Educational Technologies and Cultural Dimensions

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David D. Williams
Brigham Young University

P. Clint Rogers
Brigham Young University

Learners and their helpers (e.g., educators, and instructional technologists and designers) increasingly use multiple technologies in creative and innovative ways to support learning. However, learning and technology use involve values, definitions, communications, and understandings that vary substantially across cultures. Accounting for learners’ cultural ways of learning and the intersection of culture and technology should enhance learning. Strategic use of educational evaluation by learners and their helpers could lead to more effective culture and technology connections to enhance learners’ processes and outcomes. This article explores the nature of and some intersections between culture, technology, education, and evaluation and encourages the use of evaluation before, during, and after applying technology to improve learning across cultures.

Culture

Anthropologists have studied culture as a construct and documented the nature of many cultures and sub-cultures throughout the world and across time (Hofstede, 2001; Sukkary-Stolba, 2006). Cultural differences between nations are often noted when people plan to travel or do business internationally (e.g. this site explores differences between Mexicans and North Americans). But as Billikopf (2007) notes, individuals vary more than cultures do, “Differences between people within any given nation or culture are much greater than differences between groups.”

While definitions of culture and sub-cultures vary and people typically experience them implicitly, most experts view cultures as contexts through which members share expectations, values, and accepted ways of living with each other, including the best ways to learn, teach, and use various technologies to enhance learning (Rogers & Wang, 2008). Each individual mixes (usually implicitly) the influences from their participation in many different cultures and sub-cultures (based on their characteristics such as nationality, race, religion, gender, socio-economic status, age, education, experiences with technology, opportunities for learning, employment, and many other experiences and qualities) with their own personal values and choices to create idiosyncratic culture combinations (Arredondo, et. al., 1996). As Bruner (1996, p. 14, as cited in Rogers & Wang, 2008, p. 2) summarized, “Nothing is ‘culture free,’ but neither are individuals simply mirrors of their culture.”

So, although individuals and their learning experiences are not determined by their cultures, knowing how people from particular cultural groups view and use technology, learning opportunities, and evaluation should be useful in helping them learn better. There are growing numbers of resources to gain this guidance. For example, Hofstede (2001) has identified general differences and trends among various culture groups around the world.

Others (e.g. Chambers, 1999, 2007; Denzin, Lincoln, & Smith, 2008; Smith, 1999) have discussed the importance of valuing the perspectives of learners from various cultural perspectives and keeping them in charge of their own learning and decisions about culture as well as technology.

However, understanding how specific learners combine their cultures, educational opportunities, and technological options may seem like a daunting task for most educators and instructional designers. General guidelines (e.g., Minnesota Department of Human Services, 2004) help, but means for tailoring learning opportunities to individual learners would be ideal. Educational evaluation can help learners and their assistants (teachers, instructional designers, and others) fit learning experiences to individual learners.

Technology

Technology itself is not “acultural” or value-free. Though a computer may appear to be objective and unbiased, its very existence and how it is used are cultural expressions of values held by its creators and users. This is even more so for software used on the computer, which embodies the creators’ and users’ values explicitly and implicitly. The very choice to use technology for educational purposes is an expression of cultural preferences that may support or conflict with values held by learners with other cultural orientations.

Because most emerging educational technologies have been most fully developed by small subsets of the world’s societies, many manifestations of technology to enhance learning likely appeal to subsets of cultural groups with matching expectations and values. But these same uses may conflict with perspectives of other cultural groups. For example, many uses of educational technology assume users will use software individually and however they choose (e.g., spreadsheets, word processors, statistical analysis packages), while some technologies assume collaboration (e.g., between teacher and student, among students in collaborative groups). Some learners are from cultures that are less individualistic than the instructional technologists who created the instruction they might try to use and differences on a continuum of individualism-collaboration could lead to conflicts.

In general, instructional designers use educational technology in ways that make the most sense from their cultural perspectives. Therefore, they may or may not address the cultural expectations of potential users of the instruction they develop when those users come from very different cultures. Wesch (2008a and 2008b) has invited his students to join him in anthropological study of how people from many cultures are using emerging technologies to modify their cultures and by so doing to modify their own age-based, socio-economic, and other traditional approaches to teaching and learning. For example, Wesch documents (2007a, 2007b, 2008c - see videos here, here, and here) how American university students spend more time on the Internet interacting with one another than they spend watching TV, attending class, and reading textbooks. They write many more pages of email and Facebook and phone texts than class assignments. He suggests the changing nature of students and their use of communication and learning tools should be noticed and responded to by professors and others who care about these students’ learning.

But Wesch and his students also note (2008d) that American university students are in a small sub-culture compared to the rest of the world and their concerns are not necessarily the same as potential learners in many other socio-economic groups in the USA or other parts of the world. Understanding those groups and what technology-supported learning and education would best serve them is a challenge facing educators, instructional technologists, and others who care about learners.

Cultural and economic boundaries continue to circumscribe the influence of technology on learning. For example, according to Wiley (2008) in 2006, broadband users per 100 persons in the populations of nations around the world ranged from 19% in the USA to fewer than .00035% in Nigeria. In contrast, cell phone subscribers ranged from 77% in the USA to 14% in Nigeria. What are the implications of learners’ access to these technologies for distance education, online learning, and other forms of education and for preparing teachers to support learners across these boundaries?

Technologies, as defined and applied to learning and teaching by various authors in this book and a growing literature can be usefully organized into the categories in Table 1 to reiterate the fact that all learning and teaching involve some kind of technology but newer technologies provide greater access to information for more people at faster rates. Literature on Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge or TPACK (Mishra & Koehler, 2006; Thompson & Mishra, 2007) clarifies the complexity of combining these elements together. However, access and interest are further impinged by participants’ cultural boundaries.

Table 1. Educational technologies that may be used by learners and teachers

Technology Types and Examples Educational Use
Classroom presentation tools- white or chalk board, overhead projectors, computer consoles, displays of words, pictures, and video via bulletin boards, posters, or computerized projectors, teachers using audio tools to project their voices and visual devices to be seen while talking. Teachers giving information to students.
Classroom feedback tools through which teachers ask questions and students are invited to answer- clickers, surveys, tests, face-to-face audio/visual discussions, asking for raising of hands, presentations by students. Teachers getting information from students, maybe dialoging.
Non-computer tools for assisting learners outside of class- books, libraries, videos, TV, persons they can talk to, places they can visit, experiences they can have. Students/learners using the world’s resources to expand upon what they might learn in classrooms and from teachers through their own inquiry.
Pre or extra-Internet computer tools- computer programs, computer-labs, calculators, telephones, one-way and two-way TV and radio. Can be used for many of the purposes listed above- Computer as tutor is a way for the teacher or instructional designer to give information to the student, computer as tutee is a way for the student to program the computer and thus learn by teaching, computer as assessment tool is a way to gather information from the students.
Web 1.0 tools- Use of the Internet for sharing information. Mostly used by teachers to give information to students although through email there could be some interaction and feedback from students as well.
Web 2.0 tools and newer - Use of the Internet for interaction, collaboration, dialog, and more at higher speeds and with broader bandwidth. Through software innovations, learners and teachers may approximate learning interactions they have in face-to-face and experiential learning through the use of video, real-time dialog, manipulation of their environment, and other dimensions of the learning experiences of life. This can be done with many more people in various parts of the world than most people could ever achieve through face-to-face experiences only.


For example, in some cultures, students are not encouraged to be independent learners but are expected to honor their teachers and be guided by them in all their learning. What are the implications for these students of shifts from exclusive classroom uses of technology to the possibility of students using Web 2.0 tools to create or enhance their own learning with or without approbation and support of their formal teachers?

Education

Education and technology have intersected for years in countless ways across thousands of cultures to generate many different ways of thinking about education. In fact, views on what education is and what it should do and how are shaped by the cultural values held by people holding those values. And, no matter what technologies are used, educational approaches may fit well with some cultural groups and be difficult for others.

Technologists continue seeking ways to help teachers in schools, universities, businesses, and other educational institutions to help their students learn. Likewise, parents and home education specialists use technologies to help learners of all ages learn on their own or with non-professional assistants.

In addition to teacher and educator-based approaches in traditional face-to-face environments, there have always also been technologies supporting people as they pursue learning with or without formal teachers or educational institutions. For example, books have been a primary technology many learners have used to teach themselves and to enhance whatever teaching they receive from others, whether in a classroom, doing homework, or doing independent study. As computers and other media have evolved, both in-class and distance education opportunities have expanded the meaning of education to include self-directed learning of many kinds. For example, more and more learners of today in several cultural groups are likely to use computer-assisted, online, blended, and Web2.0 tools often associated with social networking to create personal learning environments (PLEs), which may also include participating in traditional “classroom” learning (see several discussions of PLEs at Media).

As the meaning of education has changed through the use of ever evolving technologies, learning and teaching cultures have changed for many people, but not for everyone in every culture. In parts of the geographic, socio-economic, and traditionally defined cultures of the world, potential learners in some sub-cultures have access to every new technology and every new form of learning. But in other sub-cultures, the current possibilities for learners to expand their own personal learning environments are limited. The interaction of new forms of education with new technologies and with the many cultures learners represent complicates the tasks of teachers, instructional technologists, and learners themselves, who see the potential of new tools for learning but either do not necessarily understand the cultural barriers or may not know how to deal with them effectively.

Evaluation

To summarize, previous sections of this article have noted the rapid growth of technologies that can and do facilitate access to effective learning experiences for learners in many cultures. But the fact that some learners currently have less or no access to these learning opportunities because of technological boundaries must also be acknowledged. And even when technologies are available, some cultural traditions make learning and teaching through these technologies challenging. However, evaluation may be a solution.

Why Evaluation?

What should educators, instructional designers, instructional technologists, and others who care about supporting learners from all cultures in the most culturally appropriate and effective ways do about these challenges? One option has been to essentially ignore culture and the various ways learning and teaching defined by learners’ and teachers’ philosophies of learning and pedagogical expectations. Proponents believe they provide the best technology-based education possible from their cultural perspectives, with occasional needs assessments, marketing, and sales analyses. This approach may seem short-sighted or narrow-minded but is often the approach used (Rogers, 2006). Educators and instructional designers with this attitude may believe they are providing the best education possible; but serious attempts to understand particular stakeholders’ cultures, needs, and evaluations of their own learning are rare (Rogers, Graham, Mayes, 2007) and therefore, the results are often insensitive to them.

Another option would be to forget about using educational technology altogether, since it might not work or might create more problems than it solves when mixed with various cultures and forms of education. Sometimes this might be a good choice but how would we know by just “forgetting” about the possible conflicts? Also, can teachers educate and learners learn with no technology at all? Educators in all cultures use some forms of technology to facilitate their efforts. And learners may be experimenting with alternative forms of technology on their own, even if the educational cultures they participate in officially do not yet recognize those technologies as educational. Simply ignoring technology does not seem a viable option.

A third approach would be for educators, instructional designers and technologists to become educated regarding the cultures of all their learners and to use principles discovered by anthropologists and others to design instruction and teach students using the appropriate pedagogies, philosophies, and technologies associated with their cultures. Efforts to promote culture-sensitive approaches have been and continue to be made through multi-cultural education initiatives (see several here), through encouraging cultural competence in general (Cross, et, al., 1989; McPhatter, 1997) and in instructional design in particular (Burnham, 2005; Gunawardena, Wilson, & Nolla, 2003; Subramony, 2004), and even through culturally-competent evaluation (Thompson-Robinson, et al, 2004; Lee, 2007). However, since individuals represent unique combinations of cultures and may be thought of as mini-cultures themselves, being able to accurately address all the cultural nuances in a large group of learners becomes very challenging. This is especially true as more and more instruction is offered cross-culturally because technologies are shrinking or “flattening” the world (Friedman, 2006) and giving more people access to material prepared by designers and sponsors from other countries and/or cultures.

A fourth approach would be for teachers, instructional designers, and instructional technologists to build systemic evaluation into their teaching and design processes that would allow them to adjust instruction based on feedback from learners. In other words, if learners could evaluate potential instruction using criteria from their cultures and could share that information quickly and appropriately with people who are trying to support their learning, adjusting and tailoring of learning experiences should be more feasible to address the nuanced needs of each idiosyncratic learner.

Technologies can facilitate this tailoring, as noted by several authors on the use of technology to evaluate e-learning (Williams, Hricko, & Howell, 2006); Williams & Graham, in press). But a key premise in this recommendation is that teachers, instructional designers, and the learners themselves are willing to put more responsibility for learning and evaluation of learning resources on the learners themselves. They are closest to their own needs, learning styles, and evidence that they are learning successfully or not; so they are in the most important position to inform those who are supporting them of how well instructional efforts are doing.

On the other hand, there may be cultural barriers, technological challenges, and pedagogical traditions that will make it difficult for learners to evaluate their own learning and efforts of others to support them or for those supporters to receive evaluations even when offered. Even so, developing an evaluation culture that respects the values of all the stakeholders and promotes the use of feedback and information in making pedagogical and related instructional decisions by learners and their helpers is a better option than ignoring those values or trying to take them all into account without guidance from the learners about how well instructional technology efforts are faring.

How to Build an Evaluation Culture for Improving Educational Technology?

So, assuming that evaluation could be a reasonable way to build on the strengths and address the concerns raised by the intersection of culture, education, and technology, how could instructional designers, technologists, and other educators use evaluation more effectively to help learners from multiple cultures with different values regarding education and technology? Here are some suggestions (based on Williams, 2002 and Williams & Graham, in press) directed toward learners’ helpers, though learners themselves could also consider these ideas for building evaluation more systemically into their learning processes.

Accept the premise that evaluation can help. Rather than ignore culture, try to avoid educational technology, or seek total cultural competence for all the cultures represented by potential learners, instructional technologists should consider using evaluation to help them tailor instruction to learners’ idiosyncracies. Likewise, learners should recognize that they represent many cultures and including evaluation culture as part of their portfolio might enhance their learning experiences. The following activities built into the learners’ and educators/instructional technologists’ modus operandi should help them build an evaluation culture while improving learning and teaching.

Recognize stakeholders and their values/questions. Once evaluation culture becomes part of the learners’ and educators’ agenda, a key component of evaluation is to recognize that evaluation, education, learning, and educational technology should be for the benefit of all these stakeholders, including people they might influence. They should think about who is likely to benefit, be overlooked, or be harmed by the use of particular technologies. What are their cultural values, criteria, and standards for judging the technologies to be used or the learning associated with educational technologies? How do they define the evaluand or thing to be evaluated? Is it their own learning? Is it the use of a particular technology for a particular kind of learning? Is it a combination of qualities, outcomes, and means? Are any of the stakeholders’ values in conflict with those of other stakeholders? If so, can conflicts be resolved or do they need to be? What evaluation questions come from answers to these queries about stakeholders’ values? How might answering these questions benefit learners and their helpers?

Key questions that are likely to emerge from this process should address evaluands at various stages of development. They may focus on the need for a new evaluand being developed by asking what learners’ needs are, whether and/or how educational technology might meet those needs, how use of those technologies will interface with the cultures of the learners, and what resources it would take to address the learners’ needs with particular educational technology solutions. Or the questions may lead to evaluating the implementation of possible educational technology solutions to make sure they are being implemented and accepted by the stakeholders. Or the questions may lead to an evaluation of the impact of a technology in a formative way that will allow the whole process to recycle many times to account for new insights and values by multiple stakeholders from multiple sub-cultures, such as learners, teachers, investors, employers, and/or governments.

Involve stakeholders in gathering, interpreting, and using answers. Once evaluation questions based on multiple stakeholders’ values, evaluand definitions, criteria, standards, and needs are clarified, the collection and use of data to answer those questions should be part of the learners’ learning process and the instructional technologists’ and educators’ design and teaching processes. By making these evaluation activities part of their educational process, a new culture that involves data-based decision-making along with all the other cultural elements will evolve to help the learner-evaluators and teacher-evaluators collect feedback from one another. If they will use that feedback to tailor their learning and teaching to the cultures of the other stakeholders and to their own multiple (and sometimes conflicting) cultures, all stakeholders will be ideally served in terms of their cultural and learning needs.

Meta-evaluate to ensure quality. Finally, to help all participating stakeholders develop their evaluation sub-cultures effectively, evaluation experts (Gullickson, 2003; Sanders, 1994; Shadish, 1995- see also guidingprinciples2005.pdf available at http://www.wmich.edu/evalctr/checklists/checklistmenu.htm; Stufflebeam, 1988; Stufflebeam, 1999) have developed standards and guidelines for working appropriately with stakeholders to identify criteria, standards, and questions and then to collect, analyze and use data. As they review their efforts to enhance learning and teaching through the use of educational technology across various cultures, stakeholders may use these guidelines to judge or meta-evaluate their evaluations at the planning, implementation, and post-hoc review stages. Results may be used formatively to improve these and future evaluation efforts. Or they may be used summatively to certify how well the evaluation culture is performing.

As a review of the meta-evaluation standards will reveal, evaluations benefit from both internal and external evaluators representing perspectives of the most involved stakeholders as well as “outsiders” who have different biases and perspectives from those of “insiders.” Likewise, sometimes evaluations are best done by formal evaluators hired for the purpose through evaluation proposals and contracts. But often, informal evaluations by stakeholders who recognize the value of reflecting on their experience are sufficient and can be done without extra cost or effort beyond what they would make in their learning and/or teaching and/or instructional design processes.

Summary and Conclusion

In this article, potential concerns associated with combining various kinds of technologies to enhance multiple educational goals across diverse cultures were examined. Alternative ways to respond to these concerns were identified and building an evaluation culture into multiple stakeholders’ other cultures was selected as the most sensible way to address them. Suggestions were offered for helping stakeholders build evaluation into their learning and teaching processes and to meta-evaluate those efforts both to improve and judge them.

In conclusion, evaluation has great potential for helping all stakeholders involved in learning, teaching, and instructional design using various educational technologies to tailor learners’ experiences to complement their other cultures and associate values. The key is to involve the learners and their helpers as essential stakeholders whose values and concerns matter to all other stakeholders. Stakeholders can and should judge educational technologies and associated learning experiences against their own cultures. If they will provide guiding feedback to others and themselves to use in modifying the experiences to fit appropriately within their cultures, learners and their helpers should all mutually benefit.

Additional Links

Here are some additional links that readers may find useful.

Culture and Technology

The biennial conference series on "Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication" provides one of the most significant international forums for research on how diverse culture attitudes and communication preferences shape the implementation and use of information and communication technologies. The conference series brings together scholars from around the globe who provide diverse perspectives, both in terms of the specific culture(s) they highlight in their presentations and discussions, and in terms of the discipline(s) through which they approach the conference themes. See details at the CATaC site and related conferences such as the Second International Workshop on Intercultural Collaboration (IWIC 2009).

The International Multidisciplinary PhD Studies in Educational Technology (IMPDET) promotes research into contextualized and culturally-sensitive technologies and pedagogies, IT for development, online community building, thinking tools, robotics, mobile games in education, and design methods for educational technology and technologies for children with individualized needs. See more about how here.

Several organizations promote the use of technology to enhance education, learning, and development across international borders and deal with cultural issues in a variety of ways. For example, see links to resources along these lines here, others associated with the International Conference and Workshop on Technology for Innovation and Education in Developing Countries, and UNESCO initiatives such as the ICT4D Collective at Royal Holloway, University of London.

There are also private efforts, such as Andrea Edmundson's company which offers assistance to anyone who is trying to help learners cross-culturally.

There is also a Directory of Intercultural and Cross Cultural Communication Resources, a podcast by Monica Bolesta on Diversity and Cross-Cultural Awareness: Avoiding Global Marketplace Missteps, another podcast about diversity and cross-cultural awareness and its role in the global marketplace.

World Enough, an extensive list of websites about intercultural communication, including information on several different countries, International Association for Languages and Intercultural Communication for academics, practitioners, researchers and students, Intercultural Communication Institute, a private, nonprofit foundation designed to foster an awareness and appreciation of cultural differences in both the international and domestic arenas, International Communications Association, an academic association for scholars interested in the study, teaching, and application of all aspects of human and mediated communication, and Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research.

Finally, there are various links via other websites, such as Absolutely Intercultural, which includes the 'first ever intercultural podcast', a new podcast is released every week and looks at all aspects of human intercultural communication; Language and Diplomacy, an introduction to intercultural communication with other pages of interest; Library resources for Communication Studies, which is the intercultural communication area of the education and behavioral sciences section of the American Library Association that contains a bibliography, a list of keywords, links to periodicals and websites; Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication Project, based at Lancaster University to develop a closer understanding of the year abroad experience of students and includes freely available data sets for the project; the School of International Studies, hosted by the Pacific University USA and contains links to, and a bibliography of, subject related materials; and the UWE Centre for Intercultural Communication, which offers information about events, news and the current research interests of the centre.

Evaluation

There is a growing wealth of resources for doing evaluations and examining the intersections of culture, technology, and education with evaluation as a way to address all three at http://eval.org/resources.asp and many links from that source, including several journals. See also http://www.wmich.edu/evalctr/, including the Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation. Also see a growing wiki; an Austrian evaluation site with links to many evaluation organizations world-wide at "links and tips"; a resource for exploring evaluation of online learning for young people from various sub-cultures; a guide to the evaluation of e-learning and e-learning environments; a book with chapter 9 on evaluation of e-learning; the International Journal on E-Learning with articles addressing evaluation and culture-related topics; the International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning (iJET), also with articles that address evaluation concerns; and http://www.shambles.net/pages/staff/traineval/ which links to several reports on evaluations for online learning at various age levels and contexts.

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Williams, D. D., Hricko, M., & Howell, S. (Eds.) (2006). Online assessment, measurement, and evaluation: Emerging practices. Hershey, PA: Idea Group, Inc.

Williams, D. D., & Graham, C. (in press). Evaluating e-learning. In B. McGaw, P. L. Peterson, and E. Baker (Eds.) International Encyclopedia of Education, 3rd Edition (pp.). San Diego, CA: Elsevier.

About the Authors

David D. Williams is a Professor of Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University with interest in evaluation of everything, including technology-mediated teaching and learning. David studies the interactions among stakeholders in defining evaluands such as technology-based learning environments and using their values to shape their criteria and standards associated with those objects of interest. See more details at http://education.byu.edu/ipt/php/faculty/displayfacultypage.php?userName=williams.
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P. Clint Rogers is...
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Citation

APA Citation: Williams, D. D. & Rogers, P. C. (2009). Educational Technologies and Cultural Dimensions. In M. K. Barbour & M. Orey (Eds.), The Foundations of Instructional Technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/itFoundations/