Adapting elearning programs cross-culturally

Culture determines not only how one learns and what one learns but also what one perceives as important to learn – and the effects of culture on learners’ experiences in elearning can be profound. Culture affects social behavior, communication, cognitive processes, and how one interacts with learning technologies – all central components to elearning design (Vatrapi, 2008). Anybody who has taught multi-cultural classes innately understand this in those “lost in translation” moments – dead silence, hesitation, discomfort, lack of participation – all visual cues. But if you’re doing an elearning course, especially if it’s self-paced, trainers cannot know what’s going on at the other end for learners. 

Because of the nature of elearning the relative risks of culturally inappropriate design are greater – you risk not only lack of participation, but people could reject the course outright, or alternatively take the course, but use valuable resources such as extra time in order to complete it. Another risk is that learning outcomes just aren’t the same and the knowledge that has been “transferred” is simply not applicable in the learner’s environment.

So what does this mean for the instructional designer?

Course designers must consider that their training or elearning course is going to accommodate the learners’ preferences and learning outcomes. Particular steps can be taken to adapt elearning for cross-cultural learners (from Edmundson):

1) Language translation – do materials need to be translated into (local) languages, including possibly making changes from American to British English? Are cultural references made within the material relevant to learners?

2) Localization – are the learning materials appropriate to the specific cultural context? Is imagery – such as the use of colors – appropriate? Is the clothing appropriate? Are the gestures culturally appropriate and understandable?

3) Access – do users have access to the technology that they need in order to undertake the elearning course (computers, internet/broadband connection, plugins &/or administrative ability to download them)?

4) Critical cultural distinctions in learners (from Campbell, 2011)

  • Are the learners cooperative or individualist learners?
  • Are the learners primarily motivated internally or externally?
  • How do the learners typically experience control over their learning – do they have a preference for following sequential instruction, or do they discover different aspects at their own pace?
  • What role do learners expect teachers to take – authoritative experts, or facilitators?
  • What value do learners place on errors – are errors considered a crucial part of the experience of learning, or are learners considered to be educated after they can perform a given task without errors?

In today’s truly international work environment, trainers need to go beyond merely recognizing cultural differences to actually adapting their programs to accommodate for those differences – and in the process avoiding potentially costly errors.

By @rgogos


Vatrapi, R.V. (2008). Cultural Considerations in Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 3(2), 159-201.

Andrea Edmundson. Free resources accessible from her website.

Alice Campbell. (2011). Authored this Wiki page

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