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Chapter 4


Scenario: In an international web-course there seem to be some problems with cultural differences. The students from different countries don’t seem to have equal input to their collaboration, they don’t have a shared understanding about concepts, some of them are not committed to joint activities and students from some countries seem to be more self-directed than the others. How could the teacher or course designer take these cultural differences into consideration when implementing international courses? Consider this issue both from pedagogy and technology point of view.
Scenario as a pdf

Authors: Jacqueline Williams, Päivi Palosaari-Aubry, Gary Dullaghan, Päivi Eskola, Arild Almås Berg, Lazar Dordevic, Lars Axel Wik Larssen, Ingrid Johanne Lystad Nagell, Giga Khositashvili, Tiina Rekand, Mattias Saks

Tutor: Venla Vallivaara (University of Oulu)
email: venla.vallivaara(at)


Teaching and learning in a multicultural context, as well as distance learning and online courses, have become part of everyday education in universities throughout the world. Globalization of industry, finance, and many professions has increased cross-cultural interactions. In addition, the global business and economic situations are changing rapidly, which creates a need for specialized skills and proper educational opportunities. Sometimes distance learning is needed to access suitable education (Berge 2007). Moreover, the development of new technologies has remarkably facilitated the growth of distance learning and teaching (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot 2010).

According to Nisbett (as cited in Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010), regardless of the present statements about merging cultures (concerning globalization) among learners, the cultural differences have not disappeared. This is explained by cultural values that are deeply rooted and modes of thinking that are difficult to separate from learning processes. Indeed, students from different countries and cultures might have different ways to study, learn and even perceive assignment instructions. The cultural differences that are met in teaching and learning styles, as well as the challenges of balancing between the student’s local culture and the culture of the learning environment naturally create conflicts (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot 2010). Therefore, teachers working in online environments should develop skills to provide culturally sensivite and adaptive instructions for their students (Gunawardena & LaPointe, 2007, as cited in Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010).

Cultural differences in a web course can occur even when students are from the same country, because each person has had different teachers and experiences over the course of their educational careers. Dunn and Griggs' (1995, as cited in Gunawardena, Wilson & Nolla, 2003) study on learning styles show the evidence on cultural differences; each cultural group have some learning style elements that distinguish it from other cultural groups. However, within each group there are also individual differences. Therefore, a course designer should take into consideration three critical factors: 1) universal principles of learning, 2) culture influences both the learning process and its outcomes and 3) each individual has unique learning style preferences.

To help combat the issues that can arise from these cultural and individual differences, it is important to create, with the input of your students, a common culture for the course. To that end, there are three major ways that this can be accomplished. The first is by making sure that your web course has a strong structure. The second is to help create a feeling of community between your students. The third is to foster your students’ dependence upon one another, which will lead to true collaboration on class activities. This chapter will give practical suggestions on how these three tasks can be accomplished in an online course.

The scenario covered in this chapter is an international web course that takes place fully online. It is assumed that the students have access to the technological tools and solutions suggested in the course design. The following sections of this chapter will offer tools and activities to help educators overcome the difficulties presented when teaching an international web course. There will also be notices that will cover pedagogical theory, intercultural training and technology that can be used in conjunction with each technique. The pedagogical theory notes are blue, intercultural training notes are red, and technology suggestions are green.


Bakkenes, I., Vermunt, J. D. & Wubbels, T. (2010). Teacher Learning in the context of educational innovation: Learning activities and learning outcomes of experienced teachers. Learning and Instruction, 20, 533-548.
Berge, Z. L. (2003). Planning and Managing Distance Training and Education in the Corporate Sector. In M. G. Moore (Ed.), In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds), Handbook of distance education (pp. 601-613). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Gunawardena, C.N., Wilson, P.L., & Nolla, A.C. (2003). Culture and online education. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds), Handbook of distance education (pp. 753-775). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Parrish, P. & Linder-VanBerschot J. A. (2010). Cultural Dimensions of Learning: Addressing the Challenges of Multicultural Instruction. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 11(2). Retrieved from
Vermunt, J. D., Verloop N. (1999). Congruence and friction between learning and teaching. Learning and Instruction, 9(3), 257-280.


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