Cultural Interactions and eLearning: Can Collaborative and Social Media Tools make a Difference?

Cultural Interactions and eLearning: Can Collaborative and Social Media Tools make a Difference?

There is increasing interest and debate within the research community on the role that collaborative virtual technology tools can play in online learning within culturally diverse student populations. Students who exhibit different learning goals and are motivated in different ways than those of the dominant culture may be challenged to identify as part of the learning community. Cultural perspectives affect an individual’s approach to learning and the level of classroom participation. According to Lave’s situated learning theory, “developing an identity as a member of a community and becoming knowledgeably skillful are part of the same process…” (Lave, 1993, p. 65). Given the diversity of the global e-learning environment, seeking further evidence of how to support online learning utilizing virtual tools (e.g. Facebook, Linked In, Blogs, Skype, Wikis) that may include opportunities for real-time communication, for face-to-face discussion and for increased collaboration and knowledge creation remains an area of research interest (Karpinski, Kirshner, Ozer, Mellot & Ochwo, 2013). If cultural encounters online expose students to cultural differences and encourage reflection on one’s own beliefs and values (McPherson, 2014), will an intercultural competence and sensitivity develop more quickly through integrating collaborative and social media tools within the learning processes? 

Culture may be considered a group’s shared knowledge and consciousness, shaping our behaviors and the ways in which we interact and communicate (Hofstede, 2001). While shared practices become a part of the culture’s identity over time, culture can also be a double-edged sword, according to Kofman (2006). While cultural beliefs, behaviors and patterns of communication can be expedient ways to pass down cultural practices from one generation to the next, they can also constrain the ways in which individuals cope with new experiences by becoming the prevailing attitude of the group (Kofman, 2006). In other words, culturally diverse perspectives can act as a bridge to understanding differences or feed into stereotypes and foil attempts to create safe and effective learning environments.  Boondao, Hurst and Sheard (2008) found significant differences between Eastern and Western students in their study of cultural differences in e-learning environments. While Western students (participants were Australian, British and other western cultures) prefer to learn through discussion and debate, Eastern students (participants were part of the Asian culture) are less comfortable with sharing their opinions or contradicting others. Peer feedback was of less value than instructor feedback, which was seldom questioned. The lack of visual cues such as gestures, body language and facial expressions hamper asynchronous communication for students of collectivist cultures (Hofstede, 2001), reinforcing stereotypes.

Online learning environments include social support for students through dialogue and interaction with peers, and task support through reflective thinking and the co-construction of new knowledge. Instructor roles align more closely with the “guide on the side” as opposed to the “sage on the stage”, where interaction among learners on a deeper, more meaningful level is encouraged. Diversity introduces a new paradigm into the classroom that sets new rules, attitudes, customs, and levels of acceptable behavior.  Different learning style preferences based on culture may not be satisfied with the traditional elements and ways of communicating inherent in elearning environments since one’s worldview influences one’s ability to communicate within cultural diverse groups.  O’Dowd (2007) found that video-conferencing tools can best support the development of intercultural communication when combinations of different online tools were used. Using collaborative virtual technology tools and social media may satisfy visual cues and real-time demands while supporting shared perceptions as students learn how to interact with their culturally diverse peers and with the instructor in a familiar and non-threatening environment. Conrad and Weber’s study (2014) confirmed that if the instructor is skilled with online learning and is able to use social network providers such as Facebook, Linked In and Twitter to fully support the development of a community of practice, the integration of such tools can have a positive effect.

McPherson (2014) investigated sense of community and its relationship to intercultural sensitivity. She found that cultural encounters online expose students to cultural differences and encourage reflection on one’s own beliefs and values. The question is whether an intercultural competence and sensitivity will develop more quickly by integrating collaborative and personal communications technologies within the learning processes of the online classroom.  Culturally diverse online classrooms may require a new set of learner characteristics and discourse developed through increased interaction using technological tools that are less formal than online threading, that integrate the principles of a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), and that allow for a language and style to develop that results in seamless connections that are immediate, friendly and respectful.


Conrad, K., & Weber, M. (2014).  Social networking in distance learning: Help or hindrance. Proceedings of the 30th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning. Madison, Wisconsin. Retrieved from

Boondao, R., Hurst, A., & Sheard, J.( 2008). Understanding cultural influences: Principles for personalized e-learning systems. Engineering and Technology, 48, p. 1326.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences:  Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks: CA: SAGE Publications.

Karpinski, A., Kirschner, P., Ozer, I., Mellott, J., & Ochwo, P. (2013). An exploration of social networking site use, multitasking, and academic performance among United States and European university students. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1182-1192.

Kofman, F. (2006). Conscious business: How to build value through values. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Lave, J. (1993). Situated learning in communities of practice. In Resnick, L., Levine, J., & Teasley, S. (Eds). Perspectives on socially shared cognition, (pp. 17-36). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McPherson, G. (2014). Sense of Community in Multicultural Blended Learning College Courses and the Relationship to Intercultural Sensitivity. (Doctoral Dissertation). Available from ProQuest. (UMI 3687490).

O’Dowd R. (2007) Evaluating the outcomes of online intercultural exchange. ELT Journal, 61(2), pp. 145-152.

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