In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on how cultural background has a deep impact on overall classroom experience. This is true in the physical classroom, and it is no less true online. Cultural experiences not only affect how students navigate meaning in learning contexts, but these experiences also play a role in motivation and satisfaction in a course.  

Various comparative studies in the larger educational context have demonstrated the need for consideration of cultural differences in the delivery and design of instruction in the physical classroom. Likewise, in order to improve learner experience for diverse student groups in the online environment, it is important to examine the unique landscape of the virtual classroom.

Communication Frameworks

Frameworks for understanding various cultures, such as Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, are frequently relied upon for increasing cultural competence in the workplace or classroom. One particularly relevant type of cultural difference framework is referred to as “High-Context” “Low-Context” (Hall, 1976). In high-context cultures, people rely on nonverbal cues as well relationship building as the backdrop for information exchange (Bai, 2016). In low-context cultures, however, information exchange matters more than relationship building, and nonverbal cues as well as social hierarchy can largely be ignored. Low-context communication is expected to be explicit and highly verbal. Context such as body language and facial expressions are nice in a low-context environment, but they are not a required element of communication and not necessary for receiving the full intended message, as they might be in a high-context culture. Furthermore, expressing personal views in a low-context culture is expected and does not automatically threaten one’s relationships with friends or colleagues who might hold differing opinions.

“In high-context culture, people tend to personalize their disagreement with others. To show one’s disagreement and anger in public is tantamount to admitting loss of control and face, because what is being said is taken personally which may have an influence on interpersonal relationships. Therefore, they will keep their emotions inside or just remain silent to avoid trouble. In this way, they can maintain social harmony and intimate bonds with each other. In the eyes of people from low-context culture, this kind of repression is totally unreasonable. Everyone has their own rights to express opinions, and this explicit criticism has nothing to do with their interpersonal relationships” (p. 22, Bai, 2016).

Because communication norms can be so distinct between cultures, consider their impact on the learning environment. For example, in the physical classroom, communication and meaning rely on multiple forms of interaction. While some communication relies on written language in a face-to-face class, the majority of exchanges are driven by speech. Participants have multiple strategies at their disposal: verbal feedback, social cues, confirmation checks, body language, and even the physical arrangement of the classroom itself. Instructors can have students work in pairs or groups, sit in a circle or rows, and so on. All of these forms of input combined with students’ background knowledge about how various classroom configurations function help students negotiate meaning. 

However, in the asynchronous online classroom, the majority of communication relies on written language. Instructors typically use tools within the learning management system (LMS) to provide written feedback and grading. Student interactions take place via discussion forums, blogs, structured peer-review assignments, and other text-driven means of communication. While text-based communication has some advantages for English language learners (ELL)  in particular (e.g. opportunities for revision and low-stakes rehearsal), written language is open to interpretation and lacks the visual and physical cues of verbal language. This can be tricky for learners from high-context cultures where communication relies heavily on implicit and contextual cues, such as body language and tone of voice. In fact, one study found that learners from these language and cultural backgrounds tend to misinterpret intent or look for hidden meaning in instructor feedback and discussion posts (Hyland, 2013). 

All this is to say, which student would be most comfortable in a setting where nearly all non-verbal cues are absent, direct text-based information is exchanged, and disagreement among peers is encouraged? Students from low-context cultures may feel at home in this environment, but students from the high-context cultures may feel they – as well as the instructor – are regularly violating norms and expectations. This is important for faculty to understand because it affects whether students see themselves and others as active participants who contribute in a meaningful way, which has a direct impact on the learning community in the course.

Tips for Cultural Inclusivity

  • Survey Students. Use a word cloud, survey, or similar to ask students how comfortable they are expressing disagreement with others. Create guidance for participation based on the responses received. 
  • Provide clear guidance and models. Include guidelines for appropriate language for discussions or debates. Make explicit that respectful disagreement or questioning of ideas is encouraged. Consider including sentence stems that model how to express disagreement or varied perspectives using academic language. Use rubrics that clearly identify expectations for both initial posts and peer response.
  • Be creative with discussion prompts. Assign roles on occasion to build students’ participation confidence by lowering the personal stakes. Other prompt types include problem statements, cases studies, video analysis, or student facilitation of discussions.
  • Use multiple means of communication. Include weekly overview videos or podcasts to deliver important details about the course verbally in addition to providing the information in written form so that students may benefit from both high-context and low-context forms of communication. Sharing assignment feedback through video or audio comments (e.g., in Canvas Speedgrader) can provide additional physical cues and context for the communication that written feedback alone cannot convey.
  • Provide flexible options around communication. Invite students to introduce themselves or participate in discussion posts through video, if they would prefer, while also giving them the option not to appear on camera. Allow them to decide how they would like to exchange information in the course.
  • Be flexible about tools. Provide information about how to record video or other media used in the course, but keep in mind that preferred or available tools will vary in different regions of the world. Allow students the flexibility to determine which tools are best for communication tasks.
  • Include anonymous peer review tasks. This can relieve students who are concerned about damaging relationships with their peers through negative feedback. Gather anonymous feedback about the course as well. Consider culturally based perspectives on power dynamics between students and teachers. 
  • Provide feedback in multiple formats. Give specific examples of what students did well while also being clear about areas for improvement. Avoid making assumptions about what students will take from the comments. Feedback delivered through multiple means (video, audio, text) can help to avoid miscommunications. 
  • Extend existing inclusive language practice to include cultural considerations. Be mindful about clarity and use of idiomatic speech that may be less transparent for students from a different language background.


Seattle University, Graduate Writing Center: Inclusive Language

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: Hofstede Insights

eLearn Magazine: A Fundamental Looks at Cultural Diversity and the Online Classroom 

He Bai (2016) A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Advertisements from High-Context Cultures and Low-Context Cultures

Educational Technology & Society: Cultural Differences in Online Learning

Studies in Educational Evaluation: Student perceptions of hidden messages in teacher written feedback

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