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Culture shock
Overseas e-learning markets require careful customization of content

By Ann Quigley / April 2002

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Red is considered a lucky color in China. It's the traditional shade worn at weddings, the color of "hong baos," the money envelopes given on the Chinese New Year, and the predominant color of the national flag. How unlucky, then, that a U.S.-based company planned to use red flags as warning signals in an e-learning course intended for Chinese students. Fortunately, someone noticed before it was too late.

"We suggested that using a red flag as a symbol of danger wasn't a great idea," says Cary Stratton, a marketing manager for Transware, an Ireland-based company that specializes in "localizing" e-learning courseware. "You can have excellent content and accurate translations but totally lose your audience with a few of these cultural gaffes."

The overseas market is an e-learning Wild West, rife with such potential missteps, but also laden with such glorious opportunity that providers and vendors are beginning to dive in. Capella University recently partnered with a Singapore-based global IT training company to provide online business degrees in Asia and Europe. And IDC senior analyst Michael Brennan says several U.S.-based e-learning content and platform vendors have set their sights on expanding overseas.

Such vendors should bone up on the traditions of the cultures they're entering, and eschew one-size-fits-all approaches that ignore cultural learning differences, experts say. Students "will fail to engage, if 'McEducation' is delivered with meta-level messages at odds with their social, spiritual, and aesthetic values," says Eileen Clegg, of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, CA. "Students may balk at obvious cultural gaffes, such as business courses that neglect local traditions of offering gifts and getting receipts."

"An e-learning backlash could occur if too many companies treat e-learning as a 'quick-and-dirty' solution to save costs, rather than an opportunity to serve local needs and expectations," writes Rob Edmonds, a consultant at Menlo Park-based SRI Consulting Business Intelligence, and author of an SRI study on e-learning and culture.

When in Rome

The road to serving local needs begins with nailing down the e-learning methods that jibe with a culture's learning style. In Asia, students tend to view learning as a group activity and depend on a teacher to guide the learning process with structured curriculums, so vendors and providers should offer a blend of online and classroom collaboration, Edmonds says.

American, Canadian, or Northern European students are generally taught to take initiative, ask questions, view instructors as equals, and be individualists, so they're likely to thrive using personalized learning portals. But such individualized approaches may not be successful in Eastern Europe, for example.

The Edmonds study pinpoints other reasons why e-learning isn't yet embraced in every culture. Inhabitants of the Middle East, South America, and Southern Europe, who tend to enjoy emotionally charged debates and favor holistic, "big picture" learning approaches, have been the slowest to adopt e-learning. "This group wants a level of interactive communication that is not currently available with commercial e-learning (particularly given the bandwidth constraints in many regions)," Edmonds writes. "As bandwidth and products improve, these markets may begin to open up to e-learning."

At the other end of the spectrum are residents of the Eastern United States and Northern European countries like Norway, Sweden, and Germany. These more reserved cultures are comfortable using detached media such as email, and they favor specific, rather than holistic, learning approaches that home in on what they need to know. "Some of today's relatively simple collaborative-learning systems are therefore suitable for this group," Edmonds writes.

Falling in the middle of the spectrum are Asian cultures, which are comfortable with detached media like e-mail, but which also favor holistic learning like the Mid-Eastern, South American, and Southern European cultures. "Learners in this group can use learning objects, but such objects need to be an integral part of a more rounded learning program," Edmond writes.

E-learning for change

A few Asian countries, like Singapore, have big plans for e-learning that don't involve giving students what they're comfortable with, such as structured curriculums, certifications, and clear learning paths. Instead, they want to serve up e-learning to teach students to be more entrepreneurial, to translate knowledge into action without hand-holding, and to make decisions independently. "Students learn better from materials in their own cultural and cognitive zone, but it is possible for e-learning materials to introduce them to different approaches, preparing them for global work," Clegg notes.

But this can be confusing for vendors. "Vendors face a complex situation in Asia," Edmonds writes. "Tension exists between the need to meet the cultural expectations of Asian individuals and the need to meet the requirement of companies and governments that want to encourage more 'Westernized' behavior." Find ways to satisfy both parties, Edmonds suggests. A virtual classroom can start off formally and gradually evolve, for example, as the instructor gently guides students to brainstorm, take initiative, and collaborate.

Plan before going global

Planning is key for those interested in eventually going global with e-learning, according to Edmonds, and companies should develop a core set of e-learning components that are adaptable to different cultures. Those who don't take such steps may learn the hard way. Transware worked with an English company that developed an e-learning module for a security screening product. The company planned to market the product in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but the graphics of suspected terrorists depicted Middle Eastern-looking individuals. The company had to swallow the costs of creating and integrating new graphics.

Vendors should address this issue early in the design cycle. Fostering a partnership with a localization company like Transware can help, Edmonds says. Such companies ferret out every slang, humor, religious, and fashion faux pas that prevents a course from being culturally true. IDC anticipates that the market for localizing e-learning courseware will grow by nearly 50 percent annually through 2006.

Edmonds also suggests vendors consider adding culture specialists to their teams, who can "help select items from the e-learning toolbox to match a culture's needs and help develop compelling internal marketing messages," and use networks of people to help test courseware.

Clegg also supports the team approach. Ideally, software developers would work with multi-cultural teams of technology, cognition, and cross-cultural communication experts to create customizable courseware, she says. In this scenario, she says "e-learning would become an agent for better communication and more tolerance among cultures, emphasizing interaction with other people and nature as well as with the computer."

All this effort to adapt e-learning cross-culturally will pay vast dividends, says Sherry Turkle, author of Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. "My perspective is that the computer offers us the possibility of being able to accommodate different learning styles, cultural styles," she says. "To not use this potential of computational media is a very sad thing."


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