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Immigration, the Internet, and increasing student demand for online learning are changing the face of education around the world. Student and instructor communities, both in American educational institutions and in corporate training environments, are becoming increasingly diverse. Online education enables our universities to reach learners located outside traditional markets, and to leverage resources from locations throughout the world. This paper reviews the challenges and opportunities that these changes are creating for multicultural online education and training in educational institutions and corporations.



Immigration, the Internet, and increasing student demand for online learning are changing the traditional face of education around the world. Student and instructor communities, both in American educational institutions and in corporate training environments, are becoming increasingly diverse. Online education enables our universities to reach learners located outside traditional markets, and to leverage resources from locations throughout the world.

Many educational institutions and corporations have already recognized the challenges and opportunities created by these changes and are eager to address the former and take advantage of the latter, putting new demands on online education and training.

This paper reviews those new demands and approaches that have been formulated to satisfying them. It begins with a review of the literature regarding online multicultural education, it continues with an examination of the learning needs related to multicultural education, and it closes with a discussion of implications for education and training and for social networking.


Multicultural issues have stimulated an extensive body of research. A number of publications address its pervasiveness (Dunn & Adkins, 2003) and the persistence of misconceptions that hinder the ability to effectively address cultural issues (Aldridge & Calhoun, 2000).

Researchers have indicated a link between a student's culture and the learning strategies he or she employs (Gordon, Cantwell & Moore, 1998). This has in turn motivated researchers to explore multicultural practices in instructional design, the impact of which tends to benefit all learners (Dyjur, 2004) Some publications address the broader issue of multicultural education – including curriculum, as well as planning and implementation processes related to teaching, learning and assessment practices (McLoughlin, 1999, 2001).

Online multicultural education presents some specific challenges and opportunities. (Kim & Bonk, 2002). While the performance of online education relative to the cultural differences continues to be researched (Morse, 2003), generic studies indicate that online courses match traditional face-to-face courses in academic quality, rigor and achievement of learning objectives (Kassop, 2003) and (Jones, 2005). Some studies have explored the convergence of distance learning and multicultural learning in teacher education (Gaudelli, 2006).

Technology plays a key role in online education. When used appropriately, it can be a "lever" (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996), and offer a variety of effective ways to meet educational objectives. There are many implications for the use of technology in addressing the needs of a multicultural educational community and one must address this issue in particular. (Sleeter & Tettagah, 2002) and (Merryfield, 2003)

The literature reports a number of success stories for educational practitioners to leverage, including implementations of Cultural Connections - a model for constructivist, intercultural distance learning partnerships (Cifuentes & Murphy, 2000) and the Shoah Project (Hammer & Kellner, 2001). Given that the multicultural issue in education is global in nature, we all have the opportunity to leverage progress made by countries like Australia, in which institutions have formulated strategies and developed resources to assist the internationalization of teaching and learning. (Leask, 2001)


There is great opportunity to research and compare learning styles between homogeneous groups and multicultural audiences. Limited information exists regarding the question “are learning styles different in multicultural audiences as compared with more homogeneous groups?” Kim and Bonk (2002) note several salient points in their article on cross-cultural comparisons of online learning and collaboration that can begin to address the question. These notes provide a starting point for reflection, discussion, and additional data gathering, for further evaluating differences and their breadth.

The authors report that students of different ethnic backgrounds may have different learning processes. This hypothesis is based on a study that found learners from Asian and Western cultures differed in communication patterns, as well as expectations around the roles of teachers and student learning styles. Thus, the “findings suggest that students of different ethnic backgrounds may have different learning processes”. Kim and Bonk also report “some studies have revealed that online learners use different communication styles across cultures”. The difference includes the level of reserved communication for some students as compared to a higher degree of expression of thoughts for others. It is reasonable to extrapolate that different communication styles may lead to different learning styles, as communication is a part of learning.

Kim and Bonk conducted their own assessment of the impact of learning styles on students of various cultures. Among their findings is the notion that US students were “more action-oriented and pragmatic in seeking results or giving solutions” than the Finnish students or the Korean students in their study. The study also revealed that Finnish students “tended to seek feedback or opinions that are more theory-driven rather than action-oriented in their discussions”. The Finns also were noted as being more reflective, while the Korean approach was one of a more social and contextual basis.

The data also suggests differences exist in collaboration styles across cultures. The study found that, given a choice in how to prepare written assignments, American and Korean students worked individually more than in teams, while Finnish students wrote course submissions in pairs or small teams. This is an example of a difference in social interaction across three cultures that manifests itself in the learning styles of the culture. From a small study that evaluated American, Finnish and Korean students in several facets of learning and communication, one can generalize that homogeneous groups of learners share commonalities in approaches to and behaviors related to learning. By creating a multicultural “soup” of students, it is valuable if not imperative, for both facilitators and students to respect, honor and leverage different learning styles.


Social networking is a phenomenon that is present in every community in which we participate, including virtual communities and online courses. It is an opportunity to reach out and share with others in order to be informed and influenced by their knowledge, ideas and perspectives. "One of the chief tenets for a successful and engaging online course is the development of an effective system that provides ongoing student interaction",(Edelstein & Edwards, 2002). The comparison of ideas in social networks sets the stage for social discourse. As a social network grows, it creates its own social presence and has power in the collective social capital which gives it an identity and value in the world at large.

In a multicultural environment, be it a corporate or educational setting, social networking is of paramount value and should be cultivated by every member of the “community”. It offers the opportunity to experience different perspectives and provides expertise in local culture, to improve understanding for the enhancement of knowledge and negotiate resolution. Warmoes and Tayart state that “The most important thing to keep in mind when engaging in corporate community involvement in Europe is literally and figuratively to ‘speak the local language’, (Amery & Turegano, 2001). In context with the original article, this speaks of socially acceptable business and philanthropic practices in Europe, but it is indicative of all cultures (including online courses) which have their own codes and methods of operations, that one must learn about the “rules” or as the first quote says, the “local language” in order to learn what constitutes valuable and invaluable social capital in that “community”. In addition, each member of a new relationship needs to understand the cultural norms that ground the actions and interactions of each member with the group. Once this sensitivity has been established, negotiations for acceptable group work may be established and social capital for that group will flourish.

Social networks must be designed and cultivated. This is particularly true in an online educational environment, where the participants generally have no prior knowledge of each other. It is important to guide the establishment of relationships through the use of icebreakers and opportunities to gain insight to each member of this new community. "To accomplish a level of interaction that is conducive to an active and progressive learning community, a facilitator may opt to incorporate threaded discussions as a means of generating or promoting interaction", (Edelstein & Edwards, 2002).

Communication is enhanced by social networking and interactions such as team projects which require collaborative problem solving. Communication is also enhanced by learning about different cultural styles which influence individual participation, such as attitudes about time, due dates, culturally based greetings, and communication between age and gender gaps. These issues must be considered in the design and development of online learning. It is with consideration of these issues, coupled with educational objectives and desired outcomes, that one must look to the educational philosophies and online technologies to provide the best opportunities for individuals and the social communities, to access the course materials, communicate and function in ways to be successful in attaining desired results.

Teaching and learning in a multicultural environment is a challenge with great opportunities. Social networking can provide increased resources, with the understanding and power to enhance an inclusive experience.


Social networking must work in lock step with educational strategies in order to meet learning objectives, to improve understanding, and enhance associated performance outcomes. There are many current instructional design models and paradigms, each of which can be interpreted as culturally and socially determined (McLoughlin, 1999). Ideally, the learning strategies employed in online learning for multicultural groups would reflect the multicultural realities of society, including multicultural ways of learning and teaching, and promote equity of learning outcomes (McLoughlin, 1999). Additional considerations include how learning styles affect task orientation, levels of formality the learner expects, and cultural constraints on who initiates and moderates discussion.

Recognizing that these factors exist, leaders in higher education can leverage creative and visionary staff to set the tone for delivery of courses that entail solutions to these issues. The investment in qualified staff will propel the implementation of successful multicultural learning forward. Benchmarking and networking are excellent tools that allow institutions to develop relationships, share knowledge, and assess best practices among these institutions. The culmination of this collaboration can result in meeting learning objectives on a tactical and strategic level. Success is dependent upon leadership that supports and breeds this philosophy.

Taking this concept one step further, corporations seek to turn knowledge gained from training events into performance outcomes on the job. With support from the corporation itself, the multicultural employee pool can help corporations meet their strategic goals. Sleeter points out a problem when he states that “one out of every ten technology jobs remain vacant due to insufficient skilled workers”. Addressing the training needs of a multicultural work force acknowledges the potentially synergistic relationship that can promote overall growth. A robust training program that is sound, practical and visionary, can create leadership in learning which will reward its participants.

Corporate training outcomes focus on teaching the employee to do the job right the first time, and to reproduce those efforts consistently. Investment in educational strategies that develop multicultural learners can lead to confidence building, an increase in interaction, fewer errors, reduced overtime, and improved safety metrics (being able to speak and read English increases the comprehension of safety-related warnings, which in turn reduces workplace accidents) (Lynn, 2000).

What strategies should higher institutions and the corporate world consider as they develop and implement multicultural learning programs? McLoughlin presents degrees of cultural inclusivity in Web-based learning, and shares a perspective on the highest level of cultural inclusivity, whereby multicultural learning needs are best served by a focus on designing constructivist learning activities. To meet this need, one must recognize that students may adopt different learning approaches and have different levels of prior knowledge. Cultural differences and perspectives that students bring to learning must be interpreted as assets, not liabilities. It is critical to set high expectations and challenges, per McLoughlin, to create a motivating climate for all students, and to assess learning in an authentic manner, including diagnostic, formative and outcome assessment.


Most corporations and educational institutions have initiatives in place to implement diversity vision and values. As values infuse every online education and training program, the benefits of healthy multicultural online learning communities will be felt quickly, even before programs are fully implemented. These initiatives challenge online educational philosophies and practices, triggering creativity and new decision making patterns - characterized by openness, acceptance and negotiation. The new course planning and delivery paradigm requires all participants to understand not only their roles and contributions, but those of their peers as well. Such understanding, coupled with careful attention to differences in prior knowledge, learning styles and cultural philosophies, will enable educators to provide options to satisfy diverse learning needs. This promotes an increasingly collaborative educational environment, which in turn triggers the development and growth of ever-expanding social networks. In consequence, addressing the demands for online multicultural education adds value to the learning experience of the entire community.


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