Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Culture-Neutral Instructional Design – Fact or Fiction?

As an instructional designer and learning specialist, I like to believe that I am aware of the cultural difference between me and my intended audience. I also believe that I try my best to ensure that my training design and developed content is devoid of any cultural bias and the instructions are unambiguous.

However, can instructional design ever be culture-neutral?

The Meaning of Culture

To begin the discussion, let’s probe a little about culture and what it means. The Wikipedia definition of culture says:
“Culture (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning "to cultivate") is a term that has different meanings.”

This statement is enough to let us know that the definition and understanding of culture is changing.

Culture can be defined as “the sum total of ways of living, including values, beliefs, aesthetic standards, linguistic expression, patterns of thinking, behavioural norms, and styles of communication” (Powell, 1997, p. 15).

The above statement clearly reflects that culture plays an important role in our daily lives. It is all pervasive yet not very obvious. The way we are and the way we perceive situations and react to them is a product of our culture. Culture is therefore learned behavior; it is not genetic.

The Need for Culturally-Neutral Learning
In the 21st century, all training and content providers and educational institutions want to ensure that they provide culturally-neutral learning environments. As more and more learning moves online, the audience has become global and widespread rather than local and captive. The boundaries separating cultural groups are now getting blurred. To be successful, training and content providers and educational institutions are sensitised to the impact of culture on learning.

Learning is a social phenomenon and it pervades culture. Learning is embedded in everyday situations. There is enough research to prove that learning is best achieved when it is used and applied in real-world contexts.

But as I am drawn to the paradigm – context (and not content) is king – I face these questions:
• How can I build the right context without incorporating the element of culture?
• Isn’t context culture-specific?
• Aren’t popular instructional design models themselves a product of a particular culture?
• How can I as an instructional designer be immune to the effects of culture – my culture and that of my learners?

Culture and Instructional Design
Culture not only affects how we behave and think but also how we learn. There is a growing recognition that learning strategies and tactics are influenced by culture.
According to Henderson (as cited in McLoughlin & Oliver, 2000), “Instructional design cannot and does not, exist outside of a consideration of culture”. Aspects such as the perceived role of the facilitator, usage of technology towards learning, type of assessment systems, more lectures versus more hands-on learning, various types of rewards of learning etc. are some of the factors that are deeply influenced by our culture. While we talk of inclusive design and culture-sensitive learning strategies; there isn’t enough or concrete research to help us design instruction that can help cross-cultural learners learn in ways that map to their culture, their values, beliefs and styles of learning.

Culture and learning both are evolving. There is not enough discussion about models that can help us design courses that are culturally-neutral. However, in my research, I came across one particular model proposed by Henderson. Henderson (1996) has argued that instructional design is about the creation of cultural identity and cannot be culturally neutral. Henderson proposed the multiple cultural model of instructional design. This model proposes a design approach that considers various cultural realities or zones of development. These include designing learning interventions that reflect multicultural ways of learning and teaching.

Application of Multiple Cultural Model on Instructional Design

Application of this model calls us for being culturally-sensitive and develop a global perspective about learning and teaching.

• Based on this model, we ought to adopt not one particular but multiple pedagogies that provide flexibility and a variety of learning approaches to learners based on their cultures and contexts.
• We should utilize learning and assessment strategies that can help minimize cultural misunderstandings between diverse audience groups.
• By using more constructivists’ approaches to learning, we can ensure that the learner is the centre of all learning and we offer increased flexibility and interactivity in all learning interventions.
• By becoming more aware of our own ‘implicit’ assumptions about culture and by appreciating the differences, we can design and develop learning interventions that are more culturally-sensitive.

So, can instructional design be culture-neutral? Perhaps not as much we would like it to be. But by adopting a more diverse view about learning and the differences in cultures, we can surely design and develop culturally-sensitive training that is more meaningful to our learners.