What Did You Say? How Cultural Differences Can Impact eLearning

Cultural differences can, and often do, impact the effectiveness of eLearning programs. These differences not only impact the experience of learning, they also impact the impression of Learning and Development and workplace training programs.

Diversity Matters

Prioritizing diversity and inclusion is critical when creating and managing online learning and “train-the-trainer” programs. In our increasingly global business environment, course designers, trainers, and participants are unlikely to share the same views, experiences, and expectations. Materials prepared and delivered from a single-source perspective can create friction for learners [1], resulting in disengagement, lack of understanding, and even resentment.

We know that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategies are critical to attracting and retaining great talent. Companies therefore cannot afford to have tone-deaf training. Trainers must understand, embrace and include DEI principles into program development, learning environments, content, delivery platforms, evaluations, and analytics. We can’t expect learners to adapt to teachers; teachers must create Learning and Development (L&D) programs that are inclusive and adapt to learners.

Cultural Cues To Watch

Here are some of the biggest issues to watch for, and how to prevent them from impacting eLearning effectiveness.

1. Language Barriers

When courses are designed by those who speak English as a native and sole language, it puts non-native speakers at risk of not understanding the nuances of the English language. Non-native speakers may interpret words or phrases much differently, and even different English dialects can pose a problem in interpretation. When dealing with a multilingual audience, translate materials into multiple languages as needed, including support for the hearing impaired. Be careful to avoid using slang, jargon, acronyms, and metaphors that don’t translate well or that can be misinterpreted.

2. Cultural Norms

Differences in cultural norms can impact how learners participate [2] in training programs, including how they respond to questions and their perceived role in the learner/teacher relationship. Some learners may be more reserved, less likely to participate vocally, and view the roles of an instructor differently. This can make them hesitant to ask questions or gain more specific direction. These quiet, more reserved students may give the impression they don’t understand the material. Other learners are more participatory, vocal and likely to view the instructor as a facilitator who can/should be questioned and challenged for maximum learning value. These students want more independence and interaction with peers, which runs the risk that they could dominate the discussion and leave others feeling left out.

3. Visual Cues

Culture often influences how images are interpreted, and sometimes the confusion can be awkward or downright offensive. Common hand gestures [3] like the “ok” or “thumbs up” have very different connotations in different cultures, and various color interpretations [4] can impact learner experience. For example, while black is often thought of as the color of mourning, it’s actually white in many countries. In the U.S., red is a warning, but in China, it represents good fortune and prosperity. To avoid ambiguity, confusion, or offense, use universal visual cues in training design, have content reviewed for cultural sensitivity, and customize training for the specific audience to ensure maximum relevancy and understanding.

4. Technology Bias

Lack of internet access is a real issue across large parts of America [5], and with the popularity of eLearning, this can inadvertently discriminate against rural and community areas lacking internet access or experiencing poor bandwidth from providers. Tech bias can also be a problem for those who work in industries not requiring 24/7 technology access or the need to use a computer to execute their job. To avoid disenfranchising those who can’t—or don’t—fit the profile of a “typical online learner” consider designing programs to be lightweight, consume minimal bandwidth, and that utilize platforms that are accessible on mobile devices.

5. Time Zone Bias

With today’s distributed workforce, scheduling synchronous training programs can be extremely problematic. For example, an hour-long session set for 3:00 p.m. in California falls directly during dinner/family time in New York, which puts those workers at a disadvantage. When training must span international borders, the situation can get even worse. A lunch-and-learn at mid-day in some parts of America is the equivalent of late evening in Europe. Trainers also must be cognizant of cultural holidays so as not to interfere or force people to train on days off. This time zone bias is one of the many reasons why self-directed Learning Management Systems (LMS) and streaming on-demand training tools are far better than synchronous or face-to-face instruction—they allow learners to learn at the time and pace that works best for them.

6. Gender Bias

Content that doesn’t reflect individuals across gender identity will not resonate with learners and may alienate many. This is an area where implicit bias [6] is especially common, with materials often showing people in roles typically associated with gender—male doctors and female nurses, for example, or male truck drivers and female schoolteachers. Implicit bias is sometimes hard to identify (especially within yourself) so it can help course designers and trainers to take an assessment to identify any potential hidden biases. Beyond bias, gender norms also vary widely between different countries and cultures. It’s important for training materials to not only represent various genders in different roles, but also be culturally sensitive to gender roles and expectations.

7. Assessment Bias

Beyond the course materials themselves, how you assess training and course completion must also take cultural variations into account. For example, when conducting evaluations, evidence shows [2] that some cultures are more exam-oriented and learn and memorize materials for the purpose of passing the test. Whereas, other cultures are more process and application-oriented, keen on learning how the material can be applied in real-world situations. Considering these cultural differences when designing and implementing learning assessments is critical; otherwise, it may appear the material is falling flat or learners aren’t understanding, when in reality it’s just that the assessment methodology doesn’t suit their learning style.

Content designers, trainers, and administrators need to learn how to be aware of the influence of culture on the learner and learning process. Culture is fluid [7]—it sometimes changes rapidly, and trainers must be continually aware of environmental change and its impact on learning experiences. As cultural norms shift, HR and Learning and Development functions must be prepared to adapt learning methods, messages, and systems accordingly.



[2] Cultural Differences in Online Learning: International Student Perceptions

[3] 5 everyday hand gestures that can get you in serious trouble outside the US

[4] The Meaning of Colors in Cultures Around the World

[5] COVID-19 lockdowns expose the digital have-nots in rural areas – here’s which policies can get them connected


[7] The Effect of Cultural Awareness in Online Instruction: An International Perspective

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