Reach Out and Touch Someone

A Pedagogy for Cross-cultural Digital Learning Environments

Education can benefit from the global network of connections we call the Internet, since the issue of access is less of a concern in the digital space than in brick and mortar institutions. We should ask, however, if the possibilities for a global-level pedagogy are being seized. By pedagogy we mean a philosophy of teaching that is based on its praxis. As Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel explain, “Teaching is a practice. Good teaching is an engaged, reflective, and generous practice. Pedagogy is not just talking and thinking about teaching. Pedagogy is the place where philosophy and practice meet (aka ‘praxis’).” We are using the Internet to send and receive educational information, but are we able to work collaboratively at a global scale? Are we using the collaborative nature of the Internet to its potential for bridging distant parts of society? There is a call for an international pedagogy for online education.

The document, “A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age”, states that everyone should have the right to learn, regardless of where they live (“anywhere and everywhere in the world”). It also mentions that,

Online learning should originate from everywhere on the globe, not just from the U.S. and other technologically advantaged countries. The best courses will be global in design and contribution, offering multiple and multinational perspectives. They should maximize opportunities for students from different countries to collaborate with one another, to contribute local knowledge and histories and to learn one another’s methods, assumptions, values, knowledge and points of view.

As a professor in Taiwan, part of my job is taking my students by the hand, reaching over to Western academic culture, and trying to get them to understand each other. The gap between these two groups becomes apparent when Taiwanese students encounter a lecturer from the West, even a really good one. The students’ vocabulary is insufficient, the lecturer speaks too fast, and the examples in the lecture are out of context (from the perspective of the students). The gap also becomes apparent when a fellow professor comes to Taiwan and teaches the first class, designs a first set of midterm exams, or grades them. So many things are misunderstood, from both sides, that the result is pedagogical chaos.

The difficulties of cross-cultural education were noted about twenty years ago, when tertiary education was rapidly expanding in Hong Kong and saw the arrival of western professors. Flowerdew and Miller’s (1995) pioneering study talks about four cultural dimensions that affect ESL (English as a second language) students:

  • Ethnic culture: the cultural features that affect the behavior of students and lecturers (e.g., respect towards teachers).
  • Local culture: the local setting that is familiar to a student but may not be so for the person teaching the course, or vice versa (e.g., using a local TV show or movie to explain an academic concept).
  • Academic culture: The values, assumptions and roles in the classroom (e.g., what is expected of a student in terms of classroom participation).
  • Disciplinary culture: the specialized vocabulary of a particular discipline (e.g., jargon specific to linguists or engineers, for which there is sometimes no term in Chinese and therefore an English term is used).

Similarly, the recent rise of online education presents challenges in terms of cross-cultural understanding. Certainly this new wave will still be affected by the four cultural dimensions mentioned above, since ethnicity, locality, academic cultural practices and discipline-specific terminology are still present in contemporary digital learning environments. There is, however, an additional complication in dealing with multilateral instead of a bilateral cultural differences. Technology without cultural awareness is a double-edged sword, so being aware of these dimensions is necessary to develop learning environments that harness the potential of contemporary digital tools.

These issues, however, are even more complicated in a global-scale environment, since students enrolled in an online course, be it open or closed, can be located in different countries and belong to widely different cultures. If we want to prevent or minimize language and/or cultural barriers, first we need to understand where these problems come from.

Languages are diverse; while some are quite similar, others are drastically different. I am on the side of the debate that holds no language is superior to another, but even if this did not hold true, languages carry a wealth of knowledge from the people that speak them. Online pedagogy can either harness this knowledge or contribute to its destruction.

There are difficulties in communication between people that speak drastically different mother languages, and at times we are unaware of these differences. I have found that a non-native user of the English language may, consciously or not, transgress the rules of the language as a matter of preference. I originally thought my students did not understand English-language grammar rules, but over time, I have come to understand there is more behind this practice. Let me illustrate this with an example from a brochure for Cishan Railway Station published in Mandarin Chinese by the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Kaohsiung City Government:


Here’s a translation to western linear-style English:

Japanese had great demand for Taiwanese sugar for three reasons. First, their production was insufficient; second, they preferred Taiwanese sugar; and third, Taiwan is very close to Japan. When the Japanese seized Taiwan in 1895, they took control of the Taiwanese sugar industry. As part of the modernization of “Sweet Potato Shack” Street (present day Chishan), the first modern sugar factory in Taiwan started producing sugar there in 1901. This spurred the development of the Taiwanese sugar industry. In 1909, the Japanese constructed the Qi-Wei Sugar Factory. They chose Qi-Wei Village, which was across the river from “Sweet Potato Shack” Street. This is how this street was introduced to modern industry.

Notice that the Chinese version uses 12 punctuation marks (2 full stops and 10 pauses), while my English translation uses 17 (8 full stops, 2 semicolons, and 7 commas). In contrast, below is a translation that follows the original punctuation:

Because their own sugar yield was insufficient, preference for Taiwan sugar and its location, Japanese demand for Taiwanese sugar was heavily dependent, Chinese year 28 (1895) took over Taiwan, it also had control over Taiwan sugar industry. In Taiwan sweet potato shack street gradually planning into the development of a modern city street, Chinese year 34 (1901) Taiwan’s first modern sugar factory was completed and began production, drive Taiwan’s sugar industry to flourish, Chinese year 42 (1909), Japanese capitalists invested in Taiwan’s sugar industry, chose sweet potato shack street on the other side of Qi Wei Zhuang Village constructed Taiwan sugar company Qi Wei sugar manufacturing company, for the introduction of modern industrial sweet potato street.

Finally, here is an even more literal translation, with no past tense (as there is no past tense in Chinese, at least as Westerners understand it):

Because their own sugar yield is insufficient, preference for Taiwan sugar and its location, Japanese demand for Taiwanese sugar is heavily dependent, Chinese year 28 (1895) take over Taiwan, it also has control over Taiwan sugar industry. In Taiwan sweet potato shack street gradually planning into the development of a modern city street, Chinese year 34 (1901) Taiwan’s first modern sugar factory completion and start production, drive Taiwan’s sugar industry to flourish, Chinese year 42 (1909), Japanese capitalists invest in Taiwan’s sugar industry, choose sweet potato shack street on the other side of Qi Wei Zhuang Village to construct Taiwan sugar company Qi Wei sugar manufacturing, for the introduction of modern industrial sweet potato street.

Notice how ideas are expressed in non-linear form (as opposed to the linear form common in Western languages). Take into consideration that this is published, adult-level writing.

This is the kind of language that college students seem to be emulating when they write in English. Below are two paragraphs written by my students. In these two examples, the typical sentence structure of Chinese language can be observed, as well as the non-linear paragraph structure and the lack of past tense:

Kiyomizu-dera is not the official name and I forget how to pronounce the original name of this independent Buddhist temple in Kyoto. This temple is World Heritage of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) since the year of 1994 until now and it was build in 778, rebuild in 1664. Its name has a adage and that meaning is according the way to build this temple but I do not know how to use right way to explain in English, the adage is “you can jump from the stage of Kiyomizu-dera” in Chinese meaning is like you go to do something and cut off the means of retreat to push yourself don’t stop until you finish or get the goal because this temple is build on the mountain if you jump down from the stage of temple you cannot comeback, how strong and beautiful is it?


What is sustainable development? I think that is save the resources, then can be use by next generation, if we want to have more resources to use or some of special place that we can go sightseeing, we should take care of our place. Therefore sustainable that is the biggest issue for people, if we don’t know how to protect and maintain, it will cause many problems for our place, so that we should find some solution to solve this issue.

While these students have passed a multiple-choice English language proficiency exam, they seem to prefer an alternative paragraph style. I am not alone in this belief that Taiwanese students transgress language rules due to preference. According to Luis Roncero, Taiwanese students purposefully use complex expressions for aesthetic reasons, even though they don’t fit the meaning of the sentence or paragraph. For example, one of his students used the expressions “giant orbit” and “vehement ball” when describing the game of soccer, because they sounded “beautiful”. The form is more important to them than the content or following a clear line of thought. It is therefore the responsibility of the reader to decipher the meaning of what is written.

So how do we deal with the difficulties stemming from widely different languages? The literature on digital pedagogy is calling for an international approach, but there are many issues that are difficult to understand, and even more difficult to overcome. One may ask, can people from one culture adapt to reading texts from drastically different writing systems? I believe that it shouldn’t be that complicated if we keep an open mind. In fact, I argue that native English language speakers with some knowledge of the literary arts are already familiar with alternative styles of organizing paragraphs. Let’s look at two examples that show non-linear writing styles, one from the Catcher in the Rye:

A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I’m going apply myself when I go back to school next September. It’s such a stupid question, in my opinion. I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it? The answer is, you don’t. I think I am, but how do I know? I swear it’s a stupid question.

The second example is from Leaves of Grass, which shows punctuation and sentence structure somewhat similar to Chinese:

One’s-Self I sing, a simple, separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word en-Masse.


Of physiology from top to toe, I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse,
I say the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.


Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d, under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

These two texts are at the heart of native-speaking English, yet they don’t follow the form of the academic writing style enforced throughout the world. The writers of these texts, as well as the students who wrote the examples above, chose to write this way for aesthetic reasons. Perhaps we can become less reliant on the dry tone in academic writing and be more open to other aesthetic options. What should be done to encourage participation of students from non-western countries, many of whom are not native speakers of English? A start is to understand that an international pedagogy must find a balance between wide cross-cultural participation and clarity.

One way of dealing with cultural differences among online education participants is for multilingual participants to act as cultural “bridges” or translators. Bilingual members in local or host societies as well as exchange or foreign students can fulfill this role. Translating between languages, pidgins, creoles, dialects, and indigenized varieties is important for information to flow between participants in distant parts of the world. Some of this translation may be computer-mediated (e.g., Google translator), or even crowdsourced. Specialized translators who know the jargons of specific fields would also be necessary, since some terms are associated with unshared cultural concepts. For example, Chinese architecture has many terms for which there is no clear and unequivocal translation to English. This would all fit into what Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel call mass collaboration.

Paul Prinsloo gives one example of how this can be done:

Recent MOOCs encouraged participants to self-organize into any collaborative environment that would suit their preferences, e.g. language groups. Though the ‘official’ language of the MOOC and its resources were in English, participants were invited to self-organize if they had the need to communicate in another language.

The mentioned language groups, however useful for some, may lead to a kind of online “ghettoization”. Why should I, not part of one of these culture groups, be denied their insights? Why must they be denied mine? Moreover, we should think of the vast amount of knowledge that we are not tapping into when we are only getting our information in one language, and how valuable insight may get lost or destroyed if no cultural awareness measures are taken. In sum, we are aiming not only for globalized access but also to globalized thinking.

The difficulties created by language and cultural differences have led to a situation in which most efforts towards a global online education are produced by westerners and in the English language, instead of being international in design and participation. This in turn has affected the active participation of non-westerners in worldwide-level online education. Solutions to this lack of participation involve increasing awareness of language differences, being more open to alternative styles of writing, and encouraging the role of language/cultural translators. If information can flow back and forth between culturally diverse areas of the world, online education can fulfill its promise of promoting cultural understanding.

[Photo by TingTing Huang]

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