THE ELEPHANT IN THE online classROOM: Addressing Challenges in the Culturally Diverse Online Learning Environment

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Schools offer online programs that draw a diverse student body, which presents significant challenges and opportunities for learning. This is the “elephant” we will begin to consider; as for too long these dynamics have been ignored or simply not understood.



After having worked in various positions in Australia, Dr. Hannaford came to the USA in 1998 to undertake further study and professional development. He served as the Director of Distance Learning: Program Development at Fuller Theological Seminary from 2002 until 2009, and during that time pioneered an online Master’s degree which served students in 80 countries. In 2009 Dr. Hannaford was appointed to the position of Director of Digital Learning at Biola University, and in this capacity served with senior leadership in assisting the university to fulfill its mission and vision to provide innovative digital education across the USA and around the world. With an MAT and Masters and Doctoral degrees in Intercultural Studies focused upon online education, he brought expertise in various educational theories (Collaborative Learning Theory, Transformative Learning Theory, Adult Learning Theory) from a cross-cultural perspective to effect holistic student transformation in the global context. Dr. Hannaford was appointed as the Director of Digital Learning for Alphacrucis College in Sydney, Australia in October 2017, and now works in his homeland. However, he also serves as an Adjunct Professor for Doctoral and Masters level online courses for several academic institutions in the USA, and is a Solutions Consultant for Higher Education institutions.
James Tedford is instructional design supervisor in Biola University’s Office of Digital Learning and Program Development. He also is in his fourth year on the affiliate faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary, teaching master’s level biblical studies classes online and face-to-face. Tedford holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Fuller and a master’s degree in instructional design and technology from California State University, Fullerton. His master’s project focused on learner-centered instruction, using immersive whole tasks in authentic contexts to activate learners’ prior knowledge and experiences and integrate it with new insights. Prior to arriving at Biola, Tedford worked for six years with Ron Hannaford in Fuller Seminary’s Office of Distance Learning, where they rolled out Fuller’s first online degree in 2003.

Extended Abstract

This session will explore some of the challenges and opportunities afforded by online programs that reach around the world (and around the United States) to serve diverse students. Collaborative learning in online communities is essential for dynamic, holistic education to foster student transformation, but how can honest and open processing of the learning occur with students who are so different? Although schools offer online programs that draw a diverse student body, little is done to address the challenges and opportunities — for faculty and students alike — that arise with that diversity. This is the “elephant” we will begin to consider as for too long these dynamics have been ignored or simply not understood. On the one hand, diversity issues have received considerable attention in traditional brick-and-mortar settings. Cultural turbulence over racial activist movements like Black Lives Matter, concerns about micro-aggressions toward minorities and other marginalized people, and sensitivity to gender equality has played out across the pages of newspapers and the Chronicle of Higher Education. On the other hand, attention to diversity in the online classroom is often limited to a boilerplate webpage on Internet etiquette, asking students to play nice on discussion boards.

During a Conversation That Works session on the pedagogical innovation track, three practitioner online faculty will provide resource materials and present an overview of cross-cultural issues relevant to online courses, some arising from the presenters’ own doctoral research. Then session attendees will participate in facilitated discussions about personal experiences, training problems, and possible instructional and institutional solutions. Some background from cultural anthropology may be presented, including individualist and collectivist orientations, and dichotomistic and holistic systems. Discussion of learner-centered pedagogical and andragogical approaches may include transformational learning theory, problem-based learning, situated cognition, and universal design for learning. Learning from these discussions will prove innovative and useful for application in online classes and programs. Our conversations will provide a case in point that meaning can be negotiated, constructed, and extended when learners engage complex situations and collaborate with people from different contexts.


Learning Objectives:

  • Evaluate the cross cultural challenges and benefits related to designing for and teaching culturally diverse online students
  • Discuss pedagogical approaches to collaborative learning that embrace the value of cultural diversity for online programs and courses


Session Structure:

A 10-minute introduction to the topic(s) will be presented and then the participants will divide into three discussion groups facilitated by one of the presenters. A brief article will be given as a handout for each person to read to provide the basis for discussing the following questions (and others that may arise):

  • In your role as an instructional designer, instructor, or administrator, what is your experience with cultural diversity in specific online classes or in an online program in general?
  • Colleges and universities devote considerable resources to promoting cross-cultural engagement in brick-and-mortar classes and programs. Can similar resources be devoted to online classes and programs to address these and other problems?
    • student awareness of dynamics in a diverse community of learning
    • faculty training
    • program design
  • Given the research about educational benefits of diverse learning communities, what practical solutions can you propose for making cross-cultural engagement an essential part of the DNA of entire academic programs rather than merely individual classes?                                                                                                          

Five minutes before the conclusion of the session, each group will provide an overview of issues discussed and solutions proposed.

Digital access to academic research and resources will be supplied after the session.


Presenters and their Specializations:

All presenters are practitioner online faculty:

  • Lori Nicholson, Ph.D. ICS — Extensive experience teaching internationally over 18 years
  • James Tedford, Ph.D., M.S. IDT — Many years of experience supporting international online programs, and is an educational theorist and practitioner of universal design for learning
  • Ronald Hannaford, Ph.D. ICS — Designed and administered international online programs, and has undertaken extensive work on holistic student formation in an online global context.