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Cultural, disciplinary and temporal contexts of e-learning and English as a foreign language

By Steve McCarty / April 2005

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Introduction: Analyzing the Contexts of EFL and e-Learning

Working abroad in a very different culture can help expand one's awareness of the default contexts behind everyday practices, including education, that are often taken for granted. A more familiar scenario that also calls attention to the context of educational practices, is the increasing number of foreign students appearing in classes evidently with different assumptions and customary learning styles. Differing contexts are the reason that practices do or should adjust according to the situation. In e-learning as in other fields, one size does not fit all. The various contexts and periods of time in which a learning opportunity is embedded need to be analyzed. This article aims to shed light on some important contexts at the interface of technology and pedagogy.

Whereas English as a Second Language or ESL refers to foreign students in an English-medium environment such as the U.K. or the U.S., English as a Foreign Language (EFL) refers to teaching in a country where the linguistic environment is not primarily English. The case this article focuses on is EFL teachers in the cultural context of East Asia.

First I propose a general analytical approach to understand the cultural, disciplinary, and temporal contexts behind any specialized field or concept. I then review Japanese and other Asian learning styles to illustrate the cultural context, particularly when utilizing e-learning with non-native users of English. I also examine the universality or limitations of the Western e-learning paradigm when transplanted into a non-Western culture. Discourse on e-learning among EFL teaching practitioners in East Asia illustrates disciplinary and temporal contexts, as these dimensions bring order to e-learning concepts defined variously on the Web. An actual graduate school course on online education in Japan also demonstrates how the cultural context must be considered for learning to be transformative.

Overall, e-learning concepts will be distinguished in the fuller dimensionality of their cultural, disciplinary, and temporal contexts. Applied to other fields as well, this analytical approach may shed light on the limitations of dictionaries and the whole problem of definitions.

An Analytical Approach to Fuller Understanding of Fields and Concepts

This article addresses questions as far-reaching as why dictionary definitions seem inadequate, circular, or two-dimensional, and why every professional source offers a different definition of concepts, particularly in a new field such as e-learning that has not yet crystallized into established disciplines. Evidently an analytical approach is needed to provide a more multidimensional understanding of any subject or concept. The approach suggested here is to systematically fill in the cultural, disciplinary, and temporal contexts of a phenomenon. This article applies the analytical approach to the two fields, e-learning and teaching EFL, especially where they intersect. This approach acts a tool for understanding if the reader can apply it to his or her own area of study. Such an approach should go beyond surface meanings and fixed or absolutistic definitions to approach the complete picture of disciplinary, cultural, temporal, and other contexts in which specialized fields and concepts are embedded. In education there is a cultural context in all scenes of instruction making each unique. There is also a disciplinary context: how a new field of study develops a canon of research findings and practices. Moreover, the disciplinary and cultural contexts evolve over time, so there is a temporal dimension of time or era running through the other contexts. These considerations do or should affect choices of technology and pedagogy while differentiating a fuller range of learning opportunities. As the approach is applied, it should be seen as less abstract and more of a practical tool for understanding, educational decision-making, and action.

Cultural Contexts of e-Learning where English is a Foreign Language

One dimension that makes each scene of instruction unique and argues against a one-size-fits-all approach is the cultural context. One could suppose role play, simulation, or case-studies approaches would be ideal, matching males with females, only to accept a position in Saudi Arabia and find that male teachers cannot even enter a classroom with females.

Teppo Turkki [2] finds that the Internet infrastructure of Finland, South Korea, and Japan is roughly the same, but there are some differences. Koreans use it for games and Fins see it more as a practical tool. Japanese, on the other hand, use information technology (IT) to enter a fantasy world... the anonymity that many Japanese seek in the real world, for example, has its counterpart in the virtual world, where Japanese prefer aliases. There one can live his or her inner feelings much more deeply... Not so in Korea, where people use their real names. And the emotional attachment to IT that Asians show more broadly is not seen in Finland. Indeed, although there are traditional East Asian commonalities, Koreans and Japanese have visibly diverged or accentuated their differences in lifestyle. A South Korean newspaper also reported the following cultural attitude to technology diverging from other countries:

The email era is coming to an end because replacement-communication means such as Internet messengers, mini-home pages (dubbed "one-man media"), and SMS are wielding their power… Leading the big change, unprecedented in the world, are our teens and those in their 20s. The perception that "email is an old and formal communication means" is rapidly spreading among them [7].

Yoshimi Komiyama, formerly with the World Bank, researched online Japanese learning styles at the University of British Columbia in Canada. She has submitted a chapter to the forthcoming Asia-Pacific Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) volume on online technology and pedagogy [3]. Looking for published views that reflected her own, her review of the literature drew heavily upon my online library (Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection: So her approach will represent a non-Western perspective on the cultural context vis-à-vis online learning in consensus with my own.

Komiyama first describes Japan's English-learning situation and its history of educational technology. Though Japan is second in the overall number of Web sites, its people are not taking much advantage of the English Web due to language and cultural-value barriers. They intellectually know that in a knowledge-based society, English ability and computer skills are both necessary for the nation's economic success. Yet English education remains mired in a grammar-translation pedagogical tradition reinforced by paper exams, so in most schools, for EFL it will be a long road to cross-cultural communication and content-based learning through English.

With Japan's wealth and technical advancement, computers have been considered tools for learning and expression since the mid-'80s. However, the culture and skills of teachers have left computers underutilized, along with institutional culture and other societal factors surrounding the teachers. Moreover, self-expression itself, including composition even in Japanese, has found scant space in the curriculum because of a wider cultural emphasis on social harmony through obedience, self-abnegation, and cooperation. Furthermore, the very advancement of ubiquitous mobile phone use has tended to stunt the growth of computer skills and Web use.

Komiyama then investigates learning styles, which differ according to cultures as well as individuals. Those teaching English abroad or teaching international students are cautioned about unconscious assumptions of sameness; that is, to be aware of cultural and linguistic differences. Knowing how the peer-group orientation of the Japanese shapes their learning behavior could help match teaching styles to learning styles. Komiyama states that Japanese people have tended to sacrifice their own interests and show loyalty in exchange for the protection of a group. Japanese people are generally judged based on relations in a group rather than on individual qualities, which makes the objective evaluation of student work difficult aside from tests of the multiple-choice sort. Japan is also a finely tuned credentialistic society, a modern continuation of hierarchical tendencies from Chinese Confucianism. Whereas not questioning the teacher even when not understanding or not agreeing actually indicates respect, it could easily be misunderstood as passivity or worse.

While in individualistic Western cultures an "I-You" stance shows mutual respect and equal status, Asian cultures tend to be hierarchical based on age and social status as determiners of what is appropriate behavior. In East Asia and Southeast Asia, a "We-They" stance became the societal norm perhaps because of a collective agricultural tradition owing to the demands of rice cultivation. Such people may not be comfortable expressing their opinion in classrooms, because they understand public statements as representing their group or culture. They are concerned about losing the approval of their group, which does not correspond at all to how good the opinion is to the teacher.

Komiyama details Japanese learning styles, which are very different from other groups who have been researched: Westerners need to at least see the consistency and positive purposiveness in what they do. Appearances deceive, and Japanese people may even come to believe stereotypes about themselves (such as that they are quiet), especially in an alien environment. In Japan peer groups of all ages are raucous-they are simply reserved with people of differing status. How could other-oriented people be introverted? Cross-cultural literacy, tolerance, and communication present a profound challenge when diverse cultures and languages are involved.

A paradigm shift in pedagogy has accompanied computer technology in North America, which relies on independent learning, adding to the difficulties for students whose educational cultures were teacher-centered. They may not readily jump to metacognitive skills with the teacher as a facilitator of discussion and project work, because of differing assumptions. Komiyama writes that Japanese students tend to lack the characteristics that predict success in online learning. But even dependent learners can be successful with computers if the course is mixed or blended mode, with the teacher providing clear instructions and closely monitoring student progress. While these points may be of diagnostic value, educators should be cautious about stereotyping students based on nation of origin or a static notion of culture.

Regarding EFL, computers and the Web can provide a variety of benefits. But Japanese people do not like to feel isolated, and the origin of computer use as a human-machine interaction has reinforced such a stereotype about learning with computers. They need to find out how computers can promote social interaction and widen one's circle. Interactive and communicative activities need to be stressed for their online learning. If not, some Asian ESL or EFL students may revert to authoritarian assumptions considering the competitive way they were previously graded. As Japanese people are cooperative and prefer collaborative work in a group, Web projects or a learning-management system can be leveraged to foster a sense of community.

East Asian students tend not to be familiar with a democratic educational environment where everyone can freely speak out. Therefore they may not readily appreciate the value of a venue like a discussion board. Self-conscious about how they are perceived by others, their questions and opinions may be geared to building relationships rather than expressing unique ideas. They tend to be reserved with people they do not know well, and they assume a power relationship with the teacher as an authority, so they may avoid the possible offense of even asking questions that they do have. So the Western teacher or conversation partner should not take equal status for granted but take the heritage of non-Westerners into account before encouraging them to feel empowered and free to show their real selves.

Chinese people reportedly rely more on visual cues in a social context to communicate with others, Komiyama continues. As Japanese people are also sensitive to context, virtual learning environments can present a particular challenge to these learners. When their English ability is also limited, this argues for asynchronous over synchronous online activities.

Some Japanese researchers have concluded that technology-supported learning is not working in Japan. A number of cultural attitudes have inhibited the evolution of online learning, such as a tradition-bound institutional culture of instruction, and elaborate face-to-face rituals essential to everyday communication. Japanese teachers tend to view the Internet as only useful for gathering information. But although progress is slow compared to what the available technology can actually accomplish, the teachers are gradually becoming more computer literate and learners will grow accustomed to the new online world.

EFL Educators in East Asia face the Varying Definitions of e-Learning Concepts

A February 2004 JALTTALK discussion (a listserv through which a number of Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) members communicate informally with each other), e-learning concepts were being questioned and misconceptions circulated. Like bilingualism, e-learning and online education are not readily grasped by common sense, and dictionary-type definitions cannot cover the disciplinary and cultural contexts involved. Greg Matheson in Taiwan enquired, "What is the difference between e-learning and CAI? Is it the same as the difference between the NETEACH-L and TESLCA-L?" [4]. CAI is Computer-Assisted Instruction, so, taken literally, it is apparently possible to equate CAI with e-learning (a disciplinary argument against that kind of thinking has been made above). NETEACH-L is an informal discussion list on teaching second or foreign languages utilizing the Internet, while TESLCA-L is a discussion list of the CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) interest group of the worldwide TESOL organization (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). NETEACH by definition would be for online education, while TESLCA would be for CALL, which has been characterized above as preceding online education but then trying to incorporate it into the discipline. This was necessary for CALL to survive in networked computer labs and to maintain established networks of practitioners. Other discussion lists in this predicament are JALTCALL (Japan) and APACALL (Asia-Pacific), but as mailing lists are virtual networks, they can make a more seamless transition to discussions of online education.

Charles Adamson [1] in Japan answered Greg Matheson's above message: "Try typing 'define: e-learning' in Google. You will get a page of definitions with the citation and they almost all involve networks. If you then type in 'define: CAI' you will get another page of definitions that involve using the power of the computer. The difference is quite clear but with a little fuzzy area of overlap." I had just included that approach of teaching the Google define function in a graduate course on online education at the national University of Tsukuba near Tokyo. But the resultant entries from glossaries, academic, or business sources could not qualify as definitions since they were all so different. Part of the answer is that e-learning is a new field, and people are looking at their own corner of it. There does not seem to be a consensus about what many of the basic terms mean, or which is the overarching concept, such as e-learning, under which other terms might be presumed to be subsets. Other parts of the answer are discussed in this article in terms of the disciplinary context changing over time. But clearly, the multiplicity of definitions for the same concepts, false synonyms and so forth show that the world of scholarship needs an approach to definitions of sufficient dimensionality.

Teaching E-learning Concepts to Graduate Students in Japan

The Tsukuba course also made it evident to me that abstract or universal definitions were not necessarily better than ones that were context-embedded. For example, a literal definition of a term like CAI misses the disciplinary aspects where it arose during a certain era with certain technologies, like the Japanese juku cram schools that called their approach CAI as a selling point while automating it.

A related observation was that it may not have been possible to convince skeptical graduate students, some of whom were English schoolteachers, of the value of online education by just lecturing about it theoretically. The previous year's instructor had not arranged for a networked classroom, but I planned for a functioning computer lab to be available with all the appropriate software, such as java runtime, so online education could be taught suitably through online education.

Even though the class was connected to the Internet the whole time, the students may not have been convinced that it was online education because the instructor was present and there's a preconception conflating online education with distance education. As it turned out, audio conferences and chat with mentors abroad were what convinced the graduate students that online education was actually taking place.

In the role of an authority figure, an instructor could feed answers, but the students may not construct their own knowledge thoroughly enough to break through previous assumptions into transformative learning. At the risk of some misconceptions remaining, a student-centered process of discovery seemed to bear fruit, both from what they had reported of previous experience with professors as remote authorities and the positive changes they reported in Japanese at the end of the course (For details on the Tsukuba graduate course on online education, access papers listed at Concepts such as e-learning, distance education, and online education were brainstormed in class, while later in the year I presented the brainstorming chart and distinguished the e-learning concepts in an online article [6].

Defining e-Learning Concepts in Practice

Any particularly new field has both undeveloped areas along with others that are developed into disciplines with a community of practitioners and a body of literature written during a certain era. In the foreign language teaching field, CALL and online learning, or what University of California Professor Mark Warschauer has called Network-Based Language Learning, could each be definitive of an era, with the latter still dawning.

Greg Matheson in Taiwan also wrote about a colleague taking "a course about setting up e-learning programs, at the end of which he was going to get some kind of certificate. He said [e-learning] is distance education over networks, e.g., the Internet" [4]. This again shows the need for an analytical approach to clear up misconceptions even among teachers or trainers.

If one asks what the "e" in e-learning is, it is Electronic, as opposed to Electric, such as appliances that cannot be used for learning. But in practice the "e" tends to refer to digital technologies, i.e., excluding analog TV, radio, two-way short-wave (such as Australia's School of the Air), satellite-based systems and dedicated teleconferencing systems (such as that of the World Bank) that do not use the Internet.

Networked computers are what characterize online education, and there are even networked computers (servers, routers, and etc.) somewhere down the line in m-learning with mobile phones. So the "line" in online and offline is literal in terms of networks and figurative in terms of connectivity.

To make those connections, the Tsukuba graduate students were asked to consider where data traveled in activities involving virtual-learning environments based in Oregon, New York, and Australia. To add photos to their student home pages in WebCT, students were asked on the first morning of the course to take mobile phone photos of each other, send them via email attachments to the instructor's U.S.-based Web mail, from which the files were funneled back to the students by WebCT mail or on a 3.5 inch FD.

It is important to consider, as alluded to earlier, that online education is not necessarily distance education; instructors and mentors must have access to networked computers at least part of the time for it to be online education but it is all the better insofar as an instructor or mentor can be there with the students. (An in-company Intranet and the like are also online, but there should be access to the WWW for it to be online education in a fuller sense.)

In a disciplinary sense, distance education has been predominantly correspondence education, remaining a matter of mailing paper in most parts of the world. In a country like Japan where the technology is readily available to change to online education, a business model is needed to get away from selling paper. If consumers continue to feel they need to receive some goods for their money, clearly a paradigm shift in their thinking is needed. People increasingly pay for experiences as well as material goods, and learning is of inestimable value.

The concepts of e-learning, distance education, and online education do overlap, but none is a subset of the others. While distance education claims the most participants because of correspondence education, e-learning seems the broadest notion in practice because it encompasses computers and other digital information appliances (whether used for learning offline or online).

Again in disciplinary terms (of a community of practice with a body of published research) online education is diverging from and is increasingly incomparable to distance education. Online education is not a part of distance education; rather, it is rendering distance irrelevant as people adjust psychologically to remote communication online every day. The adjustment, however, may take more time in cultures such as those in East Asia that emphasize maintaining face through f2f rituals in everyday communication. There are also indications beyond the scope of this article that student-centered and constructivistic pedagogy is the exception rather than the norm worldwide, with authoritarian educational hierarchies remaining as an obstacle to what has been called "Webagogy" in Russia, Africa, and other regions. Global questionnaire results should be available in McCarty, et al. (in press, 2005) [5].

Charting Disciplinary and Cultural Contexts of e-Learning and EFL

The chart below aims to organize some salient factors and distinctions to bring together the discussion throughout this article and to generalize particulars such as the situation in Japan. It will be seen that it is not enough to describe a field in an absolute sense without regard to disciplinary and cultural contexts over time.

In the chart the temporal dimension is what mainly distinguishes the items under "Disciplinary Context," while the specifics of the cultural context also evolve over time, so the temporal context provides a third dimension to the analysis. As the chart tends to focus on areas that overlap between e-learning and EFL, aspects that ostensibly differ become parallel and nearly correspond to one another. This could be because e-learning is partly a medium or a meta-field that cuts across all subjects or disciplines.

More specifically, taking the items in their disciplinary and historical context rather than in the abstract, distance education goes back over 100 years and was pioneered in countries like Australia and Canada where geographical distance was particularly salient. Then e-learning arose with the interaction mainly between human and computer, utilizing electronic or digital devices such as CD-ROMs. Finally with the advent of the Internet and widespread use of high-capacity networks, although distance education and e-learning have continued, online education represented a later phase. Over time, distance became less salient, e-learning took on a more general meaning, and the computer started to be redefined, gaining a new purpose of not only information processing but also communication.

This process was paralleled in the EFL field when it adopted educational technology. Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) was the first phase historically, characterized by a human-machine interface and interaction. Then CALL arose with computer laboratories for teaching and studying foreign languages. The physical context of the practices called CALL was mainly the classroom, where there could be more of a social dimension than CAI along with the sharing of files or use of a LAN. Not CALL in the abstract but institutional, economic and other imperatives of classrooms tended to situate CALL as an intermediate phase between language laboratories and ubiquitous Internet. That is, high-capacity network infrastructure and student Internet access outside of the lab in many countries enabled more authentic activities, rendering many CALL practices obsolete or unnecessary. CALL as a discipline with societies of practitioners floundered until it reinvented itself to include Internet-Based Language Learning. But as discussed in the case of e-learning, Internet-Based Language Learning represented a later phase and was actually a form of online education.

Regarding the cultural context in the chart, there are cultural attitudes to any practice, e-learning and EFL respectively in this case. If they are combined, negative attitudes toward either one would thwart the enterprise. Positive attitudes are needed toward both for each learner to be successful. Therefore, especially when teaching across cultures, an educator cannot take for granted the cultural context as welcoming any practice, however innovative, since motivation is so vital.

The IT infrastructure and learners' ICT skills are analogous to both institutional culture and individual learners' attitudes in framing the context and limiting the choices of educational technology and teaching methods.

Institutional culture is seen to be among the barriers when, for example in Japan, cultural attitudes are positive and the infrastructure is there, but computers are relatively underutilized for education. Within the same culture, institutional factors can vary considerably, for example between public and private institutions. Whether an innovation works, or can be afforded or adopted in the first place are different issues in educators' experience. Finally, there are individual differences, as well as group levels, to take into account in knowledge as well as attitudes toward ICT and EFL. The above chart may outline a possible checklist for cross-cultural educators in various fields and world regions.

This Analytical Approach applied to other Fields, Concepts and Dictionaries

Although the fields of e-learning and EFL are specifically taken up and combined in this article, similar considerations can be applied to other fields. The whole notion of defining has been called into question, shedding light on why dictionary definitions fall flat and why concepts in fields such as e-learning are defined so variously. Static definitions tend to fall short because they lack the cultural, disciplinary, and temporal contexts out of which the phenomena arose dynamically.

As a case in point, a sufficiently dimensional Japanese-English dictionary does not yet exist. This is because the cultural context or common sense is so different that there is no equivalency in the two languages between single words as they are actually used. The cultural context of situations and behaviors would need to be clarified. An example is that Japanese people tend to bow when saying certain phrases, even on the telephone, for certain reasons that may not be understood by the non-native language user. A language cannot be entirely stripped of its cultural background and used as a tool with a different common sense without striking its native speakers as strange or disconcerting. Multimedia makes possible the kind of linked bilingual dictionary or encyclopedia that could also be described as bicultural.


1. Adamson, C. (2004, February 23). JALTTALK discussion list message (cited by permission of the writer).

2. I.T. Across Cultures (2004, October 21). Tokyo: Japanese Institute of Global Communications. Retrieved on January 8, 2005 from: www.

3. Komiyama, Y. (forthcoming 2005). Japanese Learning Styles in the Online Learning Environment. Submitted to Jeong-Bae Son, ed., Internet-Based Language Instruction: Pedagogies and Technologies. University of Southern Queensland, Australia: Asia-Pacific Association for Computer-Assisted Language Learning.

4. Matheson, G. (2004, February 22). JALTTALK discussion list message (cited by permission of the writer).

5. McCarty, S., Ibrahim, B., Sedunov B. & Sharma R. (forthcoming 2005). Global Online Education. In Trifonas, P. et al., eds., International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments. (Commissioned by Kluwer Academic Publishers, which has since merged with Springer-Verlag).

6. McCarty, S. (2004, September 10). A Picture of Online Education. Archive of CRN Home Page Topics for Discussion. Tokyo: Child Research Net. Retrieved on January 8, 2005 from:

7. New Forms of Online Communication Spell End of Email Era in Korea (2004, November 28). Seoul: Digital Chosun Ilbo. Retrieved on January 8, 2005 from:


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