A (tiny) review of Cultural Considerations in Technology and a few design implications.

“Technology is encoded with the characteristics of the culture that developed it” (Dunbar, 1991 as cited in Adeoye & Wentling, 2007).

“E-learning neither eliminates cultural differences nor is it culture free.” (Swierczek & Bechter, 2008).

For effective learning one must take into consideration the learner’s personal cognitive styles but also cultural ones (Henderson, 1996 as cited in Adeoye & Wentling, 2007) as these have an impact on e-learning behaviours (Swierczek & Bechter, 2008) and website design in general. The research suggest that it is not sufficient to merely translate the text when adapting a website for another culture but to reconsider the entire communication strategy (Würtz, 2005).

In a (tiny ) literature review two popular frameworks by anthropologists Edward Hall(ANNEX I) and Geert Hofstede (ANNEX II) were consistently used to evaluate various technologies from a cultural perspective.

Hall’s framework (Hall 1976,2000 as cited in Würtz, 2005, Swierczek & Bechter, 2008, Ahmed, Mouratidis & Preston, 2008) suggests that all cultures can be situated through their communication styles with each other ie. High Context (HC) or Low Context (LC).

HC cultures are those that correspond to Hofstede’s collectivist cultures. These culture’s communication patterns tend to be more ambiguous, understated and indirect with a priority on maintaining harmony within the group. In discussion groups these students will not initiate a new thread or discussion with the tutor but if someone else does they will respond with many questions for the teacher (Swierczek & Bechter, 2008). They reveal a high Power Distance (Hofstede, 2006) culture which indicates acceptance of hierarchical power structures and corresponds to a preference for this teacher centric focus (Swierczek & Bechter, 2008). As these cultures also tend to avoid high uncertainty (Hofstede, 2006) in learning situations, they may prefer theory as a starting point for learning leading to deductions (Swierczek & Bechter, 2008). Another implication of avoiding high uncertainty is that these users tend to take a longer time to learn (Adeoye & Wentling, 2007).

Low Context (LC) cultures tend towards more ‘direct, precise, dramatic, open’ communication (Würtz,2005) and are more individualistic. In discussion groups LC individuals are more prone to introducing their own discussion questions, show more competitiveness and criticism and will frequently chat with the tutor reflecting a low Power Distance, tendancy towards greater risk and innovation, an individual achievement orientation and acknowledging the tutor as facilitator (Swierczek & Bechter, 2008).

They show a preference for rational, highly structured content which is standardized, contains a lot of text and gets straight to the point (Würtz, 2005). They tend towards preferring learning through induction (Swierczek & Bechter, 2008)

The following table highlights some other differences that have implications for design   (Würtz, 2005, Swierczek & Bechter, 2008, Ahmed, Mouratidis & Preston, 2008)


Tendency of websites in HC Cultures

Tendency of websites in LC Cultures

Animation, Imagery vs text High use of imagery and animation. Focus on metaphors, nuances and other non-verbal cues, centred on images of peopleMore likely to use imagery to convey information including navigational information Lower use, mainly for highlighting effects.More likely to use text to convey information
Level of Transparency Links are process-orientated, promote an exploratory approach to navigation Goal-orientated cues are clear and lead directly to information.
Linear vs parallel navigation Tend towards layer-upon-layer design of layout with many bright colours, fonts and shapes. Information hidden under other information on page. Tend to be tabular and functional in design. Information is side-by-side and less use of pop-up windows. New information opens in same browser window.
Time and Message Speed Users more patient and willing to explore the site to seek information.Accepts slower message speed as part of building relationships. Fast messages may be missed. Time is very important and speed is indicative of efficiency.Messages tend to be those that can be quickly and easily decoded.


Hall (1976,2000 as cited in Würtz, 2005, Swierczek & Bechter, 2008 and Ahmed, Mouratidis & Preston, 2008 )


Hofstede (2006) Cultural Dimensions


Adeoye, B. & Wentling, R. (2007). The relationship between national culture and the usability of an e-learning system. International Journal on ELearning, 6(1), 119-146.

Ahmed, T., Mouratidis, H., Preston, D. (2008) ‘Website Design and Localisation: A Comparison of Malaysia and Britain’ International Journal of CyberSociety and Education, 1 (1) 3 -16. Retreived on 22.03.2011 from http://www.academicjournals.org/ojs2/index.php/IJCSE/article/viewFile/454/2

Hofstede, G. 2006. A summary of my ideas about national culture differences. Retrieved on 22.03.2011 from http://www.uigarden.net/english/national_culture_differences

Swierczek, F. W., & Bechter, C. (2008). Cultural Features of E-Learning – A Euro-Asian Comparison. Paper presented at the International Conference on Cognition and Exploratory Learning in Digital Age, Freiburg, Germany. Retrieved on 22.03.2011 from http://www.iadis.net/dl/final_uploads/200818L027.pdf

Würtz, E. (2005). A cross-cultural analysis of websites from high-context cultures and low-context cultures. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1), article 13. Retrieved on 22.03.2011 from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue1/wuertz.html

7 responses to “A (tiny) review of Cultural Considerations in Technology and a few design implications.

  1. Hi Nicola. I read some these articles and genuinely believe their findings. I was left wondering again though about they divide between their theoretically findings and the real life situation of what could be a single classroom with students from upto 20 different cultures sitting in front of an e-lesson. Is it doomed to fail or do we attempt to determine common aspects of their cultures. It’s certainly not a consideration I have personally made. Maybe it’s time I did.

    • Interesting question Tim. I think in these situations the first step is always simply to become aware. I found the article by Swierczek of particular practical interest with regards how the different cultures communicate in discussion groups. It gave me such insight into how I act and react during our 5-7 sessions and I recognised patterns in others. I imagine from the teacher’s point of view having this type of knowledge would help in directing discussions, getting people involved by understanding how to position the questions etc. Poor teachers they now have to become philharmonic symphony conductors in addition to technology experts, facilitators, scout leaders on students constructive-exploration tours – all in a days work! Tall order and they get flak when they don’t meet it. Mmmmmmm……

  2. Interesting perspective, Nicola. Especially because the table highlights many more differences than Zhang’s (2007) study picked up. And yes, in the big scheme of things, cultural diversity may add another layer of complexity. Doesn’t this make it all the more important to adopt instructional practices which empower students to take control of their own learning so they can successfully deal with such ‘messy’ situations? You’re right – there’s no ways one teacher/e-lesson/methodology can accommodate all learning needs.

    • Thanks for the comment Susi. As I said it was really a tiny review with only 4 studies considered and that is why I tried to keep it simply to presenting the concept and a few of the findings. I do find the perspective completely fascinating though – and once again I go off on the tangent – WHAT WAS THE CULTURE OF THE TUTOR/THE ENVIRONMENT AND DID THAT HAVE AN INFLUENCE??? This is the problem, knowledge is a spiral and I feel as I learn something and get this Garfieldien happy-with-myself smirk, a little devil on my shoulder whispers – “Oh yeah and what about XXX(2005) and The theory of YYY – you know nutting’!” and off I go again… Thank heavens I seem to have low uncertainty avoidance 😉
      P.S Red Thai Chicken Curry

  3. Nicola, interesting post. This reminded me of the impact I’ve seen of cultural diversity on the results of elearning programs developed for multi-national organisations. There is a difference in the adoption and success rate of the same elearning course across different cultures. And yes, it doesn’t get the results you want by simply translating the web or eLearning page into the local language.

  4. Cultural frames of reference very much interest me and your blog inclusive of tables is so informative. Thank you.

    I wondered about the commitment bi-culturalism and the fundatmental policy and procedures to ensure learning and development infrastracture to mirror the philosophies and enactment. So how to enact, resource, continue on-going development of different culture learning and development in unison to achieve the same ends.

  5. Pingback: Blog 2: The challenge of managing diverse team – culcmicholas

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