Recommendations from International Students for Culturally Responsive Design and Teaching in Online Courses

Concurrent Session 5

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

We are two international graduate students and an online instructor. In this session we will share research about the online experiences of international adult students and the need for culturally responsive teaching in online courses. Further, we will share our initial recommendations for culturally responsive design and teaching in online courses.



Julia Parra was a Las Cruces middle school teacher from 1994-2000 and was subsequently hired at New Mexico State University as a web-based curriculum developer and program coordinator for grant-based projects focused on K12 teacher professional development in educational technology. In 2010, she received her Doctorate in Education from Pepperdine University in Learning Technologies and is currently the Director of the Online Teaching & Learning Graduate Certificate Program and Coordinator for the Learning Design & Technology Program for NMSU's College of Education. Julia's teaching and research interests include learning design, technology, and innovation; online/blended/HyFlex teaching & learning; emerging technologies; and culturally responsive teaching with technology. For more about Julia, see her website at

Extended Abstract

Experiences of International Students in Online Courses

International students often face challenges in traditional classrooms and when learning in online courses, these challenges are often magnified. Language, identity, religion, and culture are some of the challenges that international students face in traditional classrooms (Gautman, Lowery, Mays, & Durant, 2016). These factors along with factors related to the differences between traditional/face-to-face (F2F) and online learning environments are likely to be significant in online classes wherein 1) geographical and cultural backgrounds differ between educators and learners, 2) there are key differences between F2F and online learning environments, and 3) online technology is often Western-centric in design.

Geographical and Socio-Cultural Issues

Zhang and Kenny (2010) found that international students struggled in online course discussion because they lack of experience with North American culture and colloquial language. Research by Liu, Liu, Lee, and Magjuka (2010) identified that online instructors need to design courses in such a way as to remove potential cultural barriers, including language, communication tool use, plagiarism, time zone differences and a lack of multicultural content, which may affect international students’ learning performances.

Differences Between F2F and Online Learning Environments

Chinese students new to online learning identified that they were more comfortable with F2F courses than online courses (Ku and Lohr, 2003). The quantity/quality of interactions and sense of community are additional factors (Evans, 2015) creating differences in experienced challenges. Level of motivation and happiness among online students are significantly lower than levels among students in F2F classes (Fish & Snodgrass, 2015). Caver and Kosloski (2015) offer consistent information on the perceived differences between F2F and online classes such as F2F offer better social environment for interactive and collaborative learning leading to greater enjoyment.

Culture and Online Technology

Bowers (1998) discussed how Western designed computer courseware presents noticeable disadvantages to students of Asia and Latin America by isolating the learner from field-dependent cultures. Joo (1999) reinforces the dominance of English language and Western epistemologies on the Internet actually hinder the process of social inclusion, equity and true exchange of knowledge among communities which further dissipates the marginalized culture.

Culturally Responsive Design and Teaching in Online Courses

The design of online learning experiences should reflect responsibility in converting instructions and discourses through electronic systems to address the needs of diverse students communities and deliver messages appropriately. Smith and Ayers (2006) explains, “when discourses are intricately nuanced with specific cultural meanings, such meanings may be ‘lost in translation’ as learning often reduces knowledge to explicit discrete data, which decontextualizes content and encourages linear, analytical thinking” (p.406). Bringing culturally responsive strategies for design and teaching in online courses is one way to contextualize content and address the geographical, cultural, and learning environment needs of international students. According to Gay (2000) culturally responsive teaching connects learners’ cultural knowledge, experience, learning styles, and sociocultural realities to the academic knowledge and tools, wherein students’ new learning is connected to their background. Smith & Ayers, (2006) indicated that educators need to plan, design, implement, and assess online courses with cultural sensitivity to understand the diverse perspectives, styles, and cognitive and psychological ethos of learners belonging to various communities.


We have brainstormed and compiled some initial recommendations to consider when designing culturally responsive online learning experiences that support success for international students. Based on our research as well as our own teaching and learning experiences, we identified the following areas of importance - addressing language, collaboration, learner choice, student active participation, and use of socio-cultural resources and activities.

Addressing Language

  • The use of discussion forums and learner choice activities are beneficial strategies that support international students address issues related to language.

  • Completing assignments and assessments in more than one language can help the learners internalize their learning. For example podcasting a topic in English and in a student’s native language can be helpful.


  • Culturally responsive teaching via online collaboration can facilitate support networks in online learning environments.  McLoughlin (2000) encourages instructors to design individual and group workspaces for learners in online courses that encourage learner development in a variety of ways. Individuals in groups when introduce culturally relevant resources increases the possibility of multi-dimensional growth.  

  • Collaborative learning experiences are vital for including culturally responsive teaching through active, comprehensive and authentic participation of the learners (Cifuentes & Murphy, 2000; McLoughlin, 1999; 2000; Sales Ciges, 2001; Sanchez & Gunawardena, 1998; Smith & Ayers, 2006).

  • Learners should take part in active communication among themselves and with the peers about their ideas and development in online environment.

  • Group projects for solving target issues should be conducted where learners are encouraged to think about diverse perspectives, values of the communities, and  critical discourse regarding the problem.

Learner Choice

  • Online courses should offer a variety of opportunities and strategies for authentic self-assessment of learning.

  • Alternative activities are always recommended for giving students more options to choose in which direction they want to develop (Sanchez & Gunawardena, 1998).

Student Active Participation

  • Participatory course design is an important way to include learners needs, objectives and interests in the course. Learners involved in course planning, design, implementation, and evaluation values learner expectations and experience (McLoughlin, 2000; Boone,  2002).

  • Reviewing feedback and developing further will enable learners to observe their progress and strategize methods for learning and interpreting learning activities in personally meaningful way.

  • Hands-on activities promote critical thinking and knowledge acquisition. As Norman (1993) states, the power of the unaided mind can be expanded through external aids as ways of representing a thought in an external medium with the aim of maintaining it externally free from the working memory limits.

Socio-Cultural Resources and Activities

  • Learners should be encouraged to share culturally-rich learning resources with their instructor and peers which will not only enhance cultural exchanges but will accommodate various learning styles, flexibility and adaptability  needs of the learners (Sales Ciges, 2001 ).

  • Learners should be encouraged to engage with culturally relevant websites and also to be encouraged to develop such websites which will include creativity and innovative ideas.

  • Projects designed to study social issues from different communities can help learners to understand other cultures and expand their knowledge.

  • Opportunities should be provided for discussion among students as well as the instructor to think critically about including culturally responsive strategies in their learning experiences.

For this session we will create an interactive Google Slide presentation to share our literature review and recommendations. We will create a handout with key concepts and questions to engage the session participants in small group, brainstorming activities.



Boone, E. J., Safrit, R. D., & Jones, J. (2002). Developing programs in adult education: A conceptual programming model. Waveland Press.

Bowers, C. A. (1988). The cultural dimensions of educational computing: Understanding the non-neutrality of technology. Teachers College Press.

Carver, D. L. (2014). Analysis of student perceptions of the psychosocial learning environment in online and face-to-face career and technical education courses. Old Dominion University.

Cifuentes, L., & Murphy, K. L. (2000). Promoting multicultural understanding and positive self-concept through a distance learning community: Cultural connections. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(1), 69-83.

Evans, N. S. (2013). A Cross-Sectional Descriptive Study of Graduate Students' Perceptions of Learning Effectiveness in Face-to-Face and Online Courses. Wilmington University (Delaware).

Fish, L. A., & Snodgrass, C. R. (2015). Business Student Perceptions of Online versus Face-to-Face Education: Student Characteristics. Business Education Innovation Journal VOLUME 7 NUMBER 2 December 2015, 83.

Gautam, C., Lowery, C. L., Mays, C., & Durant, D. (2016). Challenges for global learners: A qualitative study of the concerns and difficulties of international students. Journal of International Students, 6(2), 501.

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.

Joo, J. E. (1999). Cultural issues of the Internet in classrooms. British Journal of Educational Technology, 30(3), 245-250.

Liu, X., Liu, S., Lee, S., & Magjuka, R. J. (2010). Cultural differences in online learning: International student perceptions. Educational Technology & Society, 13(3), 177-188.

Ku, H. Y., & Lohr, L. L. (2003). A case study of Chinese student’s attitudes toward their first online learning experience. Educational Technology Research and Development, 51(3), 95-102.

McLoughlin, C. (2000). Cultural Maintenance, Ownership, and Multiple Perspectives: features of Web‐based delivery to promote equity. Journal of Educational Media, 25(3), 229-241.

Norman, D. (1993). Things that make us smart: Defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Basic Books.

Ciges, A. S. (2001). Online learning: New educational environments in order to respect cultural diversity through cooperative strategies. Intercultural Education, 12(2), 135-147.

Sanchez, I., & Gunawardena, C. N. (1998). Understanding and supporting the culturally diverse distance learner. Distance learners in higher education: Institutional responses for quality outcomes, 47-64.

Smith, D. R., & Ayers, D. F. (2006). Culturally responsive pedagogy and online learning: Implications for the globalized community college. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 30(5-6), 401-415.

Zhang, Z., & Kenny, R. (2010). Learning in an online distance education course: Experiences of three international students. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 11(1), 17-36.