SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context
  4. Research into culture in the online classroom
  5. The need for a new approach
  6. New ways of looking and seeing
  7. Setting up a new approach
  8. A new approach in practice
  9. The bigger picture
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

Nationality-based ideas of culture are often used to examine culture in online classes but offer a restricted view by assuming that culture, in terms of personal preferences and predispositions, enters the class with the students. This article provides a worked example of how new insights may be gained by seeing culture as a process of ongoing negotiation. This negotiation is clearly seen in class interaction, which is visible online in the form of discussion board messages.


Context

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context
  4. Research into culture in the online classroom
  5. The need for a new approach
  6. New ways of looking and seeing
  7. Setting up a new approach
  8. A new approach in practice
  9. The bigger picture
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

Remote-access virtual learning environments offer the theoretical possibility of access to education anytime, anywhere, and by anyone. In practice this may simply mean that students within one institution can access learning resources at any hour they choose and thus may more easily combine learning and working lives. On a broader level, diversely located students spread nationally, or internationally, may be able to attend programs previously only accessible to students willing and able to accept the disruption of physical relocation. For education providers drawing their student population from a small, localized population, it may be possible to tailor provision to meet local expectations and conditions. This is a much more complex task for providers whose students are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances. In either case, economic globalization and the movement of people worldwide means that the cultural backgrounds of students learning together is increasingly diverse. In the “reduced cues” remote-access learning environment, facilitating communication within these groups of culturally diverse students online is, consequently, critical to facilitating successful learning. The collaborative and interactive nature of online learning also requires that attention be paid not so much to cross-cultural interaction, with its implication of crossing a single cultural divide, but to intercultural communication where the focus is on interaction among participants identifying simultaneously with multiple cultural frames of reference.

Research into culture in the online classroom

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context
  4. Research into culture in the online classroom
  5. The need for a new approach
  6. New ways of looking and seeing
  7. Setting up a new approach
  8. A new approach in practice
  9. The bigger picture
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

To date, much of the research into culture as it impacts the online class situates itself within a paradigm that equates culture with membership in a particular nation state. Online interaction, for example, is frequently looked at using interpretations drawn from the work of Hofstede (2001), Hall (1959, 1966), or Hall and Hall (1990). Hall’s framework, on the one hand, involves ideas of how different cultures, i.e., nations, practice communication and perceive time. In high-context cultures, interactional utterances must provide a whole context for what is being said, while in low-context cultures utterances are more focused and direct. Hofstede, on the other hand, classifies national groups according to their positions along a sliding scale for each of five independent “dimensions” of culture. He lists these dimensions as:

  • 1
    Power distance—“which is related to the different solutions to the basic problem of human inequality”
  • 2
    Uncertainty avoidance—“which is related to the level of stress in a society in the face of an unknown future”
  • 3
    Individualism versus collectivism, which is related to the integration of individuals into primary groups”
  • 4
    Masculinity versus femininity, which is related to the division of emotional roles between men and women”
  • 5
    Long-term orientation—which is related to the choice of focus for people’s efforts: the future or the present (Hofstede, 2001, p. 29).

The balance between ratings for each of these dimensions then provides the overall profile for any one particular nation.

Kim and Bonk (2002) use understandings based on these ideas to examine the asynchronous discussion board behavior of three distinct national groups of undergraduate education students within a joint interactive environment. Students were enrolled in conference groups according to nationality but were also able to interact in the discussions of other nationalities. Kim and Bonk report Korean students to be more social and contextually driven; Finnish students more group-focused, reflective, and driven by theory; and U.S. students more action-oriented while also being “pragmatic in seeking results or giving solutions” (2002, p. 2). Morse (2003) meanwhile uses Hall’s low- and high-context groupings in his study of interaction in a graduate level seminar with three online discussion periods of three weeks. Morse concludes that the cultural background of students influences both how they prioritize the benefits they have gained from their online study, and how they view the challenges it posed. He comments further that, in an asynchronous environment, integration of high context participants is made more difficult “by technology differences as well as the communication norms implicit in their cultural background” (2003, p. 51).

In studies such as these, a series of binary oppositions are established as a consequence of comparisons between the behaviors of individuals who are themselves positioned as generalized microcosms of particular nation states. This “essentialist” approach has a number of complications:

  • • 
    It assumes that a behavior observed in one national may be used under similar conditions to predict the behavior of another;
  • • 
    It assumes that individuals identify themselves primarily in terms of their membership in a cultural grouping labeled externally as a particular nation state;
  • • 
    while stressing similarity among members of a national group, it emphasizes difference at the point of intersection with any other group (or member of that other group);

Most importantly for learning online, this essentialist framework offers no means of understanding how collaboration happens among members of different national groups who do not share cultural understandings supposedly afforded by shared nationality.

Nationality-driven constructs may be useful when talking about large groups of people. However, as Scollon and Wong-Scollon remind us, “Cultures do not talk to each other; individuals do” (2001, p. 138). As anything other than a generalized derivative, the individual disappears in an approach that uses the nation as a determinant of culture and thus of online behavior. Any individual may choose to identify in general with the cultural norms of a nation, but this is by no means the only way in which individuals may locate an idea of culture for themselves. Furthermore, an increase in cross-border movement of people around the world means that many individuals are operating within at least two nation-based frames of cultural reference (Campbell, 2000; Chase, Macfadyen, Reeder, & Roche, 2002; Morse, 2003), and the ability to do this is “becoming one of the key skills demanded by an internationalized economy and rapidly changing domestic social contexts” (Campbell, 2000, p. 37). Chase et al.’s study is interesting in this respect—individual student behaviors varied widely but the members of the class, as Canadians, were technically a homogeneous group. In terms of how students’ behaved in class—as made visible through the messages they posted to class discussions—individual differences were not subsumed into a broader pattern of national culture as might have been predicted, but were visible in terms of what they said and to whom they spoke.

The need for a new approach

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context
  4. Research into culture in the online classroom
  5. The need for a new approach
  6. New ways of looking and seeing
  7. Setting up a new approach
  8. A new approach in practice
  9. The bigger picture
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

The transnational globally recruited online class, viewed through a lens that equates culture with nationality, is culturally heterogeneous. Adopting this view leads us, as teachers and students of the class, towards seeing cultural issues in that class in terms of incompatibility. Ideas associating culture with nations or ethnicities are not without value, but focusing on these ideas is of limited usefulness in examining the interpersonal, intercultural interaction in the online classroom. Such associations ignore the complexity of cultural influences and determinants brought into play by the key players in that interaction—the individual participants. This may lead to learning and teaching design and practice being seen simply as a matter of locating “common denominators” e.g., of platform or interface design. Likewise, by assuming that culture is something that arrives online—and thus in class—with the student, the tutor(s) and the institution both are effectively accorded no cultural role at all. The class thus constructed, while otherwise successful, is positioned as dissonant and, in some ways at least, deficient. Exploring culture in that classroom with a lens that equates culture only with nationality prioritizes delineation of those dimensions of difference over and above exploration of interaction across and despite difference. Cross-national similarities and shared understandings disappear from view, and consequently our understanding of the classroom fails to demonstrate any activity that may foster cohesion.

New ways of looking and seeing

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context
  4. Research into culture in the online classroom
  5. The need for a new approach
  6. New ways of looking and seeing
  7. Setting up a new approach
  8. A new approach in practice
  9. The bigger picture
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

Culture is one of the most complex words in the English language (Williams, 1983), one that can be of more or less use to us according to how we understand it (Barker, 2000, p. 35). If “essentialist” views, i.e., those that equate culture with a set of pre-existing attributes, are of limited use in examining the intercultural interaction of groups of learners online, how can culture in the globalized classroom be understood and explored?

A “Third” culture?1

In the process of designing an interface for interaction within a workplace setting, Raybourn et al. (2003) see their role as guiding “culture to emerge from the users’ co-creation of narratives and the subsequent communication events transpiring in the virtual space” (p. 106). As a result of interaction among all the parties in class, whose contributions will be derived from their personal (varying) frames of reference, they posit that a new “third” culture will emerge. This will then provide a shared context of understanding in which the members of the group will be both participants and co-owners. This context will emerge “in direction and rate” (p. 106), they suggest, according to “the quality and nature of the interactions” (p. 106) in which participants engage.

In helping to clarify culture in the online classroom, this idea is both attractive and problematic. It is attractive in that it implies a collaboratively constructed location for the class, one which is both inclusive of all class members, and allows for validation of their multiple viewpoints. However, this also assumes that every member of the class is engaging in interaction since the location, the “third” culture, only exists for those who participate actively. There are many studies that show that, in fact, online interaction is usually the product of a minority of participants (e.g., Cook & Jacobs, 2004; Howard, 2002; Lobry de Bruyen, 2004). Problematic too is the implication that there is a finished state to the negotiation process that is to be seen in the form of a distinct third culture. If it is actually the product of the interaction of only a few, it will provide only a restricted view of the class. This is because, like the essentialist views, by not being constructed, i.e., not acknowledged, by all members of the class, it will focus on difference. The idea of the “third” culture as a finished product also implies that it will have a continuing function and validity once complete. This is in contrast to experience that shows that students do not always experience the same class, let alone successive courses, as having the same “feel.” This begs the question as to whether any “third” culture is not, in fact, a series of third cultures to be created by each class in its own turn. Thus, while the “third culture” as described by Raybourn et al. (2003) potentially incorporates members from cultures that are deemed different in essentialist terms, the third culture is itself, in some senses, also “essentialist,” since it defines a culture existing only among a particular combination of individuals in a particular space and time context.

Culture as “Doing”

The idea of culture as an ongoing iterative process is another alternative to essentialist views. Street (1993) stresses a view of culture as activity, of doing: “as [a] signifying process—the active construction of meaning” (p. 23). Studying culture, he believes, is not about finding definitions but, rather, a matter of seeing how, when, and why definitions are made, “Culture is an active process of meaning making and contest over definition, including its own definition (p. 25).” Thus, culture evolves over time, not in the sense of reaching an ultimate definition or conclusion, but as an ongoing process of sense-making at any particular point in time, within a particular context and from a particular viewpoint (Gee, 2000, pp. 188-189).

From this perspective, the online classroom as a context within the social world is a space where many elements, e.g., people, places, things, ideas, beliefs, hopes, aspirations etc., come together as a context or “configuration” (Gee, p. 188) where work is undertaken by and on behalf of those elements so as to position and organize them into meaning. Interpretation of those elements within any particular configuration is done by means of “enactive” and “recognition” work (Gee, 2000, p. 188). According to Gee, enactive work is our attempts to organize these elements and accord them value and meaning, while recognition is the work done by others to agree or disagree, or to try to change our organization of the elements. Elements only have meaning within a particular configuration or context, thus what Gee calls our “real” enactive work is “in creating and sustaining the configurations” (p.189). These meanings then feed forward into our understandings of future configurations and present options for further negotiation.

Enactive work may take place from within a configuration, i.e., we position ourselves and other elements within the context of the online classroom by what we do with, and say to and about, other elements within that particular context. For example, by posting a message to a discussion board we are doing work to sustain the context that is the online classroom where communication is conducted by posting messages to discussion boards. Simultaneously, as course leader, for example, we may also be doing enactive work from the outside, in order to make that posting look a certain way so that it is recognized by fellow tutors (in the configuration that is the online classroom), as being composed and posted in keeping with another configuration that is “the team leader.” Of course, the significance and potential impact on the stability of the configuration (i.e., on the class), of such enactive work will also depend not only on how the configuration is viewed by the other elements at work in it but also whether or not the person doing the work, i.e., the posting of that message, is acknowledged by other elements as being either a tutor or a team leader.

Viewing the online classroom as an evolving site of cultural creation allows for understanding the cultural process that is that classroom, and the “doing” of being within it, where not all elements are active all of the time. This view also allows that there are multiple realities at any one point in time for any, and all, of the elements involved. This may seem to offer so many potential interpretations of what is going on in the online class as to render any exploration impractically complex. How then can we examine what this approach to culture offers without becoming overwhelmed; how can we find the essence of the context in order to learn from it? It is necessary to ask ourselves which are the critical points in the intercultural interaction, likewise the potential of treating these as “moment[s] of cultural production” (Scollon, 2003). For Reeder, Macfadyen, Roche, and Chase (2004), this key location is “the online discussions amongst participants in an emerging online community” since these are the manifestation of intercultural discourse and thus the “nexus of cultural production” (p. 89). In this article I suggest that the discussions, in terms of messages posted to class discussion boards, should not only be regarded as interactions among participants but also as the visible manifestation of interactions among other elements such as the institution and the course materials. In this way, examining messages will reveal negotiation and cultural production in the online classroom and may offer insights into not only the intercultural activity among the people within that online classroom, but also how they interact culturally with the delivery platform, the course content, and the institutional culture.

Setting up a new approach

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context
  4. Research into culture in the online classroom
  5. The need for a new approach
  6. New ways of looking and seeing
  7. Setting up a new approach
  8. A new approach in practice
  9. The bigger picture
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

The data for this study

The data for this article come from a broader study of culture in the online classroom, which used a methodology inspired by grounded theorizing to look at discussion board messages from two wholly online classes, and at platform (Blackboard) autogenerated student tracking data. In later stages of the study, interviews with students and tutors who had participated in the two classes were also undertaken.

The classes were based in an Australian university that has a large face-to-face student population as well as a large number of distance students. In the education faculty, many of the distance students are globally recruited and may follow their programs either via paper-based distance study or online. Mixed delivery is also popular with some students, although most of those involved in this study were wholly online students at the Master’s level. The course was an “option” course in flexible education that could be taken by students within either an Honors or a Master’s program. The two classes from which data were drawn were run in consecutive semesters in 2002 and used identical materials that were facilitated by the same tutorial team. The classes recruited both Australian and non-Australian students, some of whom were physically located in Australia. Others lived elsewhere around the world including in North America, South East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe during their studies.

The impetus for the study came from tutor’s observation that online class activity levels, in terms of postings to discussion boards, seemed to be much higher for those students who were not Australian. In the early stages of the study, close examination of platform-collected student tracking data seemed to suggest that not only were the “local” students, i.e., students residing in Australia during the courses (who were also Australian by nationality), less likely to post messages to the class discussion boards, but they also seemed to favor use of those areas of the Blackboard platform concerned with content (e.g., course materials, student tools—library, course readings), etc., as evidenced by the number of logins they made to those pages. The “other” students, i.e., those located outside of Australia (some of whom were Australian), did not show this preference but seemed, again on the basis of logins, to equally favor the content areas and the communications areas of the Blackboard platform (e.g., both class and group discussion boards, and email). Across different discussion boards, participation levels varied considerably, but nonlocal participation was consistently higher than that for local students.

Furthermore, the messages posted by members of the “local” and “other” groups displayed markedly different content in terms of topic, nature of greetings used, and degree of group/self orientation. This was especially evident when comparing the messages of the Australian students in each of the groups. Those in the local group were much less likely to post messages that actively encouraged readers to respond and continue the discussion. Considered in light of essentialist ideas about culture, this finding was difficult to interpret since theory would suggest that these students, in sharing a common nationality, would also share common communicative practices.

Analyzing discussion board messages—previous studies

Discussion board messages have been subjected to content analysis by CMC researchers for some time. This has often been done in a search for evidence of learning taking place (e.g., Heckman & Annabi, 2005; Henri, 1992; Kanuka & Anderson, 1998). Other studies have used content analysis to investigate presence in online classes, such as studies of social, cognitive, and teaching presence (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 2001). Most recently, content analysis has been used to explore ideas of intercultural community formation (Cassell & Tversky, 2005).

Analyzing Discussion Board Messages—The Present Study

In this study, a simplified content analysis was applied in early analyses of messages. In later analyses, consideration of explicit content became secondary to examination of the work being done by the messages. It is from the later analysis that the examples below are drawn. All messages cited in this article have been rendered anonymous by the use of pseudonyms. It should also be noted that “fd” and “FD” refer to the concept of “flexible delivery” of education, the topic of the discussion board from which the messages have been taken.

The difference between the two types of message analysis used in this study, and the greater potential of the second approach, can be illustrated by looking at the two messages below, which were posted one hour apart, by Eleanor. Neither of these was responded to by other students:

Message one

Subject: I want people to USE it (((((-:

I don’t like discussion boards that aren’t used frequently. For example, I keep checking the reflection 1 bulletin for my group and find nothing posted from others on what they are thinking about fd, how they felt about certain readings, etc. Maybe this is what happens in “chat”???? I am not sure. In my experience discussion boards are for this purpose and I am feeling a lack of involvement here. I would love to hear from all of you on your perspectives, etc.

Message two

Subject: I just want to add that …

I come from a working environment where I can bounce ideas off other people and I guess I am missing the “group thing” where I can do that.

Initial analysis of these messages concentrated on the fact that neither was explicitly purposeful since they were not directly addressed to anyone in particular, although, by implication, they seemed intended for her classmates. The first message did offer a partial response to the “task” of the discussion board since the tutor had asked students to discuss what they wished to agree would be the “rules of engagement” for their online discussions, but the second message was recorded as being in the categories of “message to self” (addressivity coding) and “elaborate” (message purpose coding) since this message did not seem, in terms of the overall thread, to be of major significance. The second analysis accorded much greater attention to these messages since they seem to illustrate that for Eleanor there is a conflict of understanding between what she sees as the purpose and practice of discussion forums and what she is actually experiencing when using them. The first message also draws attention to the situation where a student comes online not knowing what is expected of him or her in terms of the norms of behavior for a particular facility within the class—in this case “chat.”

Two other aspects of these messages merit attention in cultural terms. These messages occur at the very end of the threads for this board and well after the group has reached a consensus that they will adopt messaging habits that are considerate of others. However, Eleanor “shouts” by using capital letters in the title of her first message title. There is also the intriguingly ambiguous “I am feeling a lack of involvement here” comment that implies simultaneously that she does not feel part of the class because it is not behaving the way she expects, and that she feels her colleagues are not involved enough in the class because they are not posting to the discussion boards. Finally, another conflict of understanding is visible in her second message when she uses an assumption based on a norm of behavior in her face-to-face work environment in order to interpret behavior in this online classroom.

A new approach in practice

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context
  4. Research into culture in the online classroom
  5. The need for a new approach
  6. New ways of looking and seeing
  7. Setting up a new approach
  8. A new approach in practice
  9. The bigger picture
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

Having determined that discussion board messages might be a suitable “nexus” of intercultural communication and having determined an approach to analysis that may reveal some of the potential cultural conflicts for a student coming online, how can examination of messages contribute to understanding other elements implicated in the contexts that are the online classroom and the doing of being an online learner? Looking at the enactive and recognition work being done within even a single message, and the positioning that results from that work, already throws up some insights and questions.

The Single Message—A Student Interacts with the Online Environment

This message, posted to a discussion board dealing with the readings presented for Module One of the course study materials, was the first contribution from Fraser. The board had been active for three weeks when the message, the 23rd of a total of 54 messages, was posted. Twelve contributors (i.e., half the registered student body) took part in discussions over a total period of seven weeks.

Message three

Subject: Re: Does FD need to be in English?

Dear Amy, Oscar and All. I have been continuously reading the discussion postings during the last few weeks, but now the issues became more attractive and interesting to participate and share ideas and experience. So, please give me some space… .

Does “absolute flexibility” exist? Definitely, there are some boundaries for every thing in this life, including FD. Even “global” FD has some boundaries of nature of subjects delivered, level and depth of study, number of students, delivery mechanisms, administrative rules, etc… . If there is an “absolute” FD, it should (theoretically???) accommodate all the languages of the world! FD, as I understand it, can be within one country, one region or even one educational/training institution or corporation if it satisfies the FD definitions discussed so far in Module 1.“Flexible” is a relative word. We can say: “a flexible system” or “a very flexible system”, but can we say: “an absolutely flexible system”?

Fraser

First and foremost we notice that the message is clearly addressed. The salutation names the authors of the two immediately preceding messages and tacks “All” onto the end. This pattern of greeting mirrors that used by many on this board. It serves to make a direct connection to those who have already specified their views on the topic Fraser is about to write about, and to recognize that he and the others are part of a larger entity that is the class. Before Fraser embarks on the substantive content of his message he does some enactive work to establish his right to have a position in the ongoing discussion. He starts by establishing his credentials as a potential speaker. He states that he has been reading the previous postings, i.e., he is already “in” the conversation despite having left no visible (text) mark to indicate this listening. He follows this by asking the group for “some space.” Having established his position, Fraser moves on to indirect enactive work in support of a possible theoretical position that he offers in terms of a question related to the ongoing discussion. The question is posed in the third person but he follows up with enactive work in support of how he personally understands the context. Having validated his position, he then finishes his message with the initial question re-posed as a question for “we” the class—by implication, a group of people equipped and able to determine the answer.

In terms of understanding the cultural processes at work in this classroom, a couple of questions immediately come to mind in light of studying this message from Fraser. First, what might lead a student to assume that they need to seek permission to speak in this class? As a registered member of the class, we may imagine that there could be no reason for Fraser to question his right to “speak.” Indeed, given that the discussion board has been set up by the institution and the tutors have previously posted messages encouraging students to use it, it can be said to be an expectation of the class that he will speak using this tool. Given that this is an online class, Fraser must have had the physical, technical means to access the online environment in order to enroll; furthermore, the university has validated his entry by giving him a password and username. Notwithstanding all of this, the enactive work at the start of Fraser’s message suggests this is not evident to him. Second, if he has a right to be in the conversation and to speak, why is he asking for “space”? Admittance to this online class accords him not just the right but the expectation that he will take as much space as he needs to make whatever contribution he feels necessary but, again, it seems that this is not understood by Fraser.

If we assume that in this (text-bound online classroom) context Fraser’s message can be seen as an indicator of what a student might understand to be appropriate behavior, we need to examine critically, and together, what the message content is saying, and the assumptions that we are making about how students will behave in this online classroom. If we know what Fraser’s (national) cultural background is, we may be tempted to assume that his message reflects ideas of suitable behavior that he brings into class with him and that are based on norms and expectations drawn from that national background.

Hofstede does not provide any detailed analysis for Fraser’s country of origin—Sudan2—but based on details from the welcome message Fraser posted to the class when he first came online, we can establish that he is from the Arab north of the country and is currently working in the Gulf. Hofstede (2001) does provide a generalized analysis for “The Arab World” that offers high scores for power distance and uncertainty avoidance. These would suggest that Fraser might expect to find the class a highly structured and controlled environment where rules will minimize uncertainty, and status will control how much of a voice he has. In this way his “enactive” work may be seen as his reminder to his “invisible” associates that he does indeed have the authority to speak within this environment. Hofstede (2001) notes that when large power distance and uncertainty avoidance dimensions are combined, a situation is created where leaders have virtually ultimate power and authority, and it is not unusual for new leadership to arise from armed conflict. In this light, we might wonder if Fraser’s comments are his attempt to seize control of the conversation. Hofstede (2001) also notes that having a low individualism rating, the culture Fraser is coming from will value highly group loyalty, and that that loyalty will override many other social rules. This might cause us to speculate as to whether or not Fraser feels a part of the group that is the class.

However, in terms of improving our understanding of the cultural experience of learning in this class, speculation along “essentialist” lines does not move us far forward. What is important for us to be aware of is that despite having been admitted to the class, having been granted a password to enter the online environment, and having been “in” class witnessing interaction in practice there for three weeks, a student, potentially any student, might still feel the need to justify his or her right to speak in that space.3

A message thread—students and a tutor discuss course materials

The message thread below comes from the same board as Fraser’s message above. Belinda is a tutor, and Janet, Oscar, and Jonathan are students. The thread includes only five messages. It begins with the following message from Janet that she addresses to no one in particular, although the question at the end suggests she is seeking, and expects, a response from someone.

Message four

Subject: reading 1.2

some more thoughts on READING 1.2

JANET

In the study guide it expresses that Resource Based Learning is used interchangeably with the term flexible delivery and that it has an emphasis on resources and media in a mass education setting.

The author of this article states a definition of Resource Based Learning which is utilized in a mass education setting and which is stipulated as university based and that the technology of video conferencing is not a methodology of this process.

A rather ambiguous article starting with the statement “distance education methods are not truly education methods” and that mass education is in the realm of the campus based university. Whereas Flexible Delivery includes methodology such as video conferencing and is presented to the true mass education of real and virtual.

A question then arises how can these two terms be used so interchangeably?

Although Janet appears to take some ownership of this message by placing her name at the top, she does not offer any work in support of either of the points of view she elaborates. However, it is implied that the apparently neutral question she poses at the end of the message originates from what she sees as ambiguity between two elements of the course material. This question is tentatively framed by the use of “a” rather than “the” in the last line, and suggests that there may be two issues here. First, is there even a question to be answered, i.e., has she understood the situation correctly? Second, there is an issue of whether she should/can ask that question in this place. This message could be seen simply as a summary of one student’s thinking after studying course material—in which case we may wonder why it is posted to a public discussion board. However, given the response it receives from Belinda, below, it seems it was understood as a question with which to start discussion in this context, albeit indirectly put and hesitantly framed. Belinda’s response contains both enactive and recognition work. The enactive work (the message) emphasizes the value of the question that Janet has raised as a topic for further discussion for the class. The recognition work reinforces the work that Janet has done (raising this particular topic) in the course of doing the work of being a student (i.e., by raising a topic for discussion). Equally, this work serves to reassure any other students that even though Janet’s message might be seen as questioning the position of the tutors (by implying criticism of them for providing ambiguous learning resources for the class), what Janet has done in posting her message is entirely appropriate student behavior in this class context.

Message five

Subject: Re: reading 1.2

Good question, Janet. What do others think?

Belinda

By responding to Janet, Belinda is also doing enactive work to consolidate the position of the tutor as being responsible for encouraging and facilitating interaction. This recognition is in turn recognized by Oscar in his reply:

Message six

Subject: Re: reading 1.2

Hello Janet and Belinda,

I, personally, think Johnson’s definition is too narrow.

This tutorial from Stauffer Library at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada has an article called: ‘What is Resource-Based Learning?’ It says:

“Two essential features of resource-based learning are its flexibility in terms of adaptability to different learning styles and subject areas, and its promotion of student autonomy.”

This seems to bring the definition very close to that of FD.

It continues: “Resource-based learning involves active participation with multiple resources (books, journals, newspapers, multi-media, Web, community, people) where students are motivated to learn about a topic by trying to find information on it in as many ways and places as possible.”

This seems to hint more of ‘lesson-planning’, however.

The difference appears to be merely one of direction: RBL toward the ‘learner’, FD more toward the ‘deliverer’.

You can find the artilce at:

Oscar

Having directly addressed Janet and Belinda, Oscar’s response begins with a statement making it clear that he does not recognize the view put forward by “Johnson” in one of the course texts. It is interesting that he emphasizes his point by using “I personally,” not just “I.” This implies that the position he is taking is strongly felt, but also that he is hesitant about the level at which he is criticizing the view of a figure positioned as an “authority” by the fact that his opinion has been included, and thus implicitly sanctioned by, the university as part of the course material. Oscar does not continue speaking from his personal position. Instead, he builds his case by standing back from the alternative he is suggesting and moving to a reporting position, effectively doing enactive work on behalf of another perspective on the topic under debate. He is careful to explain the exact location of the source of the alternative opinion and to be tentative in presenting what the source offers (e.g., “this seems to …” and “the difference appears …”). By the end of the message he has neither promoted the alternative opinion nor rejected it, but by detailing the exact web location of the article, encourages his readers to consult this source for themselves.

Janet receives one other direct response to her comments on reading 1.2; it comes from Jonathan:

Message Seven

Subject: Interconnected vs. Interchangeable

Hi JANET and All,

I would say from what I gather from the readings and from other students comments, that the two terms, “Flexible Delivery/Learning” and “Resource Based Learning” are in many ways interconnected, however, in my opinion shouldn’t perhaps be used interchangeably as sometimes seems to be done.

Both perspectives have the key element of Learner Centeredness and empowerment of the learner. Both also open up broader avenues of learning.

I would say that “Flexible Delivery” uses RBL as a tool in the overall scheme of learning effectively. And ont the other hand one could say that RBL uses concepts of “Flexible Delivery” in order to achieve it’s goal of reaching the learners.

Hope you all are enjoying the material as much as I am. I would be happy for any comments.

Cheers, Jonathan P.

Whereas Janet did not address her message to anyone in particular, Jonathan addresses his both specifically to her and adds “and All.” His message is much less tentative than the previous ones and he uses line spacing to break up the different stages of the position he is presenting. He begins enactive work for his overall view by summarizing where he has found evidence for it. Then, in another paragraph, he does indirect enactive work for both views by summarizing the critical points of commonality between the two disputed terms. This also serves as recognition work for his own final statement. This conclusion appears as yet another paragraph, with which he finishes his message. The conclusion makes clear not only his own perspective (“I would say …”) but also what else might be concluded from following his line of argument (“one could say … RBL uses … it’s …”). Unlike Janet and Oscar, he offers only a passing mention of any source of authority other than his own deliberations and resulting opinion. But, he offers any readers the option to engage in further recognition/enactive work in response to his own enactive work. Interestingly, this is only done once he has added the possibly somewhat incongruous comment, “Hope you are all enjoying the material as much as I am.” Overall Jonathan’s message is in sharp contrast to the other messages because he uses markedly different sources of referential authority in his enactive work.

The final message in this thread was posted by Oscar some two weeks after the original messages examined above.

Message Eight

Subject: Re: Interconnected vs. Interchangeable

Hi Jonathan, I aggree. I think, by now, we as educators, should NOT mix these terminologies. Flexible Delivery seems to be an established name for education that is offered as a choice to the learner 1. in the institution, 2. in a learning center 3. at a distance and 4. a combination of any of these. That’s the name and we should use that name when talking specifics.

Oscar

Unlike his previous message, this one from Oscar is addressed very specifically—to Jonathan. It adopts a completely different position, as well, in light of what he understands as Jonathan’s recognition of his view which is no longer, therefore, purely personal. For Oscar, they have now, together, become “we as educators” who share the views of Oscar as “I” and who can, and must, state those views with authority; there is no need, his tone suggests, for further discussion.

It might be supposed that having posed the original question with which the thread began, Janet would contribute to the ensuing discussion, but she does not. There is no final comment from Janet and the transcripts for this board show that having started no fewer than six threads on the board, each concerning one of the readings in the course materials, she never returned to any of them, although she did contribute to other threads.

New insights?

What, therefore, in terms of understanding the cultural context that is the online classroom, can we conclude from studying the above short, but complete, thread from a larger discussion board? It is fruitful at this point to return to the message that began the discussion thread, posted by Janet and which, by the very act of being posted to the board, seemed to imply that it was intended to be seen as the starting point for a discussion. Having started the discussion, Janet never returned to it, and this must lead us to speculate whether the message really was intended as a discussion point. If Janet’s original message was merely her thoughts about the reading, and not an attempt to start a discussion with others about that reading, why did she post it to a discussion board at all? There are clearly culturally located norms and expectations being brought into play by Janet, her classmates, her tutors, and the institution in understanding, and thus using, online discussion boards. Equally clearly, they are not shared by all parties, and they are impacting on the operation of the class.

Turning to Jonathan’s message, it is the last three lines that make it particularly interesting in the context of examining culture in the online class. Others who have posted before him have ended their messages with, at most, their first name. Jonathan, however, draws on a mix of styles to end his message. The use of “cheers” reads as if it were a letter or, perhaps, a friendly email, while having placed a “P” after “Jonathan,” signifying his last name, suggests something more formal. There was no other Jonathan in the group so it is unlikely he placed it there to distinguish his comments from those of another with the same first name. And it is curious that in the process of ending his contribution, he decides to add a comment regarding how much he is enjoying the class. It seems likely that for Jonathan, and probably for other students too, there is anxiety in this class, potentially any class, over just how interaction should be “done” in this context.4

All the student message data referred to above were posted by students in the “other” group, i.e., by non-Australians. Regarding nationality, Eleanor, Janet, and Jonathan are Canadians, while Oscar is an American. Their tutor Belinda is Australian by birth and American by marriage. In terms of Hofstede’s (2001) analysis, these participants come from national backgrounds that share many commonalities. It would be reasonable to expect them to share many ideas and interactional norms. They all come, according to Hofstede (2001), from a group of only seven countries worldwide where the highest dimension is “individualism,” and thus might be expected to express their opinions directly and forthrightly. This does happen at some points, but cannot be considered as occurring universally. Oscar, for example, does indeed begin message six with a clear statement of his view, but most of his message is spent justifying it by invoking other supporting authorities.

As was the case with the messages posted by Eleanor and by Fraser, what is of interest to us in looking at this thread is the work that is being done by these students through the process of discussion. The act of composing and posting messages is not understood in the same way, nor as having the same purpose or expectation, when read by the other students and the tutor. All the participants are having to negotiate a new cultural landscape by means of their discussions. One might even say that they are having to do this across and despite the commonalities that they share, commonalities that, in this context, do not help them much at all.

The bigger picture

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context
  4. Research into culture in the online classroom
  5. The need for a new approach
  6. New ways of looking and seeing
  7. Setting up a new approach
  8. A new approach in practice
  9. The bigger picture
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

The messages examined above come from only one class in one virtual learning environment. Nonetheless, they offer some new perspectives on culture in that context that extend beyond what may be seen using essentialist frames of reference The message from Fraser implies that the environment may not facilitate learners’ voices in quite the way that may be expected by the tutors teaching there. The message from Janet suggests that students in the environment may have varying understandings of how discussion is carried out in this class, and those from Eleanor and Jonathan suggest that undertaking learning here requires new perspectives on apparently previously known ways of doing the position of “being a student.” The messages from Janet, Oscar, and Jonathan offer different views of how students in this environment position themselves in relation to new knowledge and to possibly contentious knowledge. All of these insights are interesting at a local level, i.e., for those involved in facilitating this class, but if such a new approach to looking at culture in the online class is to be more generally useful, there should be a wider potential use for local findings like these.

Stepping back from the local issues raised by these messages, it is noticeable that all of them, in one way or another, and with different effect, raise issues of authority. The institution, by enrolling these students, by giving them access to discussion boards, and by employing Belinda as a tutor, may be considered to have granted them authority to get online and voice their opinions. However, we see that uncertainties about this authority remain—not just for the students, but also for the tutor who is moved to post a message endorsing the authority of students to speak. The non-understanding of what might be the cultural norms for the authority to speak in this environment is not, as we might suppose if we use an essentialist frame of reference, to do only with what the students bring into the class with them, it is also involves what the institution, the teaching staff, the other students, and the other elements within that context are all doing there. In terms of the external authorities whose elements (e.g., students, tutors, etc.) within the context (i.e., the online classroom) draw on for their enactive and recognition work, we find a variety, including: course materials (readings, tutor notes, etc.), nonprescribed literature, tutor messages, previous life experiences, and personal and fellow student opinion. None of these frames of reference may be considered to be drawn entirely from ideas of national culture. Furthermore, it is unlikely that all of the problematic aspects of authority issues raised by analysis of the interaction in this class can be attributed simply to any one particular national culture.

Seeing a bigger picture does not imply that we can generalize from observations about these messages to any kind of rule or prediction of behavior beyond the class investigated here. It does, however, remind us that restricting analysis of cultural issues in the online class to the application of essentialist frames of reference based on nationality offers only one perspective on the course. Further, it may prevent us from seeing where issues cross national boundaries and create intercultural issues not confined to one nationality or another. It also reminds us of issues that, while not immediately visible in other classes, may nonetheless be implicated in how those classes are working.

Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context
  4. Research into culture in the online classroom
  5. The need for a new approach
  6. New ways of looking and seeing
  7. Setting up a new approach
  8. A new approach in practice
  9. The bigger picture
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

Although small, this study illustrates the potential of a new way of investigating culture in the online classroom. By adopting an approach that views culture as an active ongoing process of sense making, we are offered a view of culture beyond binary oppositions. This is a view that can see across and despite individual difference, a view that enables identification of the frames of reference and understandings actually at play within the class, as opposed to those that we might assume, or expect, to be at play and on which we may otherwise tend to focus. The study also suggests that, on its own, nationality is not entirely an effective predictor of behavior or understanding. Remembering that it is individuals who are talking to each other and not cultures (i.e., nations) (Scollon & Wong-Scollon, 2001, p. 138), we can see that there are cultural issues in the online class that cross borders and impinge upon large numbers of students regardless of their nationality. Many of these issues and cultural misunderstandings relate to frames of reference originating in face-to-face education environments. Practices may vary from nation to nation, but as students move online their varied collective prior experiences of “doing” face-to-face education become a frame of reference implicated in how culture in the online class may be understood. Studies such as this one will be important in supplying future research with themes that may be pursued by other investigative means or survey. Additionally, documenting individual class contexts can offer case studies and examples of individual variation and highlight the rich tapestry of group experiences beyond the constrained sightlines of essentialist approaches to culture.

Notes
  • 1

    The term “third culture” has been applied to a range of ideas since C. P. Snow (1963) first used it to describe a space in which those from the “two cultures,” science and literature, would find a means to communicate with each other. For example, Brockman (1995) describes it as consisting “of those scientists and other thinkers who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are” (p. 17). However, I am using it here to refer only to the idea presented by Raybourn, Kings, and Davies (2003), i.e., as a culture that emerges from the interaction of the diverse cultural backgrounds of the members of a particular group online.

  • 2

    Sudanese nationality highlights the difficulties associated with essentialist approaches to culture since it masks a range of cultural identities ranging from Arab Muslim in the north of the country to Black African Christian or animist in the south—groups that differ distinctly in cultural norms and practices.

  • 3

    Unlike many of the other students, Fraser seemed to avoid discussing his nationality (Sudanese), reiterating only that he had been a trainer in the chemical engineering sector for 20 years and was presently working in the Arabian Gulf.

  • 4

    In the larger study, from which these data are drawn, this comment prompted examination of other messages posted by Jonathan. It became clear that how to “do” posting contributions was a critical issue for him, a fact that he attributed to his experience of teacher/student status in the face-to-face classroom. At one point he posted the following to Belinda: “Thanks! I’m not used to calling instructors by first names, so I just started this by saying” Thanks. “Anyway, thanks a lot for your comment, and I’m glad that you took interest in my point. I’m enjoying the input you and the other instructors are giving, and also the various opinions of my online classmates. It is a great experience thus far. Jonathan P.”

About the Author
  1. Anne Hewling is presently a full-time research student at the Open University in the UK, although her home is Botswana in Southern Africa where she has been a freelance educational consultant for some years. She began her teaching career in primary classrooms and has done curriculum development work in secondary schools, but now concentrates on the post-compulsory and higher education sectors, particularly on how globally recruited e-learning can effectively support intercultural groups in these sectors.

    Address: Institute of Educational Technology, Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, UK

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context
  4. Research into culture in the online classroom
  5. The need for a new approach
  6. New ways of looking and seeing
  7. Setting up a new approach
  8. A new approach in practice
  9. The bigger picture
  10. Conclusions
  11. References
  • Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (2001, September). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Retrieved October 16, 2005, from http://www.aln.org/publications/jaln/v5n2/v5n2_anderson.asp
  • Barker, C. (2000). Cultural studies: Theory and practice. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
  • Brockman, J. (1995). The third culture: Scientists on the edge. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.
  • Campbell, A. (2000). Cultural identity as a social construct. Intercultural Education, 11(1), 3139.
  • Cassell, J., & Tversky, D. (2005). The language of intercultural community formation. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(2). Retrieved October 16, 2005, from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue2/cassell.html
  • Chase, M., Macfadyen, L., Reeder, K., & Roche, J. (2002). Intercultural challenges in networked learning: Hard technologies meet soft skills. First Monday, 7(8). Retrieved October 16, 2005, from http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_8/chase/index.html
  • Cook, J., & Jacobs, N. (2004). Knowing what we mean, meaning what we say: The Humpty Dumpty maxim of online interaction. Paper presented at the Networked Learning Conference, 2004, Lancaster. Retrieved October 16, 2005, from http://www.shef.ac.uk/nlc2004/Proceedings/Individual_Papers/Cook_Jacobs.htm
  • Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 723.
  • Gee, J. (2000). The New Literacy studies and the social turn. In D.Barton, M.Hamilton & R.Ivanic (Eds.), Situated literacies: Reading and writing in context (pp. 180196) London: Routledge.
  • Hall, E. T. (1959). The silent language. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.
  • Hall, E. T. (1966). The hidden dimension. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.
  • Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding cultural differences: Germans, French and Americans. Yarmouth ME: Intercultural Press.
  • Heckman, R., & Annabi, H. (2005). A content analytic comparison of learning processes in online and face-to-face case study discussions. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(2). Retrieved October 16, 2005, from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue2/heckman.html
  • Henri, F. (1992). Computer conferencing and content analysis. In A.Kaye (Ed.), Collaborative learning through computer conferencing: The Najaden papers (pp. 117136). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
  • Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  • Howard, J. R. (2002). Do college students participate more in discussion in traditional delivery courses or in interactive telecourses? A preliminary comparison. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(6), 764780.
  • Kanuka, H., & Anderson, T. (1998). Online social interchange, discord, and knowledge construction. Journal of Distance Education, 13(1). Retrieved October 16, 2005, from http://cade.icaap.org/vol13.1/kanuka.html
  • Kim, K.-J., & Bonk, C. J. (2002). Cross-cultural comparisons of online collaboration. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 8(1). Retrieved October 16, 2005, from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol8/issue1/kimandbonk.html
  • Lobry de Bruyn, L. (2004). Monitoring online communication: Can the development of convergence and social presence indicate an interactive learning environment? Distance Education, 25(1), 6781.
  • Morse, K. (2003). Does one size fit all? Exploring asynchronous learning in a multicultural environment. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7(1), 3755. Retrieved October 16, 2005, from http://www.aln.org/publications/jaln/v7n1/v7n1_morse.asp
  • Raybourn, E. M., Kings, N., & Davies, J. (2003). Adding cultural signposts in adaptive community-based virtual environments. Interacting with Computers, 15(1), 91107.
  • Reeder, K., Macfadyen, L., Roche, J., & Chase, M. (2004). Negotiating cultures in cyberspace: Participation patterns and problematics. Language Learning & Technology, 8(2), 88105.
  • Rourke, L., Anderson, T., Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing social presence in asynchronous text-based computer conferencing. Journal of Distance Education, 14(2). Retrieved October 16, 2005, from http://cade.athabascau.ca/vol14.2/rourke_et_al.html
  • Scollon, R. (2002). Intercultural communication as nexus analysis. Logos and Language: Journal of General Linguistics and Language Theory, 3(2), 117.
  • Scollon, R., & Wong -Scollon, S. (2001). Intercultural Communication (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
  • Snow, C. P. (1963). The two cultures: A second look. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Street, B. V. (1993). Culture is a verb: Anthropological aspects of language and cultural process. In D.Graddol, L.Thompson, & M.Byram (Eds.), Language and Culture (pp. 2343). Clevedon: BAAL and Multilingual Matters.
  • Williams, R. (1983). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana.