Open and Distance Education/Cultural influences in online learning/Theoretical Perspective of Cultural Differences

It is believed that learning styles of learners are influenced by the culture of their country; as the result, learners from different countries will have their own ways of learning. As mentioned above, subcultural traits and cultural universals do exist. Therefore, understanding various cultural backgrounds of online learners will be helpful for proposing suitable supports. In fact, there are different approaches to analyze the impacts of culture on learners.

A popular approach to analyze the cultural background of online learners is to look at their national culture under Hofstede’s dimensions. Hofstede (2011[1]) categorized the national culture in six dimensions, including power distance, individualism versus collectivism, masculinity versus femininity, uncertainty avoidance, long-term versus short-term orientation, and indulgence versus self-restraint.

Hofstede's Six Dimension of National CultureEdit

Power distance refers to the strength of social hierarchy. Societies can be considered as high or low power distance. In education, it refers to the relationship or distance between the learners and teachers, defining methods of teaching and learning. Education in large power distance societies is more teacher-centered, and learners usually look for guidance from teachers. On the other hand, in small power distance societies, learners prefer a more learner-centered education (Hofstede, 2011[1]; Jung, 2015[2]).

Individualism and collectivism refer to how learners attain educational goals and achievements. In individualist cultures, learners focus on achieving educational goals and make improvements for themselves as an individual process; therefore, learning will be more independent. On the other hands, in collectivism cultures focus on achievement of teams and groups. Learners are more dependent on others to attain their educational goals.

Masculinity and femininity refer to the distribution of values between the genders (Hofstede, 2011[1]). Masculinity culture tends to be about task-orientation, while femininity culture tends towards person-orientation. Learners affected by masculinity culture are more assertive and competitive in their learning (Jung, 2015[2]). Therefore, learners in masculinity culture often focus on completion of assignments, grades, and examinations. On the other hand, learners in femininity societies behave more modestly, tender and less competitive than those who are affected by masculine culture (Bing & Ai-Ping, 2008[3]). Learning is important because of learning itself, rather than competitiveness.

Uncertainty avoidance refers to social tolerance for ambiguity. Learners from societies with strong uncertainty avoidance prefer courses in which the instructions, contents, schedules, teaching and learning methods, technologies, etc. are well-structured, while education from weak uncertainty-avoidance societies is less structured and more flexible in learning situations where teachers may sometimes say ‘I don’t know’ (Hofstede, 2011[1]; Jung, 2015[2]).

In societies with long-term orientation cultures, learners are looking forward to persistent development. They tend to learn from others and judge success and fail by levels of their effort. In short-term orientation societies, learners tend to maintain traditions, and see success or fail as luck (Hofstede, 2011[1]).

Indulgence and restraint feature indicates how freely people make decisions for their life. In indulgent societies, learners believe in the perception that they control their own education, and freedom of speech is important, while in restrained societies, they believe that other factors dictate their learning – “What happens to me is not my own doing”(Hofstede, 2011[1]).

Moore's Transaction Distance TheoryEdit

Moore's Transactional Distance Theory (TDT) is based on elements of distance education and does not directly refer to cultural dynamics. However, the "distance" aspect of Moore's theory is explained through dialogue and structure which varies among cultural settings (Al-Harti, 2010[4]). The TDT focuses on the interaction between teacher and learner. Moore (1972[5], 1993[6]) extending his idea of autonomy in learner engagement with learning content to include the relational dimension between interaction and structure.

Concerned with learners' transactional needs to engage with the learning content through the guidance of the course instructor, the TDT proposes that measures of structure in the course content and guiding dialogue exchanges from the course instructor determines the transactional distance (Gorkski & Caspi, 2005[7]). Culturally, societal conventions act as determinants of the dialogue and the structure of online learning environments (Al-Harthi, 2010[4]). Considering Hofstede's Six National Cultural Dimensions, the context in which learners' situate themselves influence how they engage with their course-instructor, tutors, and online discussion material. See Regional Differentiation of Cultural Differences.

Edward T. Hall's Cross-Cultural Communication StylesEdit

Context is another important dimension to understand the influence of culture in online learning. Context is defined as the information around the events. An American anthropologist Edward T. Hall first discussed and distinguished cultures as high-context or low-context by analyzing communication styles. Communication in high-context cultures is indirect, ambiguous, harmonious, reserved and understated, while in low-context cultures, communication is direct, precise, dramatic, open, and based on feelings or true intentions (Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1988 as cited in Nishimura et al., 2008[8]). High-context cultures are stable and slow to change, while low-context cultures value individualism over collectivism (Nishimura et al., 2008[8]). Obviously, there is a correlation between high-context cultures with collectivism, relationship-oriented, and lower uncertainty avoidance; low-context cultures are closed to individualism, task-oriented, and higher uncertainty avoidance societies.

  1. a b c d e f Hofstede, G. (2011). Dimensionalizing Cultures: Te Hofstede Model in Context. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). htps://
  2. a b c Jung, I. (2015). Cultural influence on Online learning. In Jung, I., & Gunawardena, C. N. (Eds.). (2015). Culture and online learning: Global perspectives and research. Chapter 2. Stylus Publishing, LLC
  3. Bing, W. & Ai-Ping, T. (2008) The influence of national culture towards learners' interaction in the online learning environment: A comparative analysis of Shanghai TV University (China) and Wawasan Open University (Malaysia).The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 9(3), 327 - 339. Information Age Publishing Inc
  4. a b Al-Harthi, A.S. (2010) Cultural differences in transactional distance preference by Arab and American distance learners. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 11(4), 257 - 267. Information Age Publishing Inc.
  5. Moore, M. G. (1972) Learner autonomy: The second dimension of independent learning. Convergence, 2, 76 - 88.
  6. Moore, M. G. (1993) Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan, (Ed.), Theoretical principles of distanced education. New York: Routledge.
  7. Gorski, P. & Caspi, A. (2005) A critical analysis of transactional distance theory. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6(1), 1 – 11
  8. a b Nishimura, S., Nevgi, A., & Tella, S. (2008). Communication style and cultural features in high/low context communication cultures: a case study of Finland, Japan and India. In A. Kallioniemi (Ed.), Renovating and developing didactics. Proceedings of a subject-didactic symposium in Helsinki on Feb. 2, 2008. Pat 2 (pp. 783e796). University of Helsinki. Department of Applied Sciences of Education. Research Report 299.