Lesson 5 - Theories of Learning

26. Online Collaborative Learning

26.5. Cultural and Epistemological Issues

Students come to the educational experience with different expectations and backgrounds. As a result there are often major cultural differences in students with regard to participating in discussion-based collaborative learning that in the end reflect deep differences with regard to the traditions of learning and teaching. Thus teachers need to be aware that there are likely to be students in any class who may be struggling with the language, cultural or epistemological issues, but in online classes, where students can come from anywhere, this is a particularly important issue.

In many countries, there is a strong tradition of the authoritarian role of the teacher and the transmission of information from the teacher to the student. In some cultures, it would be considered disrespectful to challenge or criticize the views of teachers or even other students. In an authoritarian, teacher-based culture, the views of other students may be considered irrelevant or unimportant. Other cultures have a strong oral tradition or one based on story-telling, rather than on direct instruction.

Online environments then can present real challenges to students when a constructivist approach to the design of online learning activities is adopted. This may mean taking specific steps to help students who are unfamiliar with a constructivist approach to learning, such as asking a student to send drafts to the instructor by e-mail for approval before posting a ‘class’ contribution. For a fuller discussion of cross-cultural issues in online learning, see Jung and Gunawardena (2014) and the journal Distance Education, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2001), the whole edition of which is devoted to papers on this topic.