Cultural differences can be evident in the way we dress, present ourselves,talk, socialise, in many aspects of who we are. The visual differences may be less pronounced when we are online, they are hidden, however there are many aspects of who we are that when shared can highlight differences, the way we talk, interact & communicate. Stephen Thorpe, in Enhancing Online Collaboration, suggests that "Cultural differences are likely to be more significant online, and they are not always obvious due to the lack of emotional cues and feedback." [p12]
Experiencing cultural difference is an exciting part of participating in an open online course within an international forum, however it can generate difficulties or challenges that need to be considered from a facilitators perspective.
Whilst there are many of these challenges that may not be able to be overcome it is part of the facilitator's role to at least recognise these challenges & make an effort to assist learners in overcoming them where possible.
What is cultural difference?
That amazing feeling, when you are travelling in a foreign country & you step away from the well trodden tourist trail to find yourself immersed in another culture is exhilerating. For me it is one of the attractions of travelling, that makes every trip new & 'different'. When I commenced the FO2010 course I took for granted that with many NZ participants there would be little in the way of obvious cultural difference, we all speak english & having travelled to NZ a few times & having had many Kiwi friends in Australia I did not expect any cultural differences to emerge. Yet they did and it has been an added bonus of participating in the course.
Some examples of cultural difference I have experienced during this course.
I am really enjoying using the term "it can all turn to custard", which I now understand to be a NZ phrase (my husband reminds me that in Australia we use a less dignified word for custard). I have heard the phrase used a couple of times, once from Sarah & then from Willy.
In another session we were chatting about where we were sitting and someone referred to the bird outside the window in a tree however she used the proper names for both, which were obviously NZ native, as some other participants also did not recognise what she was referring to. These little differences are what makes us specific to our culture.
Language as a cultural barrier
Participating in PLENK2010 with such a large number (1500+) of international participants is allowing me to start to understand how challenging it is for non-english speakers to participate in an online course. There is a large community of learners from South America and they have formed their own FB group. As a keen FB user I checked it out but I was unable to read the text, there we go... a small taste of how it feels to be shut out due to a language barrier. I still have a long way to go before I think I will feel confident facilitating with learners who struggle with english. I need to watch & learn how others do this.
There are methods in place to allow non-english speakers to interpret what's going on, although I am not sure how to use it, there is an interpreting tool. Heli has described in her blog - 'Heli on Connectivism' the challenges she has faced attending the course when english is her second language and how she gets around this by finding another participants blog who offers a clear run down of what has been discussed, in saying that Heli obviously has a good grasp of english as her blog posts inidicate, she simply struggles with the pace of the Elluminate discussions - hey there's that much technical jargon (connectivist speak) I sometimes struggle.
What does it mean to be a culturally competent facilitator?
No one facilitator can expect to know all cultural differences & even if they did they could not know how they may effect different participants/learners but I believe the key to being a culturally competent facilitator is being open & available so that participants are made to feel comfortable raising any concerns that they have which in turn will give you a better understanding of the problem/issue & allow you as the facilitator to work with the participant to overcome it. However as facilitators it is still important to remember we can't 'fix' everything & sometimes it may be simply be giving participants the opportunity to raise their concerns that allows them to move forward, even without a magic 'fix'.
Welcoming people of different cultures, nationalities and ethnicities into an online group