Cultural Diversity in E-Learning

Designing e-learning content that is engaging and effective for all students is impossible without an awareness of and consideration for student diversity (Liu, Liu, Lee, & Magjuka, 2010).  Before one can begin to effectively address student diversity through instructional design, one must examine the concept as it appears in the research literature.  Surprisingly, the characteristics that form the concept of diversity within student populations are not addressed by a unified model or theory in any of the studies consulted for this paper.  However, researchers have investigated student diversity from a variety of perspectives, including cultural dimensions, disability, geography, and language (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010; Shimoni, Barrington, Wilde, & Henwood, 2013).  Despite this apparent diversity of ideas about student diversity, the majority of studies on the topic deal solely with the cultural dimensions of diversity and rely heavily on the work of Geert Hofstede for their theoretical frameworks (e.g., Wang, 2007).  Though popular as a measure of cultural difference, the usefulness of Hofstede’s model has been criticized for oversimplification, inconsistency, lack of empirical evidence, and a view of culture as largely static (Signorini, Wiesemes, & Murphy, 2009).

Because Hofstede’s model of cultural difference is so pervasive in the literature, it will be examined and critiqued in some detail at the outset.  Additionally, disability, geography, and language will also be addressed as key aspects of student diversity that should be considered when designing e-learning content.  Next, the eleven aspects of student diversity will be examined for their potential flexibility with the goal of identifying the differences that should be accommodated as well as those that should be maintained as appropriate challenges to students’ cultural norms.  Finally, suggestions for how designers and instructors can use their awareness of the eight aspects of cultural diversity to implement strategies that foster student engagement will be presented.  When student diversity is properly understood and used to diagnose potential problems with e-learning content, it can inform teaching practice and make online courses more accessible for all students.

Hofstede’s Model of Cultural Differences

 There are several versions of Hofstede’s model of cultural differences, differing only in the number of cultural dimensions identified by the researcher.  The four dimensions found in all versions of the model are power distance, individualism-collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity-femininity (Liu et al., 2010; Wang, 2007).  Power distance refers to the level of tolerance displayed toward unequal power distributions in society; individualism-collectivism refers to the tendency of people to be integrated into social groups; uncertainty avoidance refers to a society’s willingness to tolerate ambiguity; and masculinity-femininity refers to the orientation of society toward achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material reward on the one hand (i.e., masculinity) or cooperation, modesty, caring, and quality of life on the other (i.e., femininity).  Parrish and Linder-VanBerschot (2010) expanded Hofstede’s model of cultural differences by adding four dimensions to the original set.  Thus, their Cultural Dimensions of Learning Framework (CDLF) includes argumentation and reasonableness, causality and systems, clock and event time, and linear and cyclical time as key aspects of cultural diversity.  Argumentation and reasonableness refer to a culture’s acceptance of logical argumentation or practical outcomes in the search for truth, causality and systems refer to the emphasis a culture places on stable knowledge versus situational knowledge, clock and event time refer to the use of external measures for keeping time versus allowing an event to unfold naturally, and linear and cyclical time refer to a culture’s perception of time as leading people toward goals or as a pattern of interlocking cycles that are experienced over the course of a life.

The model, in its original form and as the basis for the CDLF, does not express value judgments concerning the various poles of cultural difference, but research utilizing Hofstede’s work has employed the theory in an attempt to criticize the educational methods of non-Western cultures (Wang, 2007).  This use of Hofstede’s model is inappropriate because it blames non-Western cultures and their educational values for the lack of student engagement in e-learning contexts.  It is important to note that the model refers to cultures and not the individuals that make up those cultures.  Individuals may vary in their adherence to their culture’s norms and often adopt another culture’s attitudes when exposed to different values and ways of perceiving the world (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010).  Knowing where one’s students fall on the four dimensions of cultural difference could enhance an instructor’s ability to respond appropriately to student difficulties with e-learning content and course design.  However, one must be careful both to respect cultural differences and to challenge them when appropriate.

Cultural diversity can and should be accommodated during initial course construction, but designers and instructors must weigh the costs and benefits of adapting e-learning materials to cover all possible cultural orientations.  Through analysis of student needs at the outset of a course, designers and instructors may address issues as they arise while still being prepared to handle the challenges of cultural diversity.  Thus, the value of Hofstede’s model lies in its ability to raise awareness of cultural diversity in educational settings and not in any ability to prescribe definite solutions to the problem of promoting student engagement.

Criticisms of Hofstede’s Model

Signorini et al. (2009) analyzed Hofstede’s model of cultural differences and found it “unable to account for the complexity of culture” (p. 258), even as observed by Hofstede himself.  Hofstede outlines a definition of culture with three inherent characteristics: (a) culture is collective programming, meaning it is a social product; (b) culture is software of the mind, meaning it has a direct impact on cognitive processes; and (c) cultures are as numerous as the various existing social groups or systems, meaning that individuals are likely to belong to different cultures simultaneously.  This state of affairs does not deter Hofstede from claiming that individuals have “clear and independent cultures or value sets” (p. 258) for each group they belong to.  While Hofstede might be correct about the number of cultures an individual belongs to, Signorini argues, he fails to account for the “haziness” of culture wherein members of a group do not share perfectly identical value sets even though they are said to belong to the same culture.

Whereas Hofstede claims that there is a one-way relationship from relatively unchanging values to cultural formations, Signorini et al. (2009) imagine values and culture as sharing a bi-directional relationship.  This alternative model of cultural difference reflects the contemporary world we live in, where revolutions in politics and education have changed not just the cultural formations of various societies, but also their underlying value structures.  Signorini et al. posit a model of cultural difference capable of understanding the implications of globalization and ICTs for educational institutions.

Additional Factors in Student Diversity

Shimoni et al. (2013) identified several aspects of student diversity that are missing from Hofstede’s and Parrish and Linder-VanBerschot’s (2010) models of cultural differences.  Disability, geography, and language are cited as key aspects of student diversity that must be addressed if access to educational services is to be realized.  Disabled students are often overlooked when courses are designed, leaving them without a means to their course materials and giving them little choice but to drop out.  Students living in rural areas frequently find themselves without the high-speed, dedicated internet access needed to engage in synchronous class meetings and participate in online activities in a timely fashion.  Non-native English speakers often experience problems with e-learning content because it lacks the visual cues that facilitate communication in traditional, face-to-face settings.  While these aspects of diversity are not always thought of as cultural differences, they are quite similar in that they form a significant part of a student’s identity.  These aspects of student diversity are also capable of fundamentally derailing a student’s learning experience.  With a little extra effort and understanding on the part of instructors, this need not be the case.

The Effect of Diversity on Engagement

The factors that comprise student diversity are largely cultural and are therefore somewhat flexible, depending upon an individual’s willingness to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010).  Because cultural norms are rooted in differing views of the world (i.e., values) and not directly in human nature, it is possible for all students, no matter their culture, to adapt to methods of instruction that are not typical in their experience.  Thus, adapting courses or providing alternative content to students should only be done after carefully considering the costs and benefits of doing so.  If the cultural differences a designer or instructor recognizes in a particular group of students are a persistent source of problems (e.g., lack of student engagement), then and only then should there be a shift in teaching practice to accommodate those students.  However, some aspects of diversity—such as disability—are less amenable to change and should be accommodated whenever possible.  Similarly, a student’s geographical location and language proficiency, while not absolutely fixed, are often too difficult to change within the timeframe of a single online course and must also be accommodated whenever possible.

What role does student diversity play when it comes to student engagement?  The answer to this question lies in the nature of student engagement and its relationship to student learning.  If a student is not engaged, then he or she is less likely to learn course material effectively and might even drop the course out of boredom or frustration (Wang, 2007).  Thus, whatever might increase student engagement is also likely to increase student learning.  Following Parrish and Linder-VanBerschot’s (2010) model of cultural differences, with the caveat that individuals sometimes display contradictory or seemingly incompatible attitudes and beliefs, each aspect of students’ cultural diversity will now be examined for its potential to affect student engagement and, in turn, student learning.

Implementing Strategies for Increased Student Engagement

Low power distance cultures produce individuals that treat instructors as equals and not as authorities who should remain unchallenged.  Students from high power distance cultures potentially suffer from the expectation that their instructor will be unapproachable and unavailable for direct communication.  Instructors could address this pitfall by explicitly inviting teacher-student communication and by modeling the sorts of exchanges that are appropriate between individuals of unequal power.

Individualistic cultures see learning how to learn and the personal expression of ideas as educational goals that are just as legitimate as content mastery.  By contrast, collectivist cultures place emphasis on learning content knowledge and encourage students to accommodate themselves to the instructor’s point of view.  The major problem associated with this dichotomy is that students from either type of culture may miss opportunities to develop themselves personally and socially.  Designers and instructors should take care to balance these two orientations by varying instruction and selecting activities that could be quickly adapted to address the needs of students.

Low uncertainty avoidance cultures produce individuals comfortable with ambiguity and open-ended assignments.  High uncertainty avoidance cultures are populated with individuals who favor highly structured assignments and clear, unambiguous answers to questions.  Both types of student must learn how to effectively deal with the activities and circumstances of their counterparts in order to become well-rounded individuals.  Thus, when designing courses it is recommended that a balanced approach, in which there is both clarity and ambiguity in the presentation of material, be used to ensure that all students are challenged to step out of their comfort zones and become engaged through exposure to diverse ways of learning.

Masculine cultures produce students that seek out challenges and recognition for their efforts.  Feminine cultures are comparatively modest and cultivate collaboration over competition in their students.  Both of these aspects of cultural diversity must be a part of any well-designed e-learning course because neither masculinity nor femininity is sufficient for comprehensive learning by itself.  One strategy for incorporating these aspects into course design would be to provide two versions of some assignments to students—one that stresses correct performance and one that encourages the development of relationships and mutual understanding.

Cultures invested in argumentation insist that there is a single truth that can be discovered via logical reasoning.  Conversely, cultures invested in reasonableness approach truth as a matter of multiplicity and consensus building.  There is room for both types of culture to coexist in a single course.  Designers and instructors can ensure that both argumentation and reasonableness are a part of their course content by carefully selecting individual assignments and group work that encourage the development of each approach to truth.

Cultures steeped in causality expect students to be self-directed and in search of stable knowledge.  Systems-oriented cultures tie knowledge to explanations of particular situations and attribute learning success or failure to the nature of the learning situation.  This aspect of student diversity is difficult to account for in course design because it deals with student beliefs concerning personal agency.  Designers and instructors could inform students of their responsibilities as learners (i.e., to be self-directed) while simultaneously creating environments that embed content knowledge in real-life situations (e.g., using case studies to explore a system or process in depth).

Cultures that rely on clock time stick to deadlines and encourage students to work toward planned ends.  By contrast, cultures that rely on event time are willing to bypass such strict procedures in pursuit of continuous improvement.  Those responsible for a course’s materials and activities should give clear guidance as to when assignments are due, but should also allow for some degree of flexibility so that students are given the opportunity to improve in a relatively timely manner.

Linear time is a cultural orientation where students are expected to manage their time efficiently and act quickly in the pursuit of achievement.  Cyclical time is a cultural orientation where one takes as much time as needed to slowly build mastery, patiently repeating key ideas or information with the intent of cultivating wisdom.  Both orientations can be incorporated in course design by simply balancing the types of activities students must complete: rapid-fire quizzes for those who perceive time as linear and reflective essays for those who perceive time as cyclical.


Designing e-learning content that is engaging and effective for all students is possible because student diversity and expectations for learning can be addressed by carefully considering when it is appropriate to adapt learning materials to student preferences and when it is appropriate to challenge students to step out of their cultural comfort zone.  Though it might seem daunting at first, the prospect of designing courses that appeal to a variety of cultural orientations is fairly simple.  All one needs to do is be aware of the variety of cultural differences that affect education, prepare for those situations in which students’ pedagogical needs demand a change in approach from the instructor, and develop materials that teach diverse students how to accommodate new learning situations and practices.  When designers and instructors are willing to accept a degree of uncertainty regarding the appropriateness of their course content for diverse students and are willing to shift pedagogical practice when necessary to meet those students’ needs, everyone benefits.


Liu, X., Liu, S., Lee, S.-H., & Magjuka, R. J. (2010). Cultural differences in online learning: International student perceptions. Educational Technology & Society, 13(3), 177-188. Retrieved from

Parrish, P., & Linder-VanBerschot, J. A. (2010). Cultural dimensions of learning: Addressing the challenges of multicultural instruction. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 11(2), 1-19. Retrieved from

Shimoni, R., Barrington, G., Wilde, R., & Henwood, S. (2013). Addressing the needs of diverse distributed students. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 14(3), 134-156. Retrieved from

Signorini, P., Wiesemes, R., & Murphy, R. (2009). Developing alternative frameworks for exploring intercultural learning: A critique of Hofstede’s cultural difference model. Teaching in Higher Education, 14(3), 253. Retrieved from

Wang, M. (2007). Designing online courses that effectively engage learners from diverse cultural backgrounds. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(2), 294-311. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2006.00626.x

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