Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Culturally inclusive learning on the web

Catherine McLoughlin
School of Indigenous Australian Studies
Edith Cowan University
In tertiary contexts, Web-based instruction may be tailored to the needs of a particular cultural group, and recognise the specific learning needs, preferences and styles of learners. At a time when open learning markets are very competitive, many WWW sites are developed with an international audience in mind. The internationalisation of education has led to the development of two distinct types of WWW sites, (i) those made for one particular context and culture, but visited by a global audience, and (ii) those made specifically for cross-cultural participation. An investigation of these sites reveals many different learning features and instructional design paradigms. Sites aiming for cross cultural participation and seeking a bridge to multiculturalism need to take certain design features into consideration, and utilise culturally appropriate forms of instructional design (ID). A critique of current ID approaches shows that many lack the depth and scope to enable them to provide culturally inclusive learning, and it is that proposed that cultural contextualisation is important in the design of learning. At the same time, WWW sites that aim for cultural portability of courseware need to adopt cross-cultural design features that ensure access by culturally diverse learners. The contrasting orientations and pedagogic features of culture-specific as opposed to cross-cultural sites are discussed and the implications for design are considered.

Theoretical and cross-cultural aspects of WWW design

Making learning resources more accessible and flexible to a wide range of learners is a major concern for universities across Australia. The World Wide Web can attract global audiences to the many sites that can be accessed. But to what extent is the Web increasing cross-cultural understanding and bridging the gap between cultures? Can we assume that the content, interaction and learning experiences afforded by the WWW will have the same relevance and meaning to diverse audiences?

More recently, the portability of software and educational resources has become the subject of inquiry as web-based delivery opens ups broader global markets (Cunningham, 1997). Portability or cross-cultural use of educational resources refers to the capacity to use resources in settings in which they were originally developed. The motivation for portability is economic, educational and strategic. Larger markets for educational products reduce cost and increase profit. Educational motivations are related to the desire to apply student-centered approaches to design and to ensure that materials are relevant to learners. Strategic motivations refer to the issue of ensuring equity of access to learners who are enrolled, regardless of their geographic location.

A great deal of research has been conducted in Europe on the design of educational resources for trans-European delivery. Among the barriers to adoption and uptake of resources as reported by Collis, Parisi & Ligorio (1996) are:

In addition to cultural barriers there are more fundamental questions associated with the instructional design paradigms adopted.

Theoretical aspects of WWW design: Cross cultural dimensions

As learning is a cultural activity, the design of Web sites is also infused with cultural meaning and with cultural nuances and identity issues, as the instructional designers and developers bring their own viewpoints and perspectives into the design process. Collis & Remmers (1997) have defined two categories of sites that have cross-cultural implications:
Figure 1

Figure 1: Categories of Web sites

Category 1 Web sites, for example, which are made for a local context and culture, may not be culturally portable, as they are highly contextualised and embedded in the nuances and interaction styles of particular culture and serve the needs of a particular audience. Category 2 sites are those which strive to reach a cross-cultural audience, and serve the needs of an international audience. If category 2 sites are to be developed, there needs to be consideration of a range of instructional design issues so that cross cultural participation and communication is made possible for all participants. The adoption of a culturally sensitive design paradigm is desirable, but design processes and frameworks too are culturally embedded.

Instructional design frameworks: Are they culturally inclusive?

There are many current instructional design models and paradigms, each of which can be interpreted as culturally and socially determined (Branch, 1997). Instructional design models include cognitive, social and pedagogical issues, but may not acknowledge the need for cultural contextuality. Reeves (1997, p. 63) for instance, outlines a dozen pedagogical dimensions that can be used to design interactive multimedia tools and learning environments. Among these dimensions is cultural sensitivity which is explained as follows: "Web based instruction should accommodate diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds among the learners expected to use it." Henderson (1996) has argued that instructional design is about the creation of cultural identity and cannot be culturally neutral. "Instructional design cannot and does not, exist outside of a consideration of culture" (Henderson, 1996, p. 86). How then, can the dimensions of cultural contextuality inform instructional design?

An important part of Henderson's (1996, 1994) work has been the identification of several design paradigms, each of which reflects particular world views, and consists of values, pedagogies, inclusions and exclusions that results from the designers own societal context. As instructional designers are instrumental in creating and developing interactive multimedia, courseware and learning environments, they can also influence material and symbolic culture. Among the paradigms identified by Henderson there are three identifiable approaches, all of which are limited with respect to cultural dimensions of learning and pedagogy (see Table 1). These can be summarised as follows:

Table 1: Existing ID paradigms and their limitations

Paradigm DefinitionLimitations
Inclusive or perspectives
  • acknowledges multicultural realities, driven by equity and social justice
  • soft multiculturalism
  • inclusion of the exotic
  • tokenism
Inverted curriculum approach
  • conceptualises society as unequal
  • minority perspectives
  • avoids cognitive needs
  • does not support equity in learning outcomes
Culturally unidimensional
  • cultural minorities are invisible
  • culture is presented as homogenous
  • dominant cultures only are acknowledged
  • culture is represented as peripheral

Henderson proposes a further instructional design model, which is a multiple cultural model of instructional design. This is characterised by a design approach which endorses multiple cultural realities or zones of development (Vygotsky, 1978). Essentially, this approach is a form of 'eclectic paradigm' which entails designing learning resources that allow variability and flexibility while enabling students to learn through interaction with materials that:

Application of the multiple cultural model requires a global or international perspective, as sensitivity to cultural difference and an appreciation of the numerous ways in which culture influences learning. Instructional designers would therefore have to consider the philosophical and pedagogical underpinning of goals, objectives, content and instructional activities, and incorporate not one, but multiple pedagogies, for example both instructivist and constructivist. The design should also be validated by a member of the minority group or groups to whom the learning materials are addressed, and materials would have to be tested with the target groups during the development phase.

The adoption of the multiple cultural model would require the design team to investigate the pedagogical dimensions of the cultures they are providing resources for, and be aware of the multiple ways in which each culture could interpret instruction. Some questions that would require answers are:

Reeves (1997) emphasises that greater challenges may arise when the core pedagogical values in one culture are culturally inappropriate in another, for example the expectation that students will question knowledge, or the teacher. Reeves concludes that not enough is known about the ramifications of cultural inclusivity for cognitive design of learning resources and that further research is needed. Collis et al (1997) similarly conclude that there is little extant research on instructional design for cross-cultural Web site development.

Amore pragmatic approach to the design of culturally inclusive sites is proposed. This entails drawing on current knowledge of factors that influence learning and communication, and then generating checklists for designers that minimise cultural alienation and misunderstanding, while promoting cross-cultural use of the Web for instruction.

Cultural differences and technology mediated learning

In Europe, there has been a great deal of research and development conducted to identify barriers to the uptake of software and educational products that are designed in one context and used in another. The accumulated evidence from this research has led to the creation of a resource database to identify cultural barriers and design guidelines to portability of software and educational resources (Collis, 1997). These are as categorised as cultural differences with respects to: Collis (1997) has developed guidelines for the design of cross-cultural participation via communications technologies, and for Web sites. The general conclusion reached is that the less structured or didactic the program the more useable it is in other contexts. However, such explorative from of learning tools and multimedia re complex to design, yet the solution seem to be to achieve a balance between structured and semi structured software and materials. Some of the guidelines recommended are as follows:

Language and communication: Verbal communication refers to both spoken and written language, not only the words, but the nuances of words as well. Communication issues are major challenges to Web site designers.

Language is the most obvious obstacle for cross-cultural instruction. But differences in writing conventions (style, format, content, and organisation) between Web designers and their audience can also often lead to poor communication. Some cultures take offence at brief exchanges using short sentences or declarative language. They may require more polite or more indirect interactions. Direct or corrective feedback may similarly embarrass some users. To be truly effective, Web designers must be willing to adapt their materials to other cultural and linguistic conventions. Hites (1996) makes several recommendations for facilitating cross-cultural verbal communication:

  1. Keep language simple and active.
  2. Use consistent terminology.
  3. Reduce or totally avoid the use of jargon, idioms, and acronyms.
  4. Define terms and provide glossaries.
  5. Use relevant, specific examples familiar to the user.
  6. Explain concepts using multiple examples.
  7. Use multiple media: Using multimedia to deliver the message through multiple senses can be an extremely effective way to reduce misunderstandings.
  8. Develop and field-test the materials with representatives of the cultures for which it is written.
Communication and interaction: Web designers must be sensitive to the differences in interaction styles and whether the communication becomes a burden to the participant. Design must therefore cater for differences in:
  1. learning styles and task orientations;
  2. levels of formality expected;
  3. cultural constraints on who initiates and moderates discussion.
Content: The content may be culture-dependent, and require substantial cross-cultural integration, as in teaching a language. On the other hand, the content may be culture- transcendent, as in the teaching of highly specialised professional courses (eg, programming languages). Signaling the level of culture-saturation in the Web site makes content more accessible to a wider audience. In addition, topics that represent and explore cross-cultural differences in perspectives should be included in order to avoid the site being attached to a particular worldview.

Representational form: Language is not the only communication-related concern. Designers need to bear in mind that ninety percent of communication is non-verbal and is conveyed through visual means such as gestures, proxemics, and images. We frequently use directional placement, icons, graphics, colour and white space in textual communication. These visual elements generally do not easily transfer across cultures. For example, navigational images and text grouping intended to indicate the directional flow of information may confuse non-Western students. Several languages are traditionally written vertically, and read from right to leave. Thus, a directional arrow placed at the bottom right and pointing right for the next page may be counter intuitive to them. Likewise placing important information in the top left-hand section of a page may not be recognised by people in Eastern cultures as a cognitive organiser. Similar problems occur when using images and icons to convey meaning. Cultures differ according to the to amount of visual information they prefer. Icons are the visual language of a culture and are drawn from items people commonly use and recognise. An item readily identified in one culture however, may be totally unknown in another.


While the WWW may be leading to an increase in cross-cultural communication and interaction, there are many design issues that need to be addressed in order to ensure culturally inclusive Web sites. Instructional designers need to incorporate cultural understandings of technology into the design of learning materials. Designers also need to be aware of how culture influences learning and perception, interaction, communication and interpretation of visual information. Design guidelines may provide a workable solution, but they need to be complemented by an awareness and respect for the multicultural values and cultural diversity.


Branch, R. M. (1997). Educational technology frameworks that facilitate culturally pluralistic instruction. Educational Technology, 37(2), 38-41.

Collis, B., Parisi, D., & Ligorio, M. B. (1996). Adaptation of courses for trans-European tele-learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 12, 47-62.

Collis, B., & Remmers, E. (1997). The world wide web in education: Issues related to cross-cultural communication and interaction. In B. Khan (Eds.), Web-based Instruction, (pp. 85-92). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Henderson, L. (1994). Reeve's pedagogic model of interactive learning systems and cultural contextuality. In C. McBeath & R. Atkinson (Eds.), Proceedings of the second international interactive multimedia symposium, (pp. 189-203). Perth: Promaco.

Henderson, L. (1996). Instructional design of interactive multimedia. Educational Technology Research and Development, 44(4), 85-104.

Hites, J. M. (1996). Design and delivery of training for international trainees: A case study. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 9(2), 57-74.

Cunningham, S. (1997). New media and borderless education. DEETYA. http://www.deetya.gov.au/highered/eippubs.htm

Collis, B., & Remmers, E. (1997). The World Wide Web in education: Issues related to cross-cultural communication and interaction. In B. Khan (Eds.), Web-based Instruction, (pp. 85-92). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Henderson, L. (1996). Instructional design of interactive multimedia. Educational Technology Research and Development, 44(4), 85-104.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. (Original material published in 1930, 1933 and 1935).

Please cite as: McLoughlin, C. (1999). Culturally inclusive learning on the web. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 272-277. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/mcloughlin.html

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