The Effect of Cultural Awareness in Online Instruction: An International Perspective

Authored by Stella Porto, Carolina Suarez and Miriam Campos
Inter-American Development Bank


The understanding that communication is intrinsically connected to culture establishes the clear link between online learning and culture (Gunawardena & Jung, 2014).  Culture affects every aspect of online learning, including course design. The technology-mediated communication that takes place in the online environment is both influenced by culture as much as it produces new negotiated meaning and knowledge that also impact culture. It is a given that student diversity is increasing for most institutions offering online courses, even if solely to audiences residing in the US. One is faced with challenges in dealing with a myriad of aspects: from age and gender, to ethnicity, language, and beliefs. Every choice embedded as part of the course design - from the choice of words and terms when giving instructions, to the selection of learning activities, to instructional resources, to class policies, is soaked with assumptions and beliefs built on a given culture. Institutional policies and administrative processes are also established with such cultural premises.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) provides a variety of online courses for professional capacity building in Latin America and Caribbean (LAC). In our work with audiences of various countries and multiple languages, we have faced the need to address challenges that arise from issues of culture, when it comes to online course design and course management. In this process, we have become more aware of the existing cultural assumptions. We have had to adapt existing policies, provide creative administrative solutions, add student support modules within courses, and finally develop a full guide to review instructional resources concerning issues of culture, diversity, and inclusion in our international context. 

In this paper, we discuss some of the challenges that we have faced when it comes to issues of gender, cultural diversity, and inclusion, and we share some of our solutions.


IDB has become a leading source of financing of social and economic development in the LAC region. The best-known goal of a development bank is to fund projects in target countries that will support social and economic develop. Less known are its focus on providing technical assistance and offer knowledge products that result from its experience and research. The use of e-learning for professional capacity building was initiated in 2004, and later also adopted for internal corporate training. In the regional professional capacity building front, participants are from various member countries mostly working in the public sector. Member countries encompass South America, Central America and some larger countries from the Caribbean. This means that courses are often offered in four different languages, namely Spanish, Portuguese, English and French. However, this language diversity is not egalitarian, since the significant majority speaks Spanish. Language plays an important role. Even when countries in principle speak the same language, the differences can be stark when it comes to the use of language and adopted vocabulary. 

The IDB itself is a microcosm of the region it serves. Staff come from the various member countries and daily business is conducted in multiple languages. The differences between countries with common languages are also pronounced. There is a tendency to view countries in clusters and disregard the finer grain distinctions. This has a potential negative effect of students feeling disconnected, especially when considering courses where the focus is on social and economic issues that are particular and sensitive to specific realities. We have a mostly even split between men (53%) and women (47%)1. Most of our audience has a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and works in the public sector in the region. Course design and delivery need to take cultural and diversity aspects into consideration always. Instructional designers need to work closely with subject matter experts to avoid various pitfalls.

Throughout the following sections, we share some of our experiences and lessons learned. 


Insung Yung (2014) referring to Nieto (2010) makes the point that “culture is learned subconsciously through interactions with others in the community and in informal environments” (p.22). Therefore, people will only think about culture when “their culture is in conflict with, or under the influence of, another culture”. This explains why people in the “majority culture do not seem to consciously ponder culture”. This is a significant aspect in our discussion, since the group we discuss here displays many levels of similarities, which on the outside could indicate little awareness of culture. However, for those living in Latin American and the Caribbean, the fine-grained differences can frequently become apparent. 

Another critical point to have in mind is with respect to the familiarity with online learning. Although there are quite many students who online learning does not represent an unknown mode of learning, the level of experience is still incipient. Given the recency of online learning in the region, and its level of regulation, these students have completed their full education in face-to-face environments. Thus, it is quite expected that these students require training and preparation in dealing with technology and most of all in understanding how to learn effectively in this medium. 

In what follows, we discuss the challenges we have encountered and the solutions we have devised in various categories of online course design and delivery in the last few years.

Administration & Management

As part of our planning phase, we need to consider the schedule of classes carefully. Although, classes are online, there are clearly strong demarcations in Latin America for various holidays and events. Besides the usual western considerations for Christmas and New Year, we need to consider a full week for Easter holidays, or events like the soccer world cup. There are even specific differences between countries that need to be considered, such as the importance of Carnival in Brazil and the summer vacations that in most countries in the region occur between December and February. The goal during our scheduling is to choose the most appropriate dates for each course to attract a good number of participants.

Our online courses are for the most part subsidized, and we charge a small fee compared to actual market value. Nonetheless, this payment can be prohibitive for many countries. Therefore, to stimulate the participation of minorities or even to consider special situations of certain countries, we offer several courses tuition-free for certain groups. We have done this with distinct focuses throughout the years, including afro-descendants, women, indigenous communities and Venezuelan citizens given their recent economic crisis. 

The availability of certificates, and possibly full proof documents in paper format, with signatures and recognizable logos are of great value to our audience. These civil servants are attracted to our courses for professional development, but also for formal recognition from their employers. For many governments, the adoption of digital technologies is still incipient, thus in many countries it is still important to provide actual paper certificates through mail. We have for the most part adopted certificates that can be downloaded as pdfs, but in many cases, we are required to mail them. This experience serves us also as an opportunity to influence the adoption of digital formats in the region. To support that we added verification codes, which provided the necessary authenticity to the digital document. Currently, we are embarking in a new initiative of adopting digital badges, which will require significant work in explaining their meaning and the actual gains of using such types of credentialing. From a cultural perspective, given the lack of trust in various transactions within these societies, it is expected that the level of skepticism towards digital means be somewhat high.   

Related to the adoption of digital technologies, payment methods have also been an area of necessary change management. In the early days, payments were made through deposits using the services of IDB’s country offices. In the last 5 years or so, we have increasingly adopted PayPal services through our Moodle platform. We have been able to see firsthand the spread of this technology through various countries, many where the service was non-existent just a few years ago. Currently, PayPal has become the single payment option, and bank transfers are used solely as an exception. We have also implemented early-bird discounts, which have made a difference in registrations. Interestingly, we have learned that having a fee is essential to enforce students’ commitment. Many of the free courses we once offered have recently converted to fee-based, and although the enrollment is impacted, the retention is much higher, and the result is positive.

Instructional Design

As mentioned earlier, language is at the core of many of the cultural differences that we need to be attuned. For the most part, our courses are delivered in Spanish. Spanish, Portuguese and French are languages that have clear differentiation between feminine and masculine throughout, including nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc. This lends itself frequently to the use of masculine plurals, or masculine declinations in verbs and adjectives when using the third person. This can be seen as insensitive and gender bias. With that in mind, we created a Gender and Diversity Guide establishing clear directives on how to develop instructional materials and communicate appropriately, avoiding some of these common pitfalls.

This Guide reflects our goal that our online courses promote IDB values when it comes to gender, diversity and inclusion through respectful and egalitarian communication practices, compatible with our diverse and globalized environment (Interamerican Development Bank, 2018).

Dealing with multiple languages has been taxing, while at the same time an eye-opener to issues of culture and to wired assumptions we all have about peoples’ conceptual understanding and behaviors. Even within the predominant language there are clear distinctions that require attention. Spanish has two main formals versions, the one used in Spain and the other adopted in Latin America. The version we have adopted given our audience is the latter so students have a better sense of belonging, even though Spain is a member country, and many Spanish citizens work at the bank. This difference is not minor. As an example, the entire mode of referencing each other in a conversation is starkly different between Spain and Latin America, where the former will use “Usted” and the latter will use “Tu”. 

One other interesting example of the issue of language was our experience in designing an online instructor training course. At first, the course was designed and offered in Spanish. It was well received, and we decided to offer it in English and then Portuguese. This seemed to be a simple task: translating the entire course in both languages and we would be ready to go. However, we were faced with many unexpected challenges, including things as apparently simple as the course title:

  • To start, the term ‘tutor’ most commonly used in Spanish to represent ‘instructor’ or ‘teacher’ had a very different meaning in English and Portuguese. We had to avoid using the term ‘tutor’ throughout. 
  • The term ‘tutor’ is the masculine version of the word. The title of the course initially was set to be “Online Tutor Training”, so the gender bias was right there on display! In this case, we had to completely change the title to avoid gender issues: from ‘Formación para tutores en Linea’ to ‘Formación para la tutoría en línea’.
  • Brazil in many cases adopts English terms, instead of translating them, so pure translation was not enough, and a full revision was needed.
  • Reading resources, which we decided would be solely web-based, had to be cherry-picked and not always a perfect match to those originally selected. 

Those working in English, frequently discuss diversity without assessing the magnitude of the impact of language, mostly because English has been massively adopted in the international business settings. However, for the purpose of learning, students’ native languages are an essential ingredient. 


Considering the importance of creating programs that relate to the current needs and realities of the Latin American region, our online courses have been designed and implemented by experts from the region. These experts not only have the experience of having worked in the region, but also have awareness of their cultural and social issues. This has certainly helped to produce no only authentic content and learning activities, but also enhances the communications between instructors and students. 

Cultural background influences many academic standards and policies. One example is the case of plagiarism. Given that our courses are offered to an audience with university experience, it was a surprise to learn that many were completely unaware of the meaning and practices surrounding plagiarism and academic integrity. Since, we are not a university, there were no existing policies to support any action on the part of instructors. The few incidents that were detected were treated in an ad hoc fashion. We had to dedicate significant effort in elaborating Academic Integrity policies, in which basic concepts were explained, and processes including disciplinary actions were explicitly included. We have used the Student Orientation module (described in detail below) to introduce students to such concepts and provide them with resources on how to avoid academic dishonesty in all its forms. Instructors also had to be educated on how to proceed in such situations. 

The issue of time came very explicitly in feedback from our audience in the Caribbean during our course to train online instructors. The request for expanding the duration of the course brought to light the need to not only expand that course in terms of its packed content, but also to add a full week for orientation. The latter move was applied to all courses. The need to invest in readiness is strongly supported in the literature, and we have therefore undertaken a complete overhaul of that first week of students’ online experience in all our courses.

As we embarked in this effort, consulting with instructors and teaching assistants, we realized the need to provide more substantial information about the overall learning experience in an online environment, from policies to netiquette, from navigation in the virtual environment to issues of time management, with the goal of improving student readiness.

The Student Orientation module has become an important asset in helping students familiarize themselves not just with the technology, but with many of the policies and the expectations during an online course. Many of our students have not had any prior experience with online learning, so time management is a critical issue. Based on feedback from instructors, we realized that students needed particular support in this area. Another topic covered in the orientation were ‘netiquette’ rules. Many students are not aware of the attention one needs to have in communicating in the virtual classroom. Moreover, given that we have students from many countries, establishing a baseline for politeness online was critical. One interesting, more recent observation is that students, who have online experience, often associate ‘online’ with MOOCs, and assume therefore that expectations concerning deadlines will be mostly non-existent. These students often assume that they can work in their own pace and that learning activities are not demanding. As we developed our Orientation, we had to explicitly include references to MOOCs, explaining that the course they were about to take would not fit that pattern.

Final Remarks

Our experience thus far has been one that reinforces the notion that culture is a living element that creates, recreates and transforms itself permanently.  Being aware of culture, diversity and inclusion issues is key when thinking about online learning environments. Online students differ greatly depending on their background and context.  Their identities, behaviors and life styles are expressions of their social background, and directly influence their learning preferences.  The awareness of the multicultural environment and valuing these many differences are critical steps in the learning process (Suarez, 2009).  As online learning providers, we need to continue to be aware of the fluidity of culture and its impact on the learning experiences. Providing the space where students can share and celebrate these culture differences is a path to creating a more collaborative environment and therefore more conducive to learning. 

More research is needed on this topic. Online providers need to avoid jumping into conclusions about students’ characteristics based on generalizations, or by bundling groups together. Newer technology will soon allow us to personalize the design and delivery based on students’ online behavior, and this could have incredible impact on students’ learning experience into the future. 

1According to 2016 data.


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Interamerican Development Bank. (2018) Guía para la inclusión de género y diversidad. (internal document)

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