to work hard to be able to maximize their individual gains.


  • Level of Nurturance


In some regions, pedagogies are designed to cater to the average student in class. All the students are praised and encouraged to collaborate with each other.

At other places, best student is seen as the right role-model for the class. Competition is encouraged and only excellence wins you praise or rewards.

Failure is not considered acceptable in the latter case.


  • Rigidity of Course Structure


Some cultures prefer highly-structured learning activities, while others are more open-ended in nature and involve a lot of projects and discussions.

In the former case, a teacher has a high authority in class and is expected to have all the answers. Ambiguity is completely avoided. In the latter case, student opinions matter more. Teachers and students use multiple resources to find answers, and teachers only act as facilitators in class.

3 Critical Strategies to Create Culture-Neutral Content


Here are three strategies you can use to create globally-relevant courses:


  • Low-Context Language:


Courses do better online if they are in plain global English. Slangs, colloquialisms, symbols, idioms and culture-specific expressions are avoided because they might not resonate with certain sections of the students.

Metaphors, puns, and proverbs are also culture-specific and should be avoided. It might also be good to avoid humor and references to local sports, fairy tales, movies and folklores.

Ambiguity should be avoided too:

Here are some other language tips for you:

  • Try using a single term for a single concept. Using different terminology for the same thing or concept may confuse students from other parts of the world.
  • Use the metric system for measurements. Remember, the decimal comma is the standard in most countries.
  • Similarly, be careful with your date and time references. It is best to mention the month in words (for example, say June 12, 2016, than 12/6/2016).
  • 24-hour clock format is best for mentioning time. Hence, you may say 15:00 hours rather than 3 pm to be more specific.
  • Keep instructions specific and explicit. Instead of saying ‘move the lever’, it is better to say ‘pull down the lever’.

The examples that are used should be chosen carefully to suit different cultures.


  • Kind of Visuals You Should Use:


An e-learning course of 30 minutes can easily be reduced to 15 minutes of audio by including more graphics, images, representations, diagrams and texts. Visual content is easier to read or see, understand and remember, while it might be hard for students to decipher some of the words in the recorded speech.

Visuals give them something to go on, and hence, ensure greater student engagement. Neutral non–human images are preferable. Cultural or religious symbols, images or photos should be avoided. If you must use photographs, try to have a mix of ethnicities, gender and age groups to be able to connect with as many types of students as possible.

Using characters for your online course can peak the student engage level considerably, especially if it is meant for small kids. However, using humanoid characters might be better if the course is meant for a global audience. Do you remember the cute zoo-zoos in the Vodafone advertisement? They are devoid of race and ethnicity and hence, are better suited to make a course culture-agnostic.

Avoid writing anything on the images as it may reduce the impact of both your image and your content.

Accent-free speech and a professional tone can make your online courses easier to understand for all types of students.


  • Flexible and Modular Course Layout


Modular courses with flexible layouts allow students to follow the proposed structure (if they prefer structured learning more) or choose what to study when according to their individual preferences.

Authoring tools like Lectora, Articulate, Captivate and Adobe Presenter allow you to create courses that are highly customizable and user-friendly. They also come in handy if you want to translate your courses into multiple languages later on.

If you think I have missed some of the common practices of creating culture-neutral online courses or MOOCs, feel free to contact me at ______________________.



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