Culturally sensitive e-Learning

Erberto Sandon1
1Metrics, Via Ciamician, 4, Bologna, I-40127, Italy
Tel: +39 051 243558, Fax: + 39 051 253285

Abstract: While multilinguality and usability has became a condition for good practice in computer mediated communication (e-Learning, e-Government) , still social, cultural and emotional aspects are not been taken properly into account. This research paper deals with influence of cultural and emotional issues in computer mediated training/learning and e-Government solutions. The work is part of a research being conducted within a European Commission co-funded project about cognitive ergonomics in E-Learning.

This paper has been submitted to the eChallenges 2003 Conference

1. Introduction

The targeting of global-market for e-Learning solutions requires careful consideration of a number of aspects related to cultural acceptance of the product. The process of learning is significantly influenced by the environment (not only the physical environment in terms of place where the students live, learn, socialise but also the emotional, social and psychological background).

The effects of cultural factors in the acceptance of ICT interfaces has been considered in a number of studies and a Technology Acceptance Model has been proposed [1] to evaluate such effects.

The theory of "Constructivist Learning" has contributed to unveil the mechanism through which cultural aspects influence the learning process.


    1. – Globalisation and localisation

In order to be ‘culturally sensitive" an ICT interface should either be culturally neutral ("globalised") or culturally adapted and customised ("localised") [2].

Yet, most of ICT interfaces including those embedded in e-Learning solutions reflect the culturally dominant "Western" style (i.e. the European and North-American cultural bias).

Most of the actors in the computer-mediated education and training sector are still not properly addressing the issue of a culturally-sensitive approach to global markets.


  1. Objectives
  2. Knowledge transfer is dramatically affected by an appropriate emotional tuning between the learner and the trainer.

    Not only what is said is important, but how it is told is relevant as well. In computer mediated training/learning, it is of outmost importance that the user interface complies with the cultural, social and educational background of the learner. Colors, symbols and navigation paths have no ‘unique’ meaning, but are perceived in different ways by learners with different cultures (eg. red=danger, green=safe is often assumed as common understanding but it isn’t actually / writing or reading from left to right and top to bottom is the rule for western countries but not for Arabic people and culture, use of national flags to indicate language choice might be offending to some people…).

    European society is by nature multi-lingual and multi-cultural, and this will be even more complicated in the future with inclusion of new counties and cultures.

    A good speaker perfectly knows that he/she’s got to be in tune with the audience to be influent. While in face-to-face human interpersonal communication this is quite a common understanding, still computer interfaces are rigid and try to force user to adapt. When cultural and emotional bottlenecks are involved, failing to match this precondition could lead to a serious limitation of knowledge transfer in e-Learning applications.

    Future of e-Learning must consider use of User Centred Interfaces which should be dynamically adaptive to the user cultural background and profile.

    The research work currently being carried out by the author in the framework of a EU Commission funded project about Cognitive Ergonomics in E-learning will be included in a comprehensive Guide of recommendation useful to developers and decision makers involved in the design and production of e-Learning solutions.

    The research works, through both (i) a theoretical and bibliographical search and (ii) an experimental evaluation of a number of e-Learning products interfaces, aims at collecting a set of basic requirements for a properly sound culturally sensitive interface.



  3. Methodology

    A dynamic model for the learner shall be identified and constantly referred to and eventually updated during the interaction. A special toolset based on a questionnaire and an ergonomy laboratory test is the basis for the evaluation and assessment of the cultural and emotional tuning during the e-Learning interactive session. The outcome of the evaluation test is in the form of an in-depth report useful for addressing the right target and to maximise the transfer of knowledge during the computer-mediated learning/training session.


    1. – Culturally sensitive items

A non-exaustive list of culturally sensitive items include:


  • colours
  • icons, shapes and symbols
  • pictures
  • language
  • alphabet
  • layout
  • methaphors
  • sounds, music


    1. Identified culturally sensitive learners profile factors
  • tradition
  • religion
  • nationality
  • family background
  • education
  • gender
  • affiliation
  • race


  1. Technology Description

The evaluation and metrics of user perception and acceptance of e-Learning interfaces is being achieved through a number of Usability tests following fairly standard guidelines [5].

The guidelines include:


  • Environmental arrangements (comfort seats, no background noise, …)
  • ICT devices requirements
  • methodology
  • questionnaires
  • evaluation plan


  1. Developments
  2. The work is part of a research being conducted within a European Commission co-funded project about cognitive ergonomics in E-Learning. The aim of the project is to create a reference frame of the rules to respect in the field of cognitive ergonomics and pedagogical means intended to facilitate the learning process and maintain both the interest and the assiduity of the trainee throughout a distance training course.

    The project is being funded by the European Commission under the Leonardo Da Vinci program for Vocational Training. The project will last until October 2004.


  3. Results
  4. In the overall process of online education and training, as in other fields of computer-mediated communication, paying attention to cultural aspects is a key to user acceptance and hence to success.

    The research has highlighted a number of bottlenecks currently afflicting E-learning products when addressing a multi-cultural market.

    A set of guidelines is being collected into a comprehensive Guide encompassing all the aspect of cognitive ergonomics involved in the on-line education and training process.



  5. Business Benefits
  6. Failure to address culturally sensitive aspects of online interaction involved in education and training solutions could significantly limit market acceptance of E-learning products in a number of foreign markets.

    The guide mentioned in the article could then help designers and decision-makers in the E-learning industry to properly shape educational material. for world-wide marketing.

    A culturally-sensitive approach could be considered part of the usability requirements of interfaces. The benefits of Usability in terms of business advantage has been addressed in a Report [6].


  7. Conclusions

The culturally sensitive aspects of e-Learning interfaces significantly influences the effectiveness of the knowledge transfer during the education and training process.

It is crucial for the success of e-Learning interfaces targeted to a globalised market to properly consider the different perception of interface items such as colours, shapes, methapors depending on the cultural background of the learner. In particular, identification of specific images or icons with cultural values such as loyalty, patriotism, generosity, success, social acceptance should be cross checked with target profile.

The final aim of the research will be the development and dissemination of a comprehensive ‘Cultural Sensitive Interface for e-Learning’ reference handbook available to developers and designers of e-Learning solutions and interfaces.





[1] Davis, F., User Acceptance of Information Technology: System Characteristics, User Perceptions and Behavioral Impacts. In: International Journal of Man-Machine Studies 38, pp.475-487, 1993.

[2] Day D.L., Cultural Bases of Interface Acceptance: Foundations. In: People and Computers XI. Proceedings, HCI’96 (August 20-23 1996, Imperial College, London)

[3] Marinetti A., Dunn P., The challenge of cultural adaptation: a question of approach. In: Training Journal, issue November 2002.

[4] Simons G.F., Intercultural aspects of online training using games. A keynote speech presented at the ISAGA Conference, Tartu, Estonia, July 6, 2000.

[5] Pearrow M., Web Site Usability Handbook, Charles River Media, 2000.

[6] Nielsen N, Usability Return on Investment, © Nielsen Norman Group, 2002.



[1] Konrad Morgan & Madeleine Morgan, Cultural Considerations in Interactive System Design, University of Bergen, Norway


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