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Online Learning: Bridging the Cultural Gaps
A Review of Culture and Online Learning: Global perspectives and research.

By Alia Arafeh / March 2018

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The increased demand for online education has created several opportunities for learners and educators who seek academic and professional development opportunities. However, this new trend still faces numerous challenges due to cultural differences among learners and educators. As the world becomes a global village, it is hard to bring all cultures to the same table and communicate the same message that might be interpreted in several ways. Culture and Online Learning: Global perspectives and research (Stylus Publishing, 2014), edited by Insung Jung and Charlotte N. Gunawardena, in its 17 chapters explains the challenges, difficulties, and emerging opportunities when providing online education to people who reside in diverse cultures across the world.

The 17 chapters of the book have been authored and co-authored by 19 scholars in online learning. The primary focus of Culture and Online Learning is on culture and the authors of the first chapter, "Perspectives on Culture and Online Learning," spend plenty of time defining the word "culture" and its meanings in several contexts. The editors acknowledge culture is the most difficult word to define because it encompasses several denotations. The authors also argue online learners who are culturally diverse have several needs and aspire to achieve different goals for their academic and professional lives. For example, obtaining a graduate degree or better job opportunities.

Readers can easily notice the first three chapters of the book focus on theory to explain several perspectives regarding online environment and the challenges learners could encounter based on their cultural background. The succeeding chapters discuss the practical issues that may arise when teaching in a multicultural, online setting. For example, in chapter 6, "Accounting for Cultural Instructional Design," Frechette, Layne, and Gunawardena investigate how cultural differences might impact the way educators facilitate and design online learning models of instruction.

The various chapters of the book demonstrate an in-depth analysis of several important subjects such as online identity and interaction (chapter 4), accounting for cultural instructional design (chapter 6), e-mentoring development (chapter 7), developing global digital citizens (chapter 10), transformative learning in online foreign language teaching (chapter 13), and the use of icons and images (chapter 14). The topics of support and gender influences are analyzed in multiple chapters.

In chapter 15, "An Analysis of Culture-Focused Articles in Open, Distance, and Online Education Journals," Al Harthi highlights the literature in the online education field that emphasizes combining theory and practice to achieve the best results to support online learners and educators despite their cultural differences. The idea of supporting online learners is also addressed in other chapters. For example, in chapter 8, "Supporting Diverse Online Learners," Gunawardena focuses on the importance of understanding online learners who need to work in groups and with their instructors. Thus, the notion of cultural understanding emerges again with more emphasis on the online environment that requires understanding of the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels of culture. Furthermore, in the same chapter, Gunawadena addresses gender issues in online learning environments. Based on other studies conducted in Turkey and the United Kingdom, Gunawardena concludes there is a "need to understand the needs of both men and women as online learners when designing the learner's support system."

The consideration of gender differences is also discussed in chapter 12, "Gender Issues in Online Learning." Latchem focuses on the importance of providing equal learning opportunities in cyberspace to both men and women. However, the studies conducted on gender differences did not give definitive answers to several gender related questions. While some studies showed women favor online learning over men, other studies showed that online learning is non-gendered. In chapter 4, "Online Identity and Integration," Gunawardena discusses interesting facts about gender and identity in cultures that consider women's participation in traditionally masculine business a type of "trespassing," where women are expected to stay at home, doing household duties while men work outside. In addition, there are many cultures in which women do not have direct interaction with males who are not related to them, such as in Morocco and Sri Lanka. Therefore, involving these women in an online learning environment becomes more challenging. Hence, the issue of gender in online education still needs further empirical research.

Leadership in online environments is discussed in depth in chapter 11, "Leadership Challenges in Transcultural Online Education." Beaudoin argues leadership in multicultural online environment is challenging due to the variables that leaders have to take into consideration when executing "sound" decisions. Therefore, Beaudoin suggests practical strategies online leaders can follow to ensure a successful global online learning atmosphere.

It is noticeable the chapters vary in their simplicity and complexity.The simplicity of some chapters lie under the umbrella of giving tangible solutions to challenges that might emerge in online education. The complexity arises when some of these chapters, particularly, the first three chapters, focus on theory that might be difficult to apply in multicultural online environments, which require communication with a heterogeneous student body.

The authors discuss these issues and how to minimize the cultural gap from their own perspectives. For example, Jung raises this issue in chapter 2, "Culture Influences on Online Learning," she mentions one of the challenges online educators face is the type of learners who might be of different ages and cultures, and speakers of diverse languages. Moreover, some of these learners might be "digital natives" and some others might be "digital immigrants." Therefore, it is vital for online educators to be culturally sensitive to meet all potential challenges that might arise due to cultural differences among learners.

The rich examples of the impact of culture on online learning stated throughout the book help readers understand the effect of cultural differences on creating a successful and effective learning environment that embraces online students and provides them with the tools to assist their success. The integration of philosophy and practice is vital for the success of online education to reach a larger number of students across the world; students who aspire to receive better education opportunities that might not be available in their home countries.

Despite being a valuable resource for online education, none of the chapters address online education in African countries (east, middle, and west Africa) or the Middle East. Ignoring this large population of students and not addressing their needs in any of the chapters is a significant drawback of the book.

The editors present a holistic model of creating and executing a successful online environment that addresses the needs of a diverse student body. The authors also provide recommendations and suggestions for instructional designers, educators, leaders, and researchers who aim to create and promote online education as a new trend in the 21st century. Thus, this book is a valuable reference in the field of online education and an eye opener of several issues that might arise in cyber classes.

About the Author

Alia Arafeh is an adjunct instructor at the Administrative Leadership Department at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She got her PhD in Urban Education with Specialization in Adult, Continuing, and Higher Education Leadership from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and a Master of Science in Educational Leadership in Higher Education from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Besides, she has a master degree and a bachelor degree in the English Language and Literature from the University of Jordan. Alia lived and worked in four different countries, three of them are in the Middle East, Jordan, UAE, and Oman, where she had the opportunity to teach and work with people from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Her research interests are international students, international education, Internationalization of higher education, globalization, and multiculturalism.

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2018 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/18/03-3185178


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