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Cultural Diversity in Online Education: An Exploration of Instructors’ Perceptions and Challenges


by Alex Kumi-Yeboah, James Dogbey, Guangji Yuan & Patriann Smith - 2020

Purpose/Objectives/Research/Focus of Study: This qualitative study investigated online instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in the online classroom and the challenges that instructors of online courses encounter in their efforts to incorporate cultural diversity and multicultural learning contents in the online learning environment. An associated goal of the study was to explore the instructional strategies that online instructors use to create conducive online learning environments that value cultural differences as well as the educational experiences of students in online classrooms.

Population/Participants/Subjects: Fifty full-time instructors of online courses from three universities in the northeastern part of the United States participated in the study. The participants included Clinical Professors of Practice (n = 4), Assistant Professors (n = 18), Associate Professors (n = 16), and Full Professors (n = 12). There were 23 females and 27 males from different academic disciplines and cultural backgrounds.

Research Questions: Unlike many previous studies, this study sought to uncover online instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in the online classroom, the pedagogical strategies they employ to address issues related to cultural diversity in online learning, and the challenges they encounter in their efforts to promote cultural diversity and incorporate multicultural learning content into their online instruction. Specifically, this study explored the following research questions: (a) How do instructors of online courses perceive cultural diversity and the impact of cultural diversity in online learning? (b) What instructional strategies do instructors of online courses use to address issues related to cultural diversity in online learning environments? (c) What challenges do instructors of online courses encounter in their efforts to promote cultural diversity and multicultural learning content in online environments?

Research Design: This study employed qualitative research design using semi-structured interviews and content analysis to explore instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in online learning as well as the challenges encountered by instructors of online courses in their efforts to promote cultural diversity and incorporate multicultural learning content into their online instruction. The qualitative research design was chosen because it allowed the researchers to collect and analyze data about the instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity based on their own voices, with the aim of producing conceptual explanations of the types of instructional strategies that instructors use to promote cultural diversity in online education and the challenges they encountered in the online classroom (Ashong & Commander, 2012; Jung & Gunawardena, 2014).

Findings/Results: The findings of the study pointed to four themes, namely that: (a) differential perceptions of cultural diversity exist among instructors of online courses; (b) perceptions of cultural diversity depend on the academic disciplines taught by instructors; (c) a variety of instructional strategies—collaborative online learning activities, incorporating multicultural learning activities and global learning content, using cultural awareness activities, addressing the impact of multicultural education—support cultural diversity in the online environment; and (d) there are significant challenges associated with promoting cultural diversity in online teaching and learning.

Conclusions and Recommendations: Findings revealed that the majority of the instructors view cultural diversity as the recognition of students’ cultural differences within the online learning environment, the ability of instructors to infuse multicultural content into their curriculum, and the capacity of instructors to use a variety of strategies to facilitate instructional delivery to meet the needs of students from diverse cultural backgrounds who study in the online environment. Findings also suggested that instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in the online setting vary depending on their teaching discipline and academic preparation. Specifically, instructors in education, social sciences, and engineering demonstrated a good understanding and awareness of cultural diversity. They also felt the need to provide support that enhanced the learning experiences of diverse student populations in the online environment. On the contrary, instructors in the physical sciences did not demonstrate such a good understanding of cultural diversity and showed little knowledge of ways to incorporate multicultural learning content to help diverse student populations achieve academic success in online education. In light of the findings from this study, the researchers recommend that online instructors and instructional designers work toward enhancing their knowledge of cultural diversity and toward incorporating multicultural resources in their curricula to support diverse student populations (including those with learning disabilities) in online education.

Online education has become an integral part of the educational landscape in the United States and around the world—and by several accounts serves as the primary source of enrollment growth in many institutions of higher learning in recent years (e.g., Allen, Seaman, Poulin, & Straut, 2016). The rapid growth in online education has been attributed to several factors, including advances in technology, decreases in state and federal funding for schools, rising costs of tuition, an evolving workforce seeking lifelong learning options, and academic leaders’ strategic focus on developing online learning programs to meet the educational needs of diverse population of students (Kauffman, 2015; Kuruvilla, Norton, Chalasani, & Gee, 2012). According to Petersen (2015), the proliferation of online education in higher education inevitably opens the doors of an otherwise inaccessible educational opportunity to a diverse population of students, including students from different religious backgrounds, sexual orientations, ethnic backgrounds, countries of origin, socioeconomic status, and students with disabilities. For example, Dabbagh (2007) observed that the student population in online learning is heterogeneous, comprising students who are mostly employed, goal-oriented, energetic about technological innovations, and self-directed.


Furthermore, the remarkable growth in online education has led to the globalization of curricula content in online learning where instructors and students cross national boundaries and cultures to construct and share knowledge. These kinds of learning environments (where learners/instructors come from diverse backgrounds to build new knowledge), however, pose challenges to both instructors and students because of the cultural differences, which are primarily due to the differences in language, communication styles, social interaction styles, and prior educational experiences (Angeli & Schwartz, 2016; Kumi-Yeboah et al., 2017; Stahl et al., 2010; Yang et al., 2010). For example, research reports have documented that students from different cultural backgrounds demonstrate different levels of engagement in the online environment—including their collaborations in online activities (e.g., Strijbos & de Laat, 2010; Wise et al., 2012).


Another challenge is that most programs in online learning are designed on a “one-size-fits-all” model for students with different backgrounds, with little to no attention devoted to addressing issues of cultural diversity that might influence teaching and learning in this environment (Ashong & Commander, 2012). Additionally, several researchers (Adeoye & Wentling, 2007; Rogers et al., 2007; Smith & Ayers, 2006) have observed that most online courses ignore the cultural and sub-cultural differences in students’ learning behavior based on the assumption that online learning environments provide equal opportunities for all students to learn, regardless of their cultural backgrounds. In other words, most online education programs are designed on the notion that students with different cultural backgrounds would adapt to the online learning environment in the same way. To this end, Hills (2003) highlighted the significance of addressing issues related to cultural diversity in the online learning environment, stating that it is a mistake to assume that cultural diversity is based solely on ethnic or national differences, rather, “within any one country, there will be regional differences, differences in upbringing and age” (Hills, 2003, p. 64). Hills stated further that cultural experiences have a significant impact on how students and instructors interact with educational materials in the online environment.


One suggested intervention for addressing the aforementioned issues related to cultural diversity in online education in recent years has been the internationalization of academic content in online learning by incorporating multicultural educational materials into the online curricula via assignments, course reading, activities, group discussions, and presentations (Mittelmeier et al., 2018; Yang et al., 2010) to encourage participation among students from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. This suggestion, however, assumes that instructors and instructional designers are aware of the importance of cultural diversity and other factors that influence students’ learning experiences and academic achievements in the online environments (Gómez-Rey et al., 2016).


Yet, only a few empirical studies have investigated these issues, particularly, online instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in the online environment, and the instructional strategies they employ to address issues related to cultural diversity in the online classrooms (Adeoye, & Wentling, 2007; Gómez-Rey et al., 2016; Gu et al., 2017; Gunawardena, Layne, & Frechette, 2012; Hsieh, 2010; Mittelmeier et al., 2018). In efforts to address these issues, our study used a qualitative research approach to investigate online instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in the online classroom. We also examined the challenges instructors of online courses face in their efforts to address cultural diversity in online learning. An associated goal was to explore the instructional strategies that teachers of online courses use to create conducive online learning environments that value cultural diversity and enhance students’ learning.


The following three research questions guided our study:


(a)

How do instructors of online courses perceive cultural diversity and the impact of cultural diversity on online learning?


(b) What instructional strategies do instructors of online courses use to promote cultural diversity in online learning environments?


(c) What challenges do instructors of online courses encounter in their efforts to promote cultural diversity and multicultural learning contents in online learning environments?


It is the hoped that findings from this study will help broaden online instructors’ understanding of the impact of cultural diversity in online education, as well as enhance their efforts in designing instructional activities to meet the needs of diverse population of students in the online environment (Ashong & Commander, 2012; Du, Zhou, Xu, & Lei, 2016; Okwumabua et al., 2011).


BACKGROUND


STUDIES EXPLORING CULTURAL DIVERSITY IN ONLINE EDUCATION


Cultural influence in education has attracted immense research interest for many years (Gay, 2000; Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005; Leask & Carroll, 2011), and in online education in recent years (Du et al., 2016; Goodfellow & Hewling, 2005; Gu et al., 2017; Jung & Gunawardena, 2014; Ke & Kwak, 2013; Liu, Liu, Lee, & Magjuka, 2010; Zaidi et al., 2016). Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) defined culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.” Such programming, or “software of the mind” refers to the integrated patterns of human knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors learned and transmitted through generations (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005, p. 4). Gay (2000) argued that “culture counts” and “is at the heart of all we do in the name of education, whether that is curriculum, instruction, administration, or performance assessment” (Gay, 2000, p. 8).


Goodfellow and Hewling (2005) identified two major themes that define cultural issues in online learning: (a) the development of inequities arising from dominant cultural values embodied in teaching materials and methods, and (b) the potential miscommunications among participants during educational interaction that arise from cultural differences. Reports from several other studies (Du et al., 2016; Jung & Gunawardena, 2014; Ke & Kwak, 2013; Liu et al., 2010; Parrish & Linder-vanberschot, 2010) recommended that instructors incorporate features that accommodate diversity and appreciate cultural differences in their teaching to enhance students learning.


Beyond this, Gu and others (2017) used correlation analysis to explore the relationship between cultural factors and emerging roles among students in China and the United States. The findings from their study revealed a significant association between students’ thinking styles and the adopted roles of students as starter, supporter, arguer, questioner, challenger, and timer in online learning. Furthermore, the Chinese students were found to be more likely to play the roles of an arguer, questioner, and challenger, while the American students preferred the role of a starter. Similarly, Gómez-Rey, Barberà, and Fernández-Navarro (2016) investigated students’ satisfaction with online learning using the six-dimensional Hofstede cultural model through multiple correspondence analysis and cluster analysis based on data from students’ pre/post survey responses across four universities in different countries. The authors found that students from high uncertainty avoidance levels (e.g., USA) were comfortable in a structured learning process, while students from countries with lower uncertainty avoidance levels (e.g., Spain and Mexico) were comfortable in an open-minded learning environment. The authors recommended the need for college instructors to be aware of the cultural differences among international students in order to enhance the learning experiences of these students in the online environment.


With the aim of increasing the participants’ cross-cultural understanding through their participation in online activities, Shadiev and Huang (2016) investigated 10 junior high school students (and their teachers) from two countries (China and Russia) about their online cross-cultural learning activities over four weeks. The participating teachers and students used their native language to share their knowledge in an attempt at reducing the anxiety that might occur in teaching and learning in a cross-cultural online setting. The authors found that teachers used speech-to-text recognition (SRT) and computer-aided translation (CAT) to support students’ cross-cultural learning and information exchanging in online education. Differing in process but obtaining somewhat similar results, Mittelmeier et al. (2018) found that sociocultural factors such as cultural background and social network circles influenced participation when students worked online with peers from other countries. Notwithstanding, Harrison and Peacock (2010) had previously observed that many students from the U.S. avoid working with international students and that many students prefer to work with peers with whom they share similar cultural backgrounds (see also Moore & Hampton, 2015; Rienties, Hernandez Nanclares, Jindal-Snape, & Alcott, 2013; Rienties, Héliot, & Jindal-Snape, 2013).


Focusing on interactions between students and instructors, Tan et al., (2010) conducted a phenomenological study with non-native English as a Second Language (ESL) graduate students. The researchers investigated the perceptions of online learning experiences to understand the effects of cultural differences and teachers’ responses in the online learning environment. Results from their study showed that participants felt dissatisfied with the fact that only a few instructors paid attention to the cultural diversity of the group. Participants also felt that online learning did not promote cultural understanding in the same way as the traditional classroom. The researchers recommended incorporating activities to promote diversity and cultural understanding in online programs.


CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE TEACHING IN EDUCATION


Culturally responsive teaching has been proposed by researchers in recent years as a means of addressing cultural issues in education and improving learning equity among students (e.g., Coffey & Farinde-Wu, 2016; Gay, 2010; Pitsoe & Dichaba, 2013; Thomas & Warren, 2017; Zhang, 2013). Gay (2010) defined culturally responsive teaching as “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant and effective for them” (Gay, 2010. p. 31). This approach to teaching, which is based on the notion that students learn well when consideration is given to their cultural backgrounds and values (Pitsoe & Dichaba, 2013) called for attention to curriculum design, learning context, student-teacher relationships, instructional teaching skills, classroom management, and assessment practices in ways that empower ethnically diverse students through academic success, cultural affiliation, and personal efficacy (Coffey & Farinde-Wu, 2016; Gay, 2010).


While culturally responsive pedagogy is a common instructional practice used in the traditional face-to-face education settings, researchers are beginning to adapt it to instructional practices in the online environment because it has been found to improve the learning equity among students in the online setting (Thomas & Warren, 2017; Woodley, Hernandez, Parra, & Negash, 2017; Zhang, 2013). To this end, Woodley et al. (2017) advocated for culturally responsive teaching and instructional practices as a change to the online classroom by “creating an environment that acknowledges, celebrates, and builds upon the cultural capital that learners and teachers bring to the online classroom” (p. 470). A meta-analysis study conducted by Aronson and Laughter (2016) on the theory and practice of culturally relevant education showed that culturally relevant educators use constructivist methods to develop bridges that connect students’ cultural references to academic skills and concepts. They also build on the cultural knowledge that students bring to the classroom, engage students in critical reflection about their own life experiences and the societies they come from, use inclusive curricula and activities to support students from diverse cultures, enhance students’ cultural competence, encourage students to learn from their own and peers’ cultures, take pride in their cultural backgrounds and others’, and work to promote social justice for all students in the educational system (Gay, 2010).


Scott, Sheridan, and Clark (2015) revised “culturally responsive teaching” to a new term they called “culturally responsive computing (CRC)” theory and used it to investigate digital equity in online education. The authors classified CRC into five tenets: (1) all students are capable of digital innovation; (2) the learning context supports transformational use of technology; (3) learning about one’s self along various intersecting sociocultural lines allows for technical innovation; (4) technology should be a vehicle by which students reflect and demonstrate understanding of their intersectional identities; and (5) barometers for technological success should take into account those who create, for whom, and to what ends, rather than who endures a socially and culturally irrelevant curriculum. The authors suggested that program designers, instructors, and students should collaboratively reflect on the intersection of their previous experiences and identities within technology environments, discover and create the assets of each individual, and create connections with participants within and outside communities. However, current studies present limited evidence, and there are, to date, few investigations of instructors’ perceptions of cultural responsiveness in online classrooms, or of pedagogical strategies that they use to promote culturally responsive pedagogy/teaching in the online learning environment. The authors pointed out that most current online curricula fail to ensure an instructor’s commitment to inclusiveness, diversity, cultural competence, and social justice. Hence, the need emerges for empirical research that examines culturally responsive teaching in online learning in relation to student learning outcomes.


In sum, the studies reviewed here reflect that more steps can be taken to significantly enhance instructors’ commitment to inclusiveness, diversity, cultural competence, and social justice. The current extant literature on diversity issues in online education, however, lacks sufficient investigation of instructors’ perspectives on cultural diversity in the online environment and of the instructional strategies that instructors can employ to promote multicultural content in the online classroom (Ke & Kwak, 2013). To address this gap in the literature, this study offers the chance for online instructors to describe their perspectives of cultural diversity and the challenges instructors face to facilitate cultural diversity in online education. It also explores the instructional strategies that instructors use to create culturally relevant teaching as related to multicultural education in online education.


THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK


This study draws on Bennett’s (2001) framework of multicultural research that explores cultural issues and how they affect the teaching and learning process in the traditional face-to-face classroom. Bennett’s multicultural research framework consists of four clusters: curriculum reform, equity pedagogy, multicultural competence, and societal equity. The first cluster, curriculum reform, refers to the process of detecting bias in media and educational materials, where students from underrepresented ethnic groups are excluded from the curriculum. Bennett stated that multicultural studies in the university-level curriculum have led to transformations in college courses. However, the core curriculum in most online courses does not require instructors to focus on the inclusion of cultural diversity. This situation becomes a hidden curriculum problem where the culture of the instructor influences the educational content and its presentation (Bennett, 2001).


The second cluster, equity pedagogy, aims at creating a learning environment where teachers and students can share cultural socialization in the teaching-learning process. It calls on teachers to become aware of the cultural, learning styles, and differences in communication patterns and social values of the students in order to help promote equity in the online classroom.


The third cluster, multicultural competence,refers to the ability of teachers and students to adjust, adapt, and operate successfully in a different cultural setting (i.e., become multicultural) without rejecting their cultural values. It consists of the ability of teachers to interpret communications (language, gestures), unconscious cues (body language), and cultural styles of students, which are different from that of the teacher.


The fourth cluster, societal equity, refers to equitable access, participation, and achievement of diverse students. Societal equity advocates for teachers to recognize the importance of classroom climate, satisfaction, social interaction, motivation, and issues of culture and language communication (Bennett, 2001). According to Rovai (2007), social equity emanates from the use of different communication patterns by diverse learners. Rovai found that culturally diverse students encounter communication challenges in online discussion because instructors and students from the dominant culture may not take into account how the cultural background of diverse students affects their communication. A few research studies have been conducted on instructors’ perspectives of cultural diversity in online education, specifically exploring instructional strategies instructors use to enhance cultural diversity in the online learning environment to affect social and teaching presence as well as meet the needs of diverse learners (Mittelmeier, et al., 2018; Scott et al., 2015). We employed Bennett’s (2001) multicultural framework to examine how instructors perceive and understand cultural diversity in the online environment and the challenges they face in their efforts to address issues related to cultural diversity in ways that enhance students’ academic success in online learning.


METHOD


Participants


We conducted a qualitative study using semi-structured interviews and content analysis to explore instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in online learning and to examine the challenges encountered by instructors of online courses in their efforts to incorporate multicultural learning content that values cultural diversity in the online setting. The qualitative research design allowed us to collect and analyze data about the participants’ perspectives of cultural diversity in an online learning environment while maximizing their voices—with the aim of producing conceptual explanations of the types of instructional strategies used by instructors to promote cultural diversity in online education (Ashong & Commander, 2012; Jung & Gunawardena, 2014).


Fifty (N=50) instructors of online and blended courses from three universities in the Northeastern part of the United States participated in the study. This qualitative study took place over a period of one and a half years (February 2016 to August 2017). The participants were full-time instructors, consisting of (8%, n=4) Clinical Professors of Practice in a professional tenure-track position, (36%, n=18) Assistant Professors in a tenure-track position, (32%, n=16) Associate Professors, and (24%, n=12) Full Professors who are tenured. Participants consisted of (46%, n=23) females and (54%, n=27) males from different academic disciplines. Participants included Education (40%, n=20); Social Sciences (32%, n=16), Engineering (18%, n=9), Physical Sciences (10%, n=5). Participants also represented a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, consisting of 16% African American, 36% White, 20% Hispanic, 24% Asian, and 4% other (see Table 1 for participants’ demographic information). To qualify as a participant in this study, the instructor had to have taught online/blended courses for at least two years at the college level. The rationale was to recruit instructors who had experience in facilitating online/blended courses and had fundamental skills in planning, organizing, and teaching online courses.


Table 1. Participants’ Demographic Information


Ethnicity

n

Academic Discipline

n

Academic Rank                

n


African American



8


Education


20


Assistant Professor             

 

18

Caucasians


Hispanics


Asian


Others

18


10


12


2

Social Sciences


Engineering


Physical Sciences

16


9


5

Associate professor                                                            

 Full Professor


Clinical Professor

16


12


 4


N = 50



RECRUITMENT AND DATA COLLECTION


We recruited the 50 instructors of online and blended courses from three universities in the United States. After Institutional Review Board approval, we contacted five universities and colleges about the purpose of the study and assured selected instructors of their confidentiality and identity. Three of the five universities agreed to our request, providing a list of all the instructors who taught online/blended courses so that we could contact them. We emailed the participants about the objectives of the study. Overall, 50 instructors responded and ultimately participated in the study, agreeing to have their online/blended courses observed. All instructors had at least two years of teaching online/blended courses. Instructors’ online teaching experiences helped them to explain their perceptions (Miles & Huberman, 1994) and challenges of cultural diversity in online education. The data for the study came from two primary sources: instructor interviews and the examinations of instructional activities in the online environments.


INSTRUCTOR INTERVIEWS


A semi-structured interview protocol was used to collect data from the participants (Creswell, 2013). The research questions and the theoretical framework guided the construction of the initial set of interview questions (see Appendix A for Interview Questions). The initial set of interview questions were then reviewed by three experts in the field of online learning and instructional technology for suggestions. The suggestions received from the experts guided the revision and the selection of the final set of interview questions used in the study. In addition, we used relevant probes and follow-up questions to guide issues and concepts identified as important to instructors on cultural diversity in online education. We scheduled interviews based on participants’ availability. Each interview lasted for 60 to 90 minutes and took place on the respective campuses of the participants in their offices (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Upon completion, the interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed for analysis. Pseudonyms were used to protect participants’ identities and confidentiality.


ONLINE INSTRUCTIONAL ACTIVITIES


In addition to the interview data, we conducted three-semester examinations (with detailed notes) of participants’ online instructional practices, attending to how participants incorporated cultural diversity and multicultural reading content into their online learning. The purpose of examining online instructional activities was to confirm or disconfirm insights from our analyses of the interview transcripts. Six of the participants did not give consent for their online activities to be examined due to institutional regulations that prohibited a third party from observing their online courses. The examination of the online instructional activities focused on instructors’ interactions with students, multicultural reading materials, posts in chat rooms, instructor feedback, students’ reflection posts, and how instructors monitored discussion boards in the online environment. Particular attention was devoted to examining students’ access to resources, diversity of the reading materials, opportunities provided for students to share their understanding of course content, accommodation for students with disabilities, and assignments related to cultural diversity in the online classrooms.


DATA ANALYSIS


Constant comparative analysis using “open,” “axial,” and “selective” coding was employed via grounded theory approach to analyze the data (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). We began with open coding of concepts, attributes, and relationships, which were obtained to form dimensions “along a continuum or range” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 117). We used Bennett’s (2001) theoretical framework on multicultural research and the research questions to guide the coding process. Specifically, the analysis focused on how instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity valued students’ cultural backgrounds and experiences in online learning classrooms as well as how they incorporated multicultural resources in their online teaching to meet the learning needs of all students. We also focused on how they responded and interacted with students in the online environment, the instructional strategies used, and the challenges they encountered in their efforts to create online learning environments that value cultural diversity.


The analysis began with interview data and field notes from the interviews, followed by the examination of instructors’ online activities (e.g., emails, chats, interactions with students, announcements, accommodations for students with disabilities, cross-cultural collaborations, and diverse reading content). The interview and instructional activity data were coded separately in this first level of coding through open coding. In open coding, we identified themes and patterns by breaking up the data into separate categories using constant comparative analysis to identify patterns. The interview transcripts were coded using NVivo 12 software. This software allowed us to use audit trail data as well as comments made during the data analysis stage. The audit trail comprised coded interview transcripts, observations of online activities, course posts, and emails, along with other relevant comments made during the data analysis process (i.e., memos, categories and sub-categories, and themes).


The analysis led to the identification of the following initial categories: “understanding cultural diversity in online learning,” “ cultural diversity depends on the content that instructors teach,” “addressing diversity in the online classroom,” “course expectations and directions for students in online learning,” “balancing equity in online learning,” “small and large group activities,” “creating conducive online learning environments,” “promoting interactive learning community for students in the online environment,” “cross-cultural collaborative online learning environment,” “dealing with students’ cultural differences in online learning,” and “challenges of identifying cultural differences in online settings.”


In the second phase of coding using axial coding (Charmaz, 2006), we assembled the data to reflect instructors’ understanding of cultural diversity, and how instructors provide learning opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds to succeed in online learning through the process of equitable pedagogy in online education (Ladson-Billings, 2006). The following categories emerged from this process: “knowledge and awareness of cultural diversity in virtual learning,” “perceptions of cultural diversity in online learning,” “cultural diversity depends on the academic discipline instructors teach,” “instructional strategies that promote cultural diversity in online learning,” “collaborative learning activities,” “instructional strategies to enhance cultural diversity,” “incorporating diverse learning activities and global learning contexts,” “addressing the impact of multicultural education in the online learning environment,” and “challenges of incorporating cultural diversity in online learning.”


With regard to the observational data, we analyzed 183 online postings from 18 online discussion topics that consisted of 18 online classrooms—namely, (a) Education (special education, instructional technology, curriculum studies, seminar in multicultural education, introduction to distance and online education, methods of teaching English as a Second Language [ESL], and seminar in research methods); (b) Engineering (introduction to electronics, fundamentals of geographic information systems [GIS], management science, operations, and project management); (c) Physical Sciences (physical and environmental science, emerging technologies in science, principles of human diseases, ecology: earth science); and (d) Social Sciences (human geography, communication studies, research methods in sociology, macroeconomics).  


Selective coding was used to re-examine the data to address any discrepancies, as more data were compared with the already examined data. We revised categories when additional cases were found, deleted categories that were not important, and established the final themes. Strauss and Corbin (1998) referred to this process as reaching “theoretical saturation,” which is achieved by collecting and analyzing data until it seems counterproductive “or the research runs out of time, money, or both” (p. 136). The final stage of this process is the copious use of “memos” (“code,” “theoretical,” and “operational notes”) that serve as a means of conceptualizing raw data throughout the coding process (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). In this case, we created definitions for codes and applied them systemically to interview and observation transcripts in tabular data (Boyatzis, 1998), reexamining the data for any discrepancies to ensure trustworthiness of the study (see Table 2 for data chart excerpt).


We further addressed trustworthiness and credibility of our data analytical process through triangulation by corroborating with the three data sources (interview transcripts, observations of online activities, and field notes) to confirm themes that emerged from the data (Merriam, 2009). A draft version of the interview transcripts, and the findings, were sent to participants as a form of member-checking to authenticate the accuracy of emerging themes (Creswell & Miller, 2000; Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011). After this process, we consolidated codes and categories from reviewers with our coding and categorization of the existing data. We generated categories by aggregating similar codes across sub-groups of participants. We also used interrelationships among categories to identify broader themes emerging from the data (Seidman, 2012). Last, we maintained a detailed record of data collection and analysis with our audit trail, which helped us to go back to the steps that led to the conclusions (including raw data, evidence of how data was reduced, analyzed, and synthesized) (Seidman, 2012). Through this final process, we arrived at four themes that we present in our findings.


Table 2. Summary of the Key Themes


Code

Representative quotations

Themes

Understanding cultural diversity in online learning Students’ diverse learning experiences






Recognizing cultural differences in online learning

Instructor Respondent

I believe that cultural diversity in online learning is the ability of instructors to recognize students’ cultural backgrounds and differences of experiences they bring to the virtual classroom and the need to connect contents to meet their learning needs to succeed.

Instructor Respondent

I understand cultural diversity as a pedagogical approach to engage culturally and linguistically diverse learners in the online learning environment. As an instructor there is the need to structure your course in an integrated learning content to help diverse learners in online classrooms.




Instructor Respondent

Cultural diversity is learning strategy where teachers empower students through social and academic means by giving them detail directions and support to succeed in the case of online learning.


Differential perceptions of cultural diversity exist among instructors of online courses


Cultural diversity in online education














Cultural diversity depends on academic learning content

Instructor Respondent

I think culturally diversity can be better incorporated to social sciences and education online courses than courses in the physical sciences. I teach physical sciences and it’s hard for me to infuse cultural diversity principles, which I barely understand how to implement in online teaching. I guess it depends on which subject or academic area one teaches, it’s hard to implement in an online science course.


Instructor Respondent

I teach African American studies courses as an online instructor. Well, I believe that cultural diversity can be applied into online courses for it works for me very well . . . I use examples that students could relate to help them understand the concept they read.



Instructor Respondent

Cultural diversity in online education depends on what you teach because I don’t think it could apply to all academic areas in online teaching or you could implement it in all online courses including the sciences. However, it could work in the sciences just that I don’t have the knowledge and skills on how to infuse cultural diversity into online sciences courses.


Instructor Respondent

With regards to cultural diversity in online learning, I believe that it depends on the content you teach, for example, I teach online education courses and have the skills on how to infuse diverse learning content to benefit diverse learners in online learning. I guess it may be difficult in other academic areas to develop learning content using cultural diversity strategies, so it may depend on what online course you teach.


Perceptions of cultural diversity depend on the academic disciplines taught by instructors


Effective communication




Clear, adequate, and concise expectations guidance and directions for students





Facilitating social interaction and equity in online learning

Instructor Respondent

Yeah! . . . I use several learning strategies to promote student engagement and participation in online discussion. I use both small and large group activities to provide diverse students opportunity voice or share ideas to help them become active learners, questions peers, and participate in the construction of knowledge. I think that small group activities allow students to be heard of their views and also have time to make contribution in whatever concept been discussed. Students have the chance to succeed in both small and large collaborative group work in online learning in (asynchronous and synchronous) learning environment.


Instructor Respondent

I think the principles that guide my instruction are consistent across face-to-face and in online teaching, because it's... some of them are like, I’m a student-directed rather than teacher- directed and everybody's voice needs to be heard and we all have knowledge and skills that we bring to our learning experience and so I try to do . . . I try to tap into what people know about and kind of build on their strengths. So those are the principles I think that are useful in online learning.



Instructor Respondent

To promote all-inclusive participation of students in online learning, I use digital technologies such as voice thread and cross-cultural collaborative activities to help students engage and participate in discussions to connect and make contributions to the knowledge building process.


A variety of instructional strategies such as (a) collaborative online learning activities, (b) incorporating multicultural learning activities and global learning content, (c) using cultural awareness project, (d) addressing the impact of multicultural education— support cultural diversity in the online environment




Small and large group activities






Creating conducive online learning environments





Promoting interactive learning community for students

Instructor Respondent

To enhance students’ participation in online class, I use small group activities to encourage all students to share ideas and be part of the co-construction of knowledge. I believe in the concept of student collaboration of ideas for them to become active learners and expand on previous knowledge or add to the existing knowledge in the online classroom.


Instructor Respondent

I group students and perhaps like I . . .  I get like the starter for the discussion and then I set up a structure in which they need to build on that and contribute and take that discussion in new and different directions and then what I'll do at the end of a discussion period is go look back over all of the student posts and pull out insightful comments that students have made and then I kind of write about the kind of put their voices forward and some kind of overall message to the whole class to say these small group discussions that were happening and this is what you know Sam or Paul or James and Aaron said and I'll try to synthesize that so I guess I try to make it student-centered by giving them autonomy to kind of run activities if it’s a discussion or a group project. But then also I try to use like my professor position as a platform to showcase their voices by pulling out things they’ve written or said and then sharing that with the class.


Instructor Respondent

When we assign a project that requires them to, for example, like the discussion forum I said, if they need to. Talk about research possible research topics or something and. Then if they can work together, then they can work together. So it’s more …like a more natural kind of collaboration than something that would require our students to this. And some people sometimes when they come from a different country, they will talk about their own experience in that country. And that is another kind of I guess some natural collaboration so they say, well you know, I am from this country and my country has a different type of public health issues than America. I mean that they can they can talk about that. And you know if they want to do research that way that they can do it. So again I guess our collaboration is more natural than intentional.

Instructor Respondent

At the beginning of the course I have students introduce themselves and say something personal about themselves and respond to each other so everybody has to respond to each other. You have to respond to at least three or four other people’s posts. Every time there’s a discussion, but at the beginning, when there’s a discussion it's about personal things like who are you as a learner. What has your experiences has been an educator. And third which I could probably do more of that a big one. It’s always a paragraph or more what do you like to do outside of work.

Collaborative online learning activities


Designing cross-cultural collaborative online learning environment



























Include diverse examples and reading contents

Instructor Respondent

I try to connect it to their real lives and their life experiences and also try to develop relationships with students directly but also among the class as a whole. So how can I create a classroom community, and these are questions that I ask myself.


Instructor Respondent

A primary goal of the online course to make sure that all of your students can be competent in developing the skills attitudes and knowledge to be competent, civic participants. That's basically the goal of the course. So we need if we want people to be competent participants we have to understand different people's experiences and different neighborhoods, towns, cities, etc.  . . . so that the readings are related to that, and they include some international contacts but not as many probably as I should.


Instructor Respondent

Ok, the nature of the classes I teach also has to do with diversity, I teach classes . . . I teach of a course of Africana studies, I teach classes on different aspects of the African experience, whether on the continent of Africa out here in the diaspora. Through online interactions, students tend to complete that whole interaction with different backgrounds different cultural backgrounds and all that, we tend to look at it in that sense. I provide that at most as instructor, by encouraging students to share diverse perspectives and examples.

Instructor Respondent

I do know that there are different cultural, and “yes” I do encourage them to engage in discussion. On the topics specific assigned topics. And I don't always expect that they will all have come up with the same . . . necessarily come up with the same ideas, I mean that is what we want, we want to the convergence of ideas, so we want more multiple ideas all that stuff. And so, yes, I do encourage my students in that contexts to share their ideas, they come from different backgrounds, they are approached to the subject matter. Some with divergent and each come with their background, their cultural background, and then of course based on those kinds of responses, I believe very much that enriches the online classroom.



Incorporating diverse learning activities and global learning contexts

Students’ cultural background


Instructor Respondent

Yeah . . . to promote cultural diversity in online education, I make students do a cultural awareness activity like the cultural snapshot video or outline) by introducing self to peers via sharing their past educational, social, and cultural experiences with peers and instructor . . . I believe that this activity allows students to know each other prior to the start or beginning of class and to let me develop curricula and prepare resources to meet needs of all students in the online community. This project helps students to do critical reflection about their own lives and that of their peers. As an online instructor, I believe it is part of the process of recognizing individual students’ cultural background and how to prepare instruction to meet their needs.


Instructor Respondent

I let students share their cultural, social, personal journey to include background information and experiences with their peers as an activity in the first week of class . . .  to help all understand each other’s cultural background. There is the need for me to design diversified instructional strategies and curricula in a multicultural format to help diverse learners succeed, as an educationist  . . I think this concept can be replicated in the online learning environment too.


Instructor Respondent

Students do a self-awareness activity where they share their cultural background with class via presentation to include photos, cultural resources, and other archives they can share with class to help engage and understand, recognize the differences and what they bring to the online classroom that we may gain from in the construction of knowledge . . . this way students can be empowered to share and participate in all discussions.

Cultural awareness project

Dealing with students’ cultural differences in online learning

Instructor Respondent

Right, the way that my own education has influenced me or to my culture . . . or is that . . . since I’ve being international students in the Ph.D. program. I know the challenges, so I try to be more accommodating for students who are struggling, also look the international backgrounds, like do they struggle with their English, language. I appreciate the problems more, because I've gone through the same process. So, I try to be fair and create accommodation for all students to succeed and I understand that did not just give them more scaffolding but all support system in my class to help very students to succeed via equal representation, diverse learning content, and equity in assessment. 


Instructor Respondent

I think it is important in my opinion to promote multicultural education in online learning given the background of students we have, not only in the master’s, you know, but in the undergraduate level, especially, you know in our area is of adult education, you know when more and more people have been exposed to diversity. We assume . . . I think as instructors, sometimes, you know that people have the knowledge of the broader diverse issues, but you would be surprised to know that's not always the case. Sometimes, sentiments of people are easily impacted by some comments which most of the time are ordinary people make in the classroom. For example, in discussions. So, I think it’s very important to be very careful linguistically as well as culturally not to offend any emotions of people. The language . . . for example, if I am doing a discussion, I tend to be more careful about wording and not being offensive about a specific cultural aspect or component. The same in the student postings. Whenever I see . . . As an instructor, sometimes you get into the occasion that you see some posts are not culturally very acceptable, so I think at that time, it's best to isolate and insulate those aspects. So, all three aspects, social, cultural, and linguistic aspects are important if you are an instructor as well as if you are a student. That would be my take.


Instructor Respondent

You know we always have a cultural lens like that organizes our world and kind of through which we see things. So, I think that when we come into like an online class like I have a cultural stance all the students are going to have different cultural stances that are informed by all kinds of things like they're educated past experiences, geographically where they live, their racial and ethnic identities, their gender identities, all of that influences the kinds of experiences that they bring to bear in the class. So, I think cultures people’s cultural orientations and their cultural identifications are very significant in online teaching and learning.





Instructor Respondent

Yeah, multiculturalism, I do very often, I do that through the different use of technology, such as available to me in the... for example I use class videos . . . at videos that have to do in the case of my classes Africana studies with different aspects of African experience, you know, and then I give students for every video I create, for example, I create questions to the video.

Addressing the impact of multicultural education in online learning environment

Challenges of diverse content in online learning





Challenges of designing cross-cultural pedagogy in online learning


Instructor Respondent

I am not sure how I as an online teacher would be able to figure out the cultural background of my students, you know without making ridiculous generalizations, like that person's last name is Gomez, there for what? And they may even be who married someone who was from Mexico or something you know, or they've been here for four generations and it's just a name, and there. I don't know. And it's really awkward to talk about these things, because I feel like I need to have the language to be appropriate. I’m afraid that if I ask students to try to identify these different cultural backgrounds that I'll just become a horrible racist that makes these generalizations because I don’t know enough about the individual, and this is a bit of side thing, but I have a really hard time bringing together all of the different posts and work of a single person to get a coherent picture of that person when it's on online environment, if it’s in person, I feel like I'm better at it, but in online, I have a hard time.

Challenges of incorporating cultural diversity in online learning



FINDINGS


The increasing multicultural nature and the diverse student population in online learning environments make it necessary to increase instructors’ awareness of the importance of cultural factors in online education (Yang, Kinshuk, Chen, & Huang, 2014). As online learning remains an essential component of educational delivery in the United States and around the world and one of the main sources of enrollment growth in higher education, studies such as the current one can provide insights into how instructors within online learning environments can better support student diversity. Our analyses from the data collected across three universities and with 50 instructors revealed the following major themes and subthemes: (a) differential perceptions of cultural diversity exist among instructors of online courses; (b) perceptions of cultural diversity depend on the academic disciplines taught by instructors; (c) a variety of instructional strategies—collaborative online learning activities, incorporating multicultural learning activities and global learning content, cultural awareness activities, addressing the impact of multicultural education—support cultural diversity in the online environment; and (d) there are significant challenges associated with promoting cultural diversity in online teaching and learning. We will now discuss each of these themes.


(a)

Differential perceptions of cultural diversity exist among instructors of online courses


Analysis of the data revealed the acknowledgment of the importance of diversity and multicultural influences on students’ learning in the online learning environment by the majority of the instructors and the need to address cultural diversity to enhance students’ achievement in online learning. However, there were differences in the extent to which instructors from different academic disciplines acknowledged this importance. Specifically, the instructors in education, engineering, and social sciences appeared to hold a more positive perspective regarding the impact of cultural diversity in online learning when compared to instructors from the physical sciences. A statement from an instructor from education illustrates her perception of cultural diversity:


Cultural diversity in online learning to me is to establish consistent communication with students and provide immediate feedback to students. It also has to do with supporting students in the online environment by recognizing their cultural backgrounds and tapping into their cultural experiences to help them succeed academically.


Likewise, an instructor from engineering noted, “Cultural diversity in online learning is the ability of the instructors to recognize the cultural backgrounds of their students and to include multicultural resources to help diverse students in the online learning environment.” Another instructor from education commented:


I believe that cultural diversity plays a significant role in online learning because I have to understand the cultural knowledge and the rich experiences my students bring to the online classroom and use those resources to help my students in their pursuit of academic success.


Examination of instructors’ online activities and course materials showed that some instructors are aware of the important role cultural issues play in students’ learning in the online environments. For example, an instructor from the social sciences said the following about his online activities:


I understand that students come from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. I acknowledge the cultural differences of my students and how cultures can influence their understanding of the content they read. So in this course, I welcome them to interact and share their background information and experiences with classmates and instructor. I give students opportunities to highlight and share their experiences, and I use different pedagogical strategies to meet the needs of all students.


These instructors understood cultural diversity as creating awareness of students’ cultural differences within the online space and providing support and feedback to students to enhance their educational experiences in the online environment. They also appreciated the need to address students’ cultural differences in the online setting, as done in traditional face-to-face classrooms. Further examination of course materials and online activities revealed that most of the instructors indicated in their course syllabi their willingness to provide accommodations for students with diverse backgrounds and disabilities. Instructors from education and social sciences had a format for students to ask questions with the aim of helping them understand directions on assignments, projects, and tests to help them achieve academic success. An instructor stated, “I address the issues of cultural diversity in my syllabus by informing students before the beginning of my course where to find available resources and accommodations to help them succeed.”


On the contrary, the majority of the instructors in the physical sciences indicated that the asynchronous nature of online learning did not allow them to incorporate diverse resources or recognize the cultural knowledge and experiences of students as they were often able to do in the traditional face-to-face classroom. A physical science instructor stated:


Cultural diversity in online education is the instructor’s ability to provide students with clear course expectations and directions. It is the process of recognizing the cultural knowledge and experiences students bring to the online classroom. That is my understanding of cultural diversity. The content I teach in science has nothing to do with culture, so it is difficult for me to infuse cultural examples in my physical science courses.


Another instructor from the physical sciences described her perceptions and understandings of cultural diversity in online learning as follows:


Cultural diversity in online learning is where the instructor has a sense of the cultures of students in the classrooms. This is a challenge because it is difficult to infuse some culturally related examples because of the teaching format in online education. It is hard for me to identify and determine the cultural background of all students in the online classroom. I find it challenging to design multicultural instruction for my online science courses just for the above reasons.


In particular, the data revealed that the majority of the instructors in the physical sciences have a

minimal understanding of cultural diversity, and accordingly, did not perceive cultural diversity as an essential component of students’ academic experiences in online learning. These instructors believed that students’ cultural differences did not have any significant influence on their learning in the online environment.


Figure 1. Perceptions of cultural diversity in online learning


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(b)

Perceptions of cultural diversity depend on the academic disciplines taught by instructors


The instructors reflected differing perceptions of the importance of cultural diversity to students’ learning in the online environments. Instructors from education, social sciences, and engineering viewed cultural diversity as a valuable resource that can be tapped to enrich the educational experiences of diverse student populations in online learning. On the other hand, instructors from the physical sciences perceived cultural diversity as a process of “teaching about different cultures.” To them, the importance of this concept depended on the academic discipline one teaches. For example, an instructor from the physical science department shared the following view:  


I teach undergraduate online health science class and find it very difficult to incorporate cultural resources in my online class. I have heard of the cultural diversity concept, but I think it is for those in the social sciences. I believe that the ability to incorporate culturally relevant practices in online curriculum depends on the academic discipline one teaches.


According to Bennett’s (2001) theory of multicultural competence, teachers and students must adapt, adjust, and operate successfully in a different cultural setting without rejecting each other’s cultural values. To promote multicultural competence in online learning, instructors must inform students about the instructional methods (i.e., constructivist or behaviorist) and present the cultural values of the course (teaching/learning styles, evaluation methods) to enhance the academic success of diverse students in the online learning environment (Bentley, Vawn-Tinny, & Chia, 2005; Tapanes, Smith, & White, 2009).


Figure 2. Instructional strategies that promote cultural diversity in online learning


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(c) A variety of instructional strategies that promote cultural diversity in online learning


The majority of the instructors from social sciences, education, and engineering reported that they provided opportunities for students to share cultural and social experiences with their peers through carefully designed questions as well as opportunities for students to ask questions about course content, directions on assignments, and course projects. Most instructors had the ability to create conducive environments that supported students’ collaborative knowledge building in the online learning environment. For example, Dover (2013) suggested that teachers must use diversified instructional strategies and inclusive activities to help diverse students to succeed in the classroom. A social science instructor stated:


I provide opportunities for students to ask me questions so they can better understand the context and the content of the topic under discussion. I also create an equitable online environment to promote cultural diversity in my online course. I take into consideration gender differences, differences in learning styles and try to reduce the barriers to students’ participation.


Bennett’s (2001) multicultural theory recommended that teachers provide students: (a) opportunities to become familiar and develop relationships, (b) equal status among students from different groups, (c) promotion of cooperation to achieve a common goal, and (d) a supportive learning environment for students. A social science instructor explained, “One way to promote cultural diversity in online learning is to welcome students before the start of the course via email, or announcement. I do this to create a sense of community for students.”


The interview data and observation of online activities showed that most instructors strived to create a welcoming, safe, and equitable environment for students to interact with others on assignments. They also shared their learning experiences and used strategies such as collaborative online learning activities, incorporating multicultural/global learning activities, and cultural awareness activities to enhance students’ learning in the online environment.


(i) Collaborative online learning activities. The majority of the instructors indicated that they used collaborative activities such as student-led discussions, problem-based learning, collaborative tasks, and small group discussions to encourage students from diverse background to participate in class discussions and build comprehensive knowledge through opportunities to explain the concepts under discussion to others. An engineering instructor noted:


I believe that collaborative learning provides opportunities for students to share and build knowledge via discussions and questioning their peers about their posts. It encourages students to do a critical reflection of the concepts learned through collaborations.


According to Hadjerrouit (2013), online collaborative learning helps to increase student participation and contribution to knowledge construction in online learning. An instructor from the social sciences noted, “I use collaborative group activities as a way to motivate students to get to know each other, share ideas, and promote students’ critical thinking skills.” Another instructor from education commented:


I have been using multiple discussion formats such as small group discussions, student-led discussions, and jigsaw groups to create subgroups of students to discuss sections of topics and then collaborate on their findings in large group discussions. I believe that these learning activities help students to build comprehensive knowledge. It also helps them to work together and share ideas on a variety of topics, which creates a supportive learning environment to enhance students’ satisfaction in online learning environments.

(ii) Incorporating diverse learning activities and global learning content. Instructors reported that different learning activities such as student-generated content and multicultural reading resources boosted students’ interest and participation in online discussion. These activities enhanced students’ engagement because the students were able to relate to the content. Mittelmeier et al. (2018) found that sociocultural factors and the use of international content or curricula influenced online participation among students from different cultural backgrounds. An instructor from engineering explained:


I provide diverse reading materials to my students in my online class because I have lots of international students, so I think a global learning content will help students understand the content and facilitate class collaboration.


Another instructor from education shared the following:


I teach an online course in educational policy that has a lot of international students, so to motivate and engage them, I design diverse curricula with global examples to help students relate to the content. My plan is to increase collaboration between domestic and international students.


Rogers et al. (2007) have suggested that instructors incorporate examples that apply to both majority and minority students to help them collaborate and build bridges in online classrooms. Another instructor from the social sciences noted:


I incorporate examples with global content in my online course/curricula diverse resources to help students make contributions in online discussions. Using diverse resources helps international students to participate in discussions. To meet individual learning needs and styles, I use multicultural reading content to help students connect and reflect on the [material]. These activities help students engage and participate in every online discussion.


(iii) Cultural awareness. The participants from education, engineering, and social sciences disciplines also used cultural awareness activities to create opportunities for students to share their cultural experiences with their peers and the instructor in the early stages of their classes. The purpose of these activities is to create an environment for students to get to know one another’s cultural and educational backgrounds and to foster trusting relationships among the students and the instructor. An instructor from education shared the following:


In my online courses, students complete a simple survey called cultural snapshots during the first week of class, where they convey to their peers and the instructor essential information about their backgrounds, cultures, strengths, the kinds of learning activities that work best for them, and the challenges they face in the online environment.


An instructor from engineering also shared the following statement:


I believe that students need [to] know and appreciate my cultural background and experiences as their instructor. Similarly, I have to know my students and the experiences they bring to the online classroom at the initial stages of the class in order to better support their learning. So, in the first week of my online course, I ask students to share something unique about themselves, about their culture, and the kind of learner they think they are.


According to Bennett’s (2001) theory of multicultural education, instructors must create a learning environment where they can share the cultural socialization in the teaching-learning process. Equity pedagogy allows teachers to be aware of students’ cultural, learning styles, communication patterns, and the social backgrounds of students (Bennett, 2001). One of the social sciences instructors also added, “The cultural self-awareness project serves as an avenue for my students to share information and connect with different identities and diversity that students bring to the online classrooms.”


(iv) Addressing the impact of multicultural education in online learning. The increasing diversity in student populations in online learning makes it critical that instructors develop skills to deliver culturally responsive instruction to meet the needs of their students in the online environment. Additionally, the concept of multicultural education requires that instructors and students become aware of the importance of the interplay among cultures in the online environment and how this could affect teaching and learning in this environment. Several of the instructors (mostly in social sciences and education) addressed the impact of multicultural education by attending to the learning and cultural differences demonstrated by students from different socio-cultural backgrounds in their classes. An education instructor explained:


I think it's important to be very careful linguistically as well as culturally and not to offend any emotions of people. The language . . .  for example, if I am doing a discussion, I tend to be more careful about wording and not being offensive about a specific cultural aspect or component. As an instructor, sometimes you get into the occasion that you see some posts are not culturally very acceptable, so I think at that time, it's best to isolate and insulate those aspects. So, all three aspects, social, cultural, and linguistic aspects, are important if you are an instructor.


According to Bennett (2001), multicultural competence is the ability of teachers and students to adapt, adjust, and operate successfully in a different cultural setting without rejecting their cultural values. Most of the instructors used instructional strategies such as threaded discussions that allowed for extended feedback to be provided on controversial issues so that both the students and the instructor have the chance to give a more comprehensive explanation on issues that may require extended answers. An education instructor posted the following course announcement:


Students must respect the views of others and respond to controversial topics carefully in ways that do not offend other students’ cultures, religions, or political affiliations. Explain your thought carefully, and comprehensively, so as not to leave others wondering what you mean.


Another instructor also stated:


I think it is important to be very careful linguistically, when teaching in the online environment, to avoid stepping on other people’s emotions due to poor word choices. So, in my interaction with students online, I try to be very circumspect with my words so as not to offend others.


(d) There are significant challenges associated with promoting cultural diversity in online teaching and learning.


Teaching online courses creates a unique set of challenges for instructors, and successful online teaching requires instructors to recognize and deal with these obstacles. The instructors in this study reported facing several challenges, including the fear of stereotyping students, inability to identify students’ cultural backgrounds, lack of skills to design multicultural online courses, and lack of knowledge of how to address cultural diversity in online learning. For example, an instructor from engineering reported the following:


I feel like asking students about their race or ethnicity is stereotyping because you can’t ask their race or ethnicity or use their photos to determine their culture in order to determine the kind of instructional accommodation to provide for individuals that might need one.


As mentioned previously, the majority of the physical sciences instructors admitted that they lacked the skills required to tap effectively into students’ cultural experiences and design appropriate instructional activities to address cultural issues in the online setting. An instructor from the physical sciences commented:

It is challenging to address cultural diversity in online learning because I meet students in an asynchronous format. I do not want to use their names or faces as a way to determine who they are, or use their background information to decide the cultural examples to include in their readings.


Another instructor in the physical sciences recounted, “I teach science courses and don’t have to address cultural diversity. I do my best to support all students in my online courses, but it has been challenging for me to include cultural elements in my teaching.”


The instructors also reported that language and communication barriers often do not aid the facilitation of effective intercultural interactions among students in online classrooms. For example, an instructor in education commented, “Language barriers pose a lot of challenges for me because they make it difficult to manage and create opportunities for students to interact with each other.” Additionally, the instructors pointed to the extra time required to design online courses that addressed the learning needs of diverse population of students as a challenge to them.


Interview data showed that most instructors faced challenges in addressing and promoting cultural diversity and equity in online learning. They explained that it was challenging to establish social interaction with students, particularly English as a Second Language (ESL) learners and some international students. Instructors reported that language and communication barriers often created challenges for them to facilitate effective intercultural interactions with students in online classrooms.


Analysis of the interviews and online activities indicated that many of the instructors lacked the requisite pedagogical skills to design an inclusive instructional activity to help diverse students succeed in online learning—contrary to what they claimed to be able to do in traditional face-to-face learning environments. Overall, many of these instructors asked two questions: First, how could they identify students’ cultural backgrounds in an online course? And second, what were the best pedagogical practices or activities they could use to help diverse population succeed in online learning?


Figure 3. Challenges of cultural diversity in online learning



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DISCUSSION


This study investigated 50 online instructors’ perspectives of cultural diversity and the instructional strategies they employed to address issues related to cultural diversity and student learning in the online environment. A related goal of the study was to explore the challenges instructors of online courses face in their attempt to incorporate multicultural learning content in their online offerings. Bennett’s (2001) framework on multicultural research guided the study.


With respect to the first research question that investigated instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in the online environments, the findings revealed that instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in online learning differed significantly across disciplines and depended on the academic discipline taught by instructors. To be specific, the instructors in education, engineering, and social sciences perceived cultural diversity as a significant factor in shaping students’ learning in online education and, as a result, emphasized the need for instructors of online courses to recognize students’ cultural backgrounds as educational capital by devising appropriate instructional strategies, including incorporating multicultural materials to support students’ learning (Du et al., 2016; Gunawardena, 2014; Mittelmeier et al., 2018).


The instructors in the physical sciences, on the contrary, perceived cultural diversity as the process of teaching about different cultures. They did not see any significant relationship between students’ cultural backgrounds and the content they taught in the online environment. The majority of these instructors also lacked the understanding that students brought diverse cultural experiences into the online environment that they could tap to enhance students’ educational experiences in this setting. In other words, the instructors in the physical sciences believed that there could be effective teaching/learning in the online setting without taking into account students’ cultural backgrounds. These instructors appeared uninformed about the importance of cultural experiences to student learning in online classroom and the need to design appropriate accommodations to support their learning.


These findings are consistent with previous research reports on the perceptions and importance of cultural differences in online learning (Cronjé, 2011; Gunawardena, 2014; Henderson, 2007; McLoughlin, 1999; Mittelmeier et al., 2018; Yang et al., 2010), and the need for instructors to be cognizant of cultural implications for students’ learning as well as design appropriate instructional strategies to meet the needs of diverse student populations in online learning. McLoughlin (1999) asserted that cultural awareness helps instructors to address bias in educational materials. Consequently, McLoughlin (1999) emphasized the importance of instructors’ awareness of their own cultures and the cultures of their students to help identify cultural bias in educational materials, so as to integrate multiple cultural values and ways of teaching to promote equity in the online classroom (McLoughlin, 1999). Similarly, researchers have pointed out that instructors’ awareness of cultural differences, and how to deal with the differences, are crucial to the success of students’ learning in the online environment (Slof, Nijdam, & Janssen, 2016). In the case of this study, it appears that instructors, particularly those from the physical sciences, stand to benefit from a knowledge of their own cultures and of that presented by their students in order to develop cultural awareness that is more responsive to students.


Rogers et al. (2007) noted that the lack of cultural awareness by instructors in online education could lead to the misinterpretation or an inaccurate translation of minority cultures, which can have an adverse effect on the academic achievement of these students in online education. To address this, Slof et al. (2016) and McLoughlin (1999) recommended developing multicultural online curricula that reflect the importance of integrating multiple cultural values and perspectives, multiple ways of teaching/learning, in addition to combining majority and minority cultural interests to promote equity in online learning (Henderson, 2007; McLoughlin, 1999).


With respect to the second research question that examined the instructional strategies used by instructors of online courses to address issues related to cultural diversity in online education, the findings showed that instructors’ understanding of cultural diversity helped them to design a variety of instructional strategies that considered students’ cultural backgrounds to improve their educational experiences in the online classroom. For example, results indicated that the majority of instructors in education, engineering, and social sciences incorporated strategies such as collaborative online learning, multicultural/global contents, cultural awareness projects, and large/small group discussions to enhance students’ participation and academic achievement in the online classrooms.


These findings support previous research that online collaborative learning, large/small group discussions, and cultural awareness projects help to increase students’ participation and academic achievement in online learning (Ashong & Commander, 2012; Hadjerrouit, 2013; Jung & Gunawardena, 2014; Mittelmeier et al., 2018). Several researchers (e.g., Hiltz & Turoff, 2002; Schreiber & Valle, 2013; Turoff, Hiltz, Li, Wang, & Cho, 2004) have noted that integrating collaborative learning activities in online courses promotes construction of knowledge through interaction, co-construction, and negotiation with peers (Baker & Taylor, 2012; Kearney, 2004; Powell & Kalina, 2009; Schreiber & Valle, 2013) and improves internalization of knowledge with the opportunity to examine personal views, respond to the multiple and challenging views of colleagues, and negotiate shared understandings (Powell & Kalina, 2009; Schreiber & Valle, 2013).


According to Bennett (2001), teaching strategies such as cultural immersion, cultural awareness projects, and cross-cultural collaborative activities help to increase intercultural knowledge, understanding, respect among students, and hence, enhance student learning. Bennett (2001) subsequently called for teachers to create enabling classroom environments that promote equitable access, participation, and achievement of diverse students. Similarly, Liu et al., (2010) recommended that instructors “incorporate features that accommodate different cultural pedagogy,” “appreciate cultural differences” (p. 182), and build on the knowledge, cultural, social, and educational experiences of the online learner to enhance students’ academic success.


The last research question explored the challenges faced by instructors of online courses in their efforts to address cultural diversity and incorporate multicultural learning content in online courses. Henderson (2007) recommended that instructors develop multicultural online courses that reflect the significance of students’ cultural values, perspectives, multiple ways of learning, and incorporate multicultural resources to help students from diverse cultural backgrounds learn effectively in the online environment (Tapanes et al., 2009; Wang, 2007). It is worth noting that some of the instructors in this study made concerted efforts to address issues related to cultural diversity by infusing multicultural learning content in their online courses. Instructors reported encountering several challenges including the fear of stereotyping students, inability to identify students’ cultural backgrounds, language and communication barriers, time constraints, and the lack of skills to design multicultural online courses in order to enrich students’ academic experiences in online learning. For example, many of the instructors felt that asking students to share information about their ethnicity, age, gender, cultural experiences, and language backgrounds may be construed as stereotyping students. In keeping with findings from previous research, some of the instructors also mentioned the challenge of dealing with language and communication barriers, which affected how they engaged and interacted with students, and how students interacted and shared their experiences with other students in online classrooms (Kumi-Yeboah, 2018).


Participants also reported that it required a significant amount of time to identify students’ background in order to design online curriculum that took into consideration students’ educational and cultural backgrounds. Specifically, the majority of instructors in physical sciences pointed to the challenge of identifying individual students’ cultural differences in order to help them design instructional strategies to meet their cultural, emotional, and social needs in the online classroom. The physical science instructors reported that they lacked the knowledge and instructional skills on how to use the diverse cultural experiences that students brought to the online classroom to engage students to participate in online discussions. For example, findings showed that most instructors in the physical sciences had difficulties designing instructional activities to engage diverse learners in their online courses.


These findings are consistent with a study by Kang and Chang (2016) which found that online instructors’ cultural perceptions of overestimating and stereotyping are as harmful as underestimating the impact of culture on multicultural online learning. Instructors also mentioned the challenges of dealing with language and communication barriers in online classrooms. Interview data suggested that language and communication barriers affected how instructors engaged and interacted with diverse students in online classrooms. Instructors explained that language barriers, especially with international students who are English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers, made it difficult to establish consistent interactions with students that facilitated social presence with students in the online learning environment. Similar to findings from previous studies (e.g., Kumi-Yeboah, 2018), language barriers affected instructors’ ability to facilitate and create opportunities for diverse students to interact and share their experiences with other students in online classrooms. In response, Baumgartner (2003) has advocated for multiple dimensions of “culture” to be demonstrated in an online setting to affect cross-cultural online communication and learning.


Overall, the findings from this study contribute to our understanding of online instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in online learning, pedagogical strategies they use to enhance cultural diversity, and challenges faced incorporating multicultural learning content in the online learning environment at the university level. The study also fills gaps in the literature on instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity, particularly their understanding of students’ cultural, social, educational experiences and how these affect students’ academic success, as well as the ability of the instructors to foster pedagogical dialogue and critical reflection in online classrooms.


LIMITATIONS OF THE STUDY


Despite the compelling evidence presented, one of the limitations of this study was that it relied on the data from a small sample of 50 instructors of online courses from three universities in one region of the United States. Since there are many institutions of higher education offering online learning in the United States and around the world, relying on the data from 50 instructors from three universities in one region cannot accurately reflect a comprehensive view of online instructors’ perspectives and challenges of cultural diversity in online education. We, therefore, advise readers to consider our findings suggestive rather than conclusive. Also, given that the sample used in this study was selected out of convenience, generalization of our results should not be assumed. Finally, the study did not include the perspectives of instructional designers, who tend to constitute a significant part of online courses, about their views on the best instructional practices that facilitate students’ engagement in the online learning environment. We consider this a limitation of the study.


RECOMMENDATIONS


Notwithstanding these limitations, based on the findings, we recommend that future research involving a larger sample of online instructors replicate this study across different universities in different states using quantitative methods to learn more from instructors across different academic programs about their perceptions of cultural diversity in online education and the instructional activities they use to meet the needs of culturally diverse populations of students in the online learning environment. Additionally, given the findings that some of the instructors (particularly those in physical sciences) lack the knowledge and the ability to design instructional activities to meet the learning needs of all students, we recommend that institutions that offer online courses provide professional development opportunities for instructors of online courses about the influences of culture on students’ learning and about the instructional strategies that have been found to facilitate instructional interaction with culturally diverse student populations in the online environment.


Regarding instructional strategies, we recommend that instructors of online courses make concerted efforts to provide opportunities for students in online courses to discuss their cultural backgrounds and educational experiences in the early stages of their courses to promote cultural understanding. Thus, students and instructors’ learning about the cultural heritage and the importance of cultures in learning could serve as a starting point for enhancing cross-cultural collaborative activities in the online environment (Du et al., 2015). Additionally, instructors should continuously work toward creating safe learning environments conducive to collaboration to help students engage, share ideas, and interact with one another in ways that enhance their learning in the online environment.


IMPLICATIONS FOR ONLINE EDUCATION


It is essential for online instructors to understand and be aware of students’ cultural differences and the influence diversity has on students’ engagement in online learning settings. It is also important for instructors and instructional designers to design and incorporate multicultural resources in their curricula that consider students’ cultural backgrounds and shared global perspectives (Hew, 2018; Liyanagunawardena, Kennedy, & Cuffe, 2015; O’Connor, McDonald, & Ruggiero, 2015). Bentley et al. (2005) proposed that instructors make explicit to the learners, in the educational materials, the cultural differences they may encounter when taking a course designed from a different cultural perspective, so that the online students will know if they want to enroll in that course, what to expect from the course, and what is expected from them in terms of cultural adjustments. This process implies awareness and adaptation from the instructor and the students to become multiculturally competent and successful in online teaching/learning. In accordance with Bentley et al. (2005), we suggest that online instructors explicitly inform online learners of the cultural values of the course and the culturally relevant differences they might experience in terms of assignments, requirements, and teaching (Gunawardena et al., 2012; Tapanes et al., 2009).


CONCLUSION


This study explored online instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in online education, the instructional strategies they use to address issues related to cultural diversity in the online classroom, and the challenges they encounter in their efforts to incorporate multicultural learning contents into the online classroom. Overall, the findings revealed that online instructors’ perceptions of cultural diversity in online learning vary according to their teaching discipline and academic preparation. Specifically, instructors in education, social sciences, and engineering programs demonstrated a good understanding of cultural diversity, as well as emphasized the need to incorporate multicultural learning contents that include the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and perspectives of students into online curricula to enhance students’ learning experiences in the online environment. On the contrary, instructors in the physical sciences did not demonstrate a good understanding of cultural diversity and showed less knowledge of ways to incorporate multicultural learning content to help diverse student populations achieve academic success in the online learning environment.


The findings also revealed that instructors used a variety of instructional strategies such as collaborative online learning activities, global learning contents, cultural awareness projects, and large and small group discussions to facilitate instructional delivery to meet the needs of students from diverse cultures in the online classrooms. The findings of this study are consistent with Bennett’s (2001) suggestions that instructors might benefit from understanding the cultural knowledge and prior experiences students bring into the classroom and use a variety of instructional strategies and multicultural curricula to meet the needs of the diverse student population in the online learning environment. Instructors can also better support diverse student populations by creating online courses that provide flexibility to allow students to choose among learning activities that reflect their learning needs to help them to process information, communicate, and participate in the knowledge creation in the online environment (Gunawardena, 2014). These findings have outlined the need for instructors to design diversified online curricula that take into account students’ cultural backgrounds and global contents as a useful resource that connects with diverse students to help overcome the challenges, thereby strengthening the benefits of cultural diversity in online learning environments (Mittelmeier et al., 2018).


Notes


1.

The identities of all participants are kept confidential throughout the study through the use of pseudonyms.


2.

Cultural diversity in online learning is defined as the ability of instructors to recognize cultural differences and backgrounds of students to design instruction that meets the learning needs of all students.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 7, 2020, p. 1-46
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23332, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 1:49:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Alex Kumi-Yeboah
    University at Albany, State University of New York
    E-mail Author
    ALEX KUMI-YEBOAH, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Education in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice, School of Education at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He specializes in the cross-cultural educational challenges and successes of Black immigrant youth with a specific emphasis on African immigrant students and diversity issues in online education. His research interests include mediating cross-cultural factors that affect the educational challenges and achievement of Black immigrant students in United States schools. He also studies cross-cultural collaboration and multicultural contexts in online education. His recent publications have appeared in the Online Learning Journal and Teachers College Record.
  • James Dogbey
    Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
    E-mail Author
    JAMES DOGBEY, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Mathematics Education in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. His research interests include analysis of school mathematics curriculum, assessment in mathematics education, finding alternative methods to conventional methods of doing mathematics, the use of technology in global education, and research collaboration in mathematics education. His recent publications have appeared in the Online Learning Journal, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, and International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education.
  • Guangji Yuan
    University at Albany, State University of New York
    E-mail Author
    GUANGJI YUAN is a Ph.D. candidate in the Educational Practice and Theory Department at the University at Albany. She is a Chinese international student who earned her master’s degrees from the Educational Practice and Theory Department at the State University of New York at Albany. She has investigated online multicultural learning for the last four years. Her research interests and focuses are multicultural instructors’ perception of online teaching and international students’ online learning experiences. As an international student, she offers insights from an international scholar’s point of view and experience. She gained hands-on research experience through on-site data collection, conducting interviews for both students and teachers, transcribing interviews, conducting discourse analysis and content analysis. She is proficient in both quantitative and qualitative analysis software, including R, SPSS, Nvivo11. She has used grounded coding, regression analysis, Social Network Analysis, and other analysis methods in her research.
  • Patriann Smith
    University of South Florida
    E-mail Author
    PATRIANN SMITH, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Studies in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of South Florida. Her research interests include Black immigrant Englishes/literacies, standardized and non-standardized English ideologies, multicultural teacher education, literacy assessment, and cross-cultural and cross-linguistic literacy practices. Her recent publications include “How Does a Black Person Speak English? Beyond American Language Norms” published by the American Educational Research Journal, “Understanding Afro-Caribbean Educators’ Experiences with Englishes across the Caribbean and U.S. Contexts and Classrooms: Recursivity, (Re)positionalisy, Bidirectionality” published by Teaching and Teacher Education, “(Re)Positioning in the Englishes and (English) Literacies of a Black Immigrant Youth: Towards a ‘Transraciolinguistic’ Approach” published by Theory into Practices.
 
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