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Multicultural Sensitivity in Course Design

Special Issue: Paradigm Shifts in Global Higher Education and eLearning

By Amy Hilbelink / May 2019

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The higher-education student population in the U.S. is multicultural. Many U.S. institutions of higher education are taking their traditional face-to-face content online in order to expand their “footprint” internationally to increase access for all students. Even if not targeting a new global market, local institutions regularly welcome students from foreign countries. As online course designers, we must take this diversity into account when creating new online experiences.

For the past three years, my work has focused on online and hybrid education across global private and for-profit institutions, in the U.S., India, South Africa, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Each country has shown me different ways of looking at online education and the needs of the various students. It is from these experiences that I came to realize the U.S. could take some of these multicultural learnings into consideration when designing online courses for these audiences. Regardless of the type or size of your institution, strategically designing and developing online content with certain multicultural considerations can help ensure your online courses can be most appropriate and effective for your diverse student audience. This article discusses recent trends in the global online audience, reminds us of assumptions made during the design process that may impact the multicultural audience, and provides suggestions for working around those assumptions.

Trends in the Global Audience

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in addition to an increase in female enrollments in undergraduate programs since 1976, “Total graduate enrollment also increased for each racial/ethnic group between 1976 and 2008. During that time period, Asian/Pacific Islander enrollment grew six-fold, rising from 29,000 to 185,000 students. Hispanic graduate enrollment in 2008 was over five times that of enrollment in 1976, increasing from 31,000 to 169,000 students” [1]. Likewise, according to, “Demand for online learning is increasing: 99% of administrators found that demand for online education has increased or stayed the same over the past few years. Almost 40% of respondents plan to increase their online program budgets in the next year” [2]. Even though international students still make up only a small portion of U.S. enrollments [3], it makes sense to design courses that will appeal to a global online audience of students, as your local students are also diverse. According to Garrett, “While international online students remain a small minority at U.S. universities, there are signs of momentum at leading institutions. In 2012, at graduate level, R1 institutions reported 12% of non-U.S. online students. By 2017, R1s boasted over 5,000 students, or 29% of this market. This is more than twice their share of domestic online graduate enrollment” [4]. It is clear from these recent works, the diversification of our classrooms is real, and online learning that reaches across nations is increasing (see Figure 1). As designers, we must be aware of the impact our designs can have on these populations.

Figure 1. eLearning growth trends beyond 2014, according to the United States Institute of Peace.

[click to enlarge]

Design Assumptions and Solutions

As designers, we often make design assumptions based on what we learned when studying instructional design, or if we were trained at all in instructional design. This provides us with a bias we may not even recognize. Some of these assumptions can lead to real consequences for the student.

Table 1. Assumptions and Their Consequences



Students learn the same way; read, discuss, test out.


In some cultures (India) it is not accepted to debate an idea with peers or instructors. This can result in what seems a lack of engagement in the online environment.

The westernization of the content is fine and accepted; e.g. tone, language, imagery, slang, etc.


The use of common American slang and tone may result in a lack of understanding.  Many western words can have multiple meanings, which may leave the student confused.

Weekly discussion questions are always of value.


In Asian countries, some students will readily google answers, and are open about saying so particularly if they find the question of little value. This results in a lack of participation.

Students have a means to collaborate.


Because of limited bandwidth in some countries, students may be unable to collaborate away from the university.

Images always help understanding. (What if it’s an inappropriate image?)


In the Middle East and India, women are expected to have arms and legs fully covered. This can lead to an image being seen as offensive.

There are no internet bandwidth concerns.


In South Africa, once the student leaves the campus, many have no consistent internet availability. Synchronous technologies will not work.

The value and quality of online courses is seen as comparable to face-to-face across the globe.


Indian parents frequently question the value of online learning over the face-to-face experience. If not addressed, parents may not permit their students to participate in online courses.

From my experience working in global institutions, I have found designers from the U.S. make a number of incorrect assumptions; a few of which are listed in Table 1. We may assume what we design for an American audience will automatically work for everyone. Some students and faculty really struggle with westernized content and examples.  In the U.S., we use quite a bit of slang in our speaking and course content. As designers, we should give consideration to the tone of our language and imagery. We should always push for a professional look for actors, or for animated characters. A recommended look is to have actors or faculty have their shoulders covered and hair neatly groomed. This is a simple thing that can go a long way in making Asian and Middle-Eastern students feel comfortable with the content.  Additionally, narrations need to be appropriate for the content and the audience. Accents in narrations of videos do not always go over well. For some, it may make comprehension more difficult, as some will struggle to understand the narrated words. The same is true if an American accent is used for some global audiences. In South Africa, some faculty informed me that if the narrated voiceover is very American in nature, students are not as interested in the content. They automatically assume it holds little relevance for them. In South Africa, some students and faculty are concerned with the westernization of content. Some faculty and students view American publishers and provided content with distrust that the information is not factual or relevant. From speaking to academics in South Africa, it is my understanding that some of this distrust is related to apartheid and for some, a continued distrust of western culture.

Conclusion and Suggestions

The cultural dimensions of learning framework (CDLF) [5] suggests these “challenges can be overcome through increased awareness, culturally sensitive communication, modified instructional design processes, and efforts to accommodate the most critical cultural differences.” In managing the challenges of multicultural learning, “becoming aware of one’s own cultural preferences for what they are and not assuming they represent the “right” way to think” can address many of the challenge’s designers will face [5]. Be strategic in your design and development to include multicultural aspects. Context is everything. A design with multicultural sensitivity in mind can save time, resources, improve the student experience while increasing access.

Below are listed a few suggestions for making your content relevant for all of your students.

  • Know your audience. Try to determine demographics at the beginning of your course.
  • Be conservative with imagery.
  • Be cautious in the use of terminology. Do not use slang. Watch for cultural and linguistic biases. Ask a peer to review for you.
  • Try not to be overtly American/Anglo with examples, people, articles, current events. Think globally.
  • Set appropriate tone, not too aggressive or loud.
  • Consider whether synchronous is an option? In some countries, it is not.
  • Consider appropriate imagery (how women are depicted?) Note: Always be professional with most of arms and legs covered. Professional hair and makeup considerations, even in multimedia.
  • Always ask your students for input.


[1] Aud, S. et al. Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic GroupsI (NCES 2010-015). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2010.

[2] 2018 Online Trends in Education 2018.

[3] Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., and Seaman, J. Grade Increase Tracking Distance Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group. 2018.

[4] Garrett, R. Grading the accuracy of our 2018 higher ed predictions. [blog post]. Wake-Up Call. Dec. 4, 2018.

[5] Parrish, P. and Linder-VanBerschot, J. Cultural dimensions of learning: Addressing the challenges of multicultural instruction. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 11, 2 (2010).  

About the Author

Amy Hilbelink served as the Executive Director for Strategic Partner Initiatives within the AMEA region for Laureate International Education, Inc.. Her responsibilities included advising and consulting with academic campus partners on innovative approaches to hybrid, blended, and fully online learning solutions to ensure positive student outcomes. Her work took her to India where, in addition to her campus work, she created a development center that addressed the online design and development needs of the Asia Pacific, Middle East and South Africa (AMEA) region. Additionally, Amy worked collaboratively with Monash South Africa in designing and shepherding a number of new programs for accreditation approval.

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