Virtually Ignored: International Students and Cultural Inclusion in Online Learning

Concurrent Session 6
Research Equity and Inclusion

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Despite evidence of the role cultural norms play in shaping learning processes, culture is rarely considered in the design of online courses. This disproportionately affects international students. Learn about competencies that will help instructors create inclusive online courses, which I developed with the input of 30 experts in the field.


I am a seasoned educator with twenty years experience in instructional design, teaching, training, and evaluation for universities as well as national and international non-profit organizations. In 2015, I completed an M.S. in Instructional Design and Technology at California State University Fullerton that allowed me to become conversant with a large repertoire of educational technologies, provided insight into the benefits and challenges of online learning, and broadened my ability to think strategically about the interface between learning and technology. I decided to pursue a mid-career PhD in International Education at the University of Massachusetts to better understand the role culture plays in the online learning processes. My research interest lies at the intersection of online learning, pedagogy, and culture, with the goal of developing effective instructional design practices to meet the needs of global learners. Having spent the first 19 years of my life in Germany, England, and Austria, as well as six months during college living in northwestern Uganda -- and having led workshops in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Mozambique and Laos -- I have experienced first-hand how culture and context shape how and why people learn. In addition to my MSIDT, I hold an M.A. in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from Biola University and a B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy from Wheaton College, as well as an undergraduate certificate from Wheaton College in Human Needs and Global Resources and a graduate certificate in Wilderness Leadership.

Extended Abstract

Have you considered the role your own cultural background plays in how you approach learning, teaching or instructional design? If you haven’t given much thought to it in the past, you are not alone.

The accessibility and portability of digital media has allowed learners from around the world to participate in U.S. higher education in ways that were unthinkable even two decades ago (that’s good news!). However, these evolutions in diversity have not seen parallel transformations in how online learning is conceived and created (that’s bad news). Despite evidence of the role cultural norms play in shaping learning processes, culture is rarely considered in the design and facilitation of online courses. 

This can have a negative impact on learners, and often affects international students in disproportionate ways. For example, language barriers can be exacerbated online. The lack of visual cues and body language can make communication challenging and the heavily text-based nature of interactions makes them more time consuming and cognitively demanding. When instructors do not recognize the additional challenges their international students face online, they may unfairly assume the students are not as smart or capable as others. The resulting tension can inhibit learning and leave both students and instructors frustrated. 

The increasing cultural and national diversity of students within online higher education spaces requires courses that are designed with cultural inclusiveness in mind. Cultural inclusion means that designers and instructors think about how their own cultural backgrounds influence how and what they design and teach, and try to understand and bridge differences between themselves and the learners.

My research is focused on how to mitigate learning barriers caused by cultural differences.

In this session, I will share findings from my dissertation research in which I explored what university instructors need to know, believe and be able to do in order to create culturally inclusive online courses for international students. To answer this question, I solicited input from 30 experts in online learning, culturally responsive pedagogy / cultural competence, or international education. Using a series of questionnaires, I progressively build consensus around what the necessary competencies are. I have distilled these findings into the “top 5” knowledge, attitudes and skills that experts agree are essential to promoting cultural inclusion in online courses.

Are you an instructor, trainer or instructional designer? The resulting list of knowledge, attitudes and skills can help you create more inclusive courses and learning events. As you begin to apply them, you will likely find yourself becoming more attuned to diverse perspectives and increasingly effective at communicating with global audiences. 

Are you a campus administrator or someone who supports instruction? These findings can help you provide better resources and professional development opportunities for your institutions.

Ultimately, the goal of this research is to help us all become more aware of the influential role culture plays in learning and to be able to ensure students from all backgrounds feel welcome, engaged, and successful in their online learning.