Addressing the Cultural Disconnect in Online Learning for First Nations Students in Canada

Culturally Diverse students

Distance learning has grown gradually during the last three decades. It has grown from correspondence and audio conferencing methods to online and video teleconferencing.Target groups in virtual learning environments have a wide range of cultural backgrounds both in Canada, United States, United Kingdom and other developed countries (Collis 1999; Bentley, Tinney & Chia, 2005). Composition of students has also changed over time. Cultural diversity in learning environments increases with the level of education. Post secondary education has students from different cultural backgrounds converging in world class universities. Cultural differences have been visible between learners and educators at all levels of education. Students from different cultures have different academic performance and interests. According to the Hawthorn report (1966), there was an increase in dropout rates for native children from public schools in Canada in 1950s and early 1960s. The dropout was caused by cultural differences between students. Some of the differences that contributed to cultural inequalities in Canada included economic and educational arena of parents; this shows clearly the disadvantages of poor cultural integration which occurred over the years (Hayes, 1990).

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Several factors contribute to difficulty in learning among students in virtual learning environments. Gay (2002) observed that students with physical and mental disabilities have trouble when learning in any institution. The situation is worse in North America especially when the students in question are poor European-American, natives or people of color (Grossman, 1995). Personality of students and social competence contribute to academic activities. Instructors have varied conclusions about their students with diverse environmental and cultural backgrounds. European-American students are considered as intelligent compared to native African-Americans and Latinos. On the other hand, African- American, natives and Latinos are viewed as rude by their teachers. Henderson (1996) linked the bad behavior of native, black and Hispanic students to parental control and culture.

Native students in Canada and United States are slow learners as compared to European-American counterparts (Demmert, 2001). Demmert (2001) further noted that native students outdo Hispanic and African-Americans by fourth grade during their education. Variation in performance of students from lower grade and high school contributes to understanding levels in higher education. Emergence of virtual leaning environments in the recent past has increased variance in abilities of students with diverse cultural backgrounds (Rheingold, 1993). Natural abilities in mathematics, science, language and reading contribute to students’ performance in virtual learning environments. Native and students from minority groups are considered to be economically poorer than their European-American counterparts.

Language and culture are valued most by natives. Corson (1992) argues that diverse learning environments threaten things which are valued to students from minority groups. When native students in Canada despise their teachers, the teachers respond in the same way (Collis 1999). Teachers’ misconception of cultures is not just a misunderstanding. Instead it is a basis for disregarding cultural norms of diverse groups, which has manifested well in virtual learning environments (English-Currie, 1990). Cultural diversification is not considered by most instructors of teleconferencing and online leaning environments when teaching (Goodfellow et al. 2001).

According to First (1988), immigrants from Asia and other parts of the world experience learning difficulties in American environments. It has been found that lives and environments of learners modify their behaviors (First, 1988). When First Nations students interact with others negatively, their learning abilities are hindered. Their learning abilities are worsened by instructors from a different cultural background than their own. These students from diverse backgrounds need customized teaching methods which suit their academic-cultural needs (Goodfellow, 2005). According to English-Currie (1990), interaction between native students and their teachers is poor in most classrooms. Teachers may not like responses given by native students because they may sound rude. Canadian Native students view their teachers as white and middle class. They feel that materials taught by them are not relevant. This kind of attitude may hinder concentration in class. For these students’ physical observation is vital unlike others who are accustomed to different learning environments (Gunawardena et al. 2003).

Students from Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America face learning challenges as compared to their domestic peers because of language barriers (Goodfellow et al. 2001). This problem is also faced by native students when they attend same classes with European-American colleagues (First, 1988). According to Demmert (2001), economic factors have influenced native student’s performance in the United States. The situation is not different in Canada. Most native people have poor economic abilities as compared to whites (Hawthorn, 1966). Native Indians are far poorer than European-American people in Canada. Blacks too are considered to be of lower class than European-Americans. Performance of most students from such family background is below average academically. Those who enroll in virtual learning institutions display similar abilities. This can be attributed to lack of finances to buy necessary equipment required for learning in such institutions. Instructors provide materials on the internet which needs computers and internet connection. Most native and black communities cannot afford to buy the required equipment and services for these purposes in the right qualities (Saettler, 1990). Furthermore, some of them are not computer literate.

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Hawthorn (1966) gave some recommendations to the government which were expected to reduce cultural barriers in schools. He stressed that there is need for collaboration between schools, governments, universities and multinational corporations to enhance effective learning in multicultural environments (Hawthorn, 1966).

Virtual learning environments

Advancing technology in the last few decades has caused an emergence of virtual learning. This emergence occurred when teleconferencing became a medium of communication between instructor and students (Shih, & Yang, 2008). The increase in virtual learning has been caused by the rising need for higher education (Ho & Burniske, 2005). According to English-Currie (1990), native students face learning difficulties while adjusting to the absence of non-visual clues. The non-visual nature of virtual learning environments contributes to the frustration experienced by native students. Instructional design has failed to accomplish the required teaching objectives of virtual learning environment (Shih, & Yang, 2008). Most of the instructional methods designed have failed to consider cultural diversification of targeted students (Goodfellow, et al. 2001).

Cultural problems of Virtual learning environments

Virtual learning environments lack effectiveness when students come from varied cultural backgrounds. Students from French speaking countries in Africa and Spanish speaking countries in Latin America have difficulty in class (Warschauer, 1999). In most Canadian virtual learning environments, instructors use English as the language of instruction. Even students from English speaking countries do not easily understand what is taught in Canadian colleges because of accent differences. Native students along with those from foreign countries especially Asia, Africa and Latin America have trouble while learning due to the language barrier (Branch, 1997). Native students in Canada face the same problems because they use their native languages most of the time. Most native students learned English when they joined schools (Kostopoulous, 1998). In some countries with strong cultural backgrounds, teaching is partially conducted in local languages especially in basic schools. Most students from these places do not understand advanced English (Shih, & Yang, 2008).

The current learning systems provided online are determined by learning theories (Henderson, 1996). Universities have failed to respond to educational cultural needs of Indian communities in Canada and the United States (Demmet, 2001). This has been worsened by the increase of virtual learning environments. It has become difficult for instructors to attend to various needs of students who are not physically available. Virtual learning environments have a limitation of communication as students do not get a chance to ask their teachers direct questions (Shih, & Yang, 2008). No teachers get immediate feedback from students (Hayes, 1990).

The current demographic changes in Canada and other countries around the world need respond to the understanding variation effect caused by language, racial and cultural background. Cultural groups bring characteristics based on cultural traditions and practices to virtual learning environments (Joo, 1999). For example learning styles, value systems, cognitive styles and expectations are varied among students. These characteristics are brought in different forms. It is necessary for educationists to understand the characteristics before they embank on instructional design. Effective instructional design process ensures there is a maximum realization of students’ potential.

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According to Henderson (1996), instructional designers face two basic challenges in Canada and other developed countries which have a diverse cultural population. Incorporating a learner’s cultural learning differences into the design is one challenge. The other challenge is how to use cultural adaptations to realize objectives of the educational training. Most instructional designers have not put the required emphasis on cultural diversities. Henderson (1996) believes that to make systems successful, instructional design must consider cultural diversities.

Although instructional designers have considered cultural learning differences in the past, the emergence of virtual learning environments has increased design challenges. Studies by Branch (1996) have shown that more need be done to address cultural barriers in virtual learning environments. Dealing with cultural and language challenges in these environments is the main requirement of instructional designers at this time (Gorski and Clark, 2001). Cultural conditions requiring attention includes addressing cross-cultural communication skills as well as barriers. Cultural communications skills and barriers affect both instructors and students in virtual leaning environments (Hawthorn, 1966). Students are hard hit by these barriers because direction and movement of information is mainly from teacher to student. According to Branch (1996), existing frameworks should be used to design instructional methods which are effective in addressing this disconnect. Virtual learning environments fail to achieve their major objectives because of poor attention to the languages of natives and minority students (Demmert, 2001). Furthermore, Demmet (2001) believes that using simple language enhance student’s interest in class.

Addressing Cultural Concerns in Virtual Learning Environment Design

To improve virtual learning environments’ effectiveness for all students, instructional design has three major issues which must be considered (Henderson, 1996). First there must be a feedback system which evaluates the student’s level of understanding in class. Second, instructional conversation between instructor and student must be developed or improved. Finally instructional literacy should be focused during design. To ensure that these three issues are considered during design, instructors must realize and recognize the presence of native students in their learning environments even when they are not physically present. It is necessary that teachers understand the demographics of their students. Having the right information about of the students’ various cultural backgrounds and racial orientations will help teachers understand the requirements of their instructional practices. Administrators should have clear demographics of students in each of their classes. The information can be made available to every new instructor at the beginning of every semester.

Concurrency between learning environments, language and culture of a community is critical to success of learners (Demmert, 2001). To be successful in virtual learning environments, designers must put in place mechanisms which allow culture, language and social backgrounds to play a role. According to Demmert, (2001), native students who have been incorporated in programs where language and culture are emphasized report academic success and reduced dropouts from school. In his studies, Demmert (2001) further showed that school attendance and general student behavior in class improved. Language and culture can be incorporated when designing virtual leaning in Canada and other countries. Although there is a high level of cultural diversity in Canada, little has been done by academic institutions to address issues associated with minority groups (Hawthorn, 1966). Tribal languages are used from childhood by native Indians and other minority groups and this contributes to their poor English language development (Collier, 1993). English is widely used in institutions of higher learning in Canada. Native students are disadvantaged due to their poor language development. In virtual learning environments, students do not get an opportunity to engage their teachers when they fail to understand what they are taught due to language barriers (Joo, 1999). There is a need for the development of study materials which can be used by students alongside teachings that are conducted in English. Although language development is poor for native students, their written English is better than spoken one (Demmert, 2001). Therefore, written material provides alternative learning for them. Students can always refer to their academic materials when they fail to understand what is taught (Kostopoulous, 1998).

Materials provided by instructors for online learning should consider the cultural back ground of each student. English is the second language of most of native students. Therefore, materials provided should be written in simple English which is easy for all students to understand. According to Chen, Mashhadi, Ang, & Harkrider, (1999), simple English is vital for effective learning in classes with diverse student populations. The materials should have simple sentence construction and must avoid humor. According to Chen, Mashhadi, Ang, & Harkrider (1999), these materials should be culturally neutral in all aspects. Designers must keep in mind that their designs are for the “global student” rather than local population.

Equipping students with English writing and speaking skills at the beginning of their programs can help to develop the language (Demmert, 2001). Demmert (2001) found that improving these skills will increase the chances of success for students with language deficiencies. Computers were used in early 1980s to improve language fluency in the United States and this same strategy can be used by institutions to improve English for native and culturally diverse people in Canada (Corson, 1995). Institutions offering virtual learning should ensure that necessary and sufficient technological facilities are available to students. Some institutions of higher learning do not have enough virtual learning equipment to accommodate all students (McConnell, 2005). Universities should equip their labs and halls before offering virtual learning courses (Collier, 1993). Collier further asserts that accessibility of information technology equipment is a major factor in effectiveness of the virtual learning environments. Students who enroll in such programs should ensure that they are technologically ready (Shih, & Yang, 2008). Useful soft-ware must be developed to help students when assigned tasks which involve computers. Soft-ware like Java Runtime is useful (Shih, & Yang, 2008). Instructors should inform student about necessity of such applications at the beginning of academic programs (Shih, & Yang, 2008). Collier (1993) believes that teaching styles contribute greatly to the success of students. Some cultures and languages are accustomed to a particular teaching style. Instructors should be culturally flexible to allow their students to explore diversification effectively. Instructors should further design their styles with close consideration before using.

Different cultures have different ways to interpret, respond and solve problems. In culturally diverse environments, several descriptions are given for one single issue (Collier, 1993). It is necessary for instructors to consider all possible responses from their students before airing an issue. Instructors must develop comfortable ways to learn and think within a given culture. Thinking patterns of most people vary greatly (Bentley, Tinney, & Chia, 2005). For example, native students perceive some objects differently from others (Bentley, Tinney, & Chia, 2005). An Instructor should include gestures in their teaching especially when communicating by teleconferencing (Henderson, 1996). In cases where gestures are used, video teleconferencing should be preferred over audio teleconference. Gestures rely a lot on body movement and this can only be only achieved if an instructor is visible (Gunawardena el al. 2003).

Interest of students should be put into considerations during instructional design. Studies have shown that students studying post graduate degrees are more likely to concentrate in a virtual learning environment than undergraduate students (McConnell, 2005). This is no difference for native people in Canada. Universities must therefore consider these factors while starting any program. More postgraduate programs should be introduced than undergraduate in virtual learning environments because post graduate can register better success than undergraduate. What one student feel is good may not meet the needs of another in these levels.

Students have different responses to learning styles. One style may be effective to one cultural group while shows little effects on others. Learning environments with diverse students need simple learning styles to make learning effective. Other students would want loosely structured learning environments that promote challenging self-discovery.

High-context and low-context cultural backgrounds should be used to successfully achieve the objectives of virtual learning. Non-verbal coding ensures more communication abilities are realized (Bentley, Tinney, & Chia, 2005). Native learners in Canada require more social environments. When administrators are designing learning environments, they should arrange classrooms in a manner which gives native students opportunities to explore their social contexts (Bentley, Tinney, & Chia, 2005). This can be capitalized to ensure their virtual learning is effective. Students should be engaged in groups to improve the English skills of native students. Activities such as story-based task sharing can serve well in developing English for native students (Chen, 1999). This would encourage communicative competence between students and instructors.

Students should be informed of their teacher’s values (Collier, 1993). This should be done by instructors at the beginning of teaching program. Potential conflicts should be highlighted to avoid unnecessary protest from students who lag behind. Bentley, Tinney, & Chia, (2005) think that instructional design, instructional materials and strategies must consider both cultural and language variation of their classes. An instructor should avoid using detailed syllabus. They should be ready to try new ways of teaching until they find the most effective method (Henderson, 1996). When there is an opportunity to consult colleagues or students from minority groups, instructors should do so to increase their chances of finding the best teaching methods for an amorphous virtual class (Henderson, 1996).

To increase their interest in class, Instructors should create motivating goals for their students. Although students are not with the teacher physically, motivational and goal-oriented structures may result in improved interests (Grossman, 1995). While teaching, instructors they should engage students through teleconferencing (Shih, & Yang, 2008). Instructional designers should further design operations to activate learner’s interests. Students should be encouraged to obtain information from each other to complete successfully any task given.

References

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