Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Is Digital Scholarship limited by cultural myopia?


The parameters of scholarship in education are often based on Boyer’s (1990) dimensions of discovery, integration, application and teaching.  Healey further expands on the scholarship of teaching to include “research into teaching and learning, critical reflection of practice and communication and dissemination about the practice of one’s subject” (2000, p. 169).

Broadening the discussion to include the transformational aspects of “digital” technology, educational scholarship has been enriched through open data, open publishing, a blurring of the academic and ‘real’ world, open teaching and learning and a movement from the individual to the distributed scholar and global access (Pearce, Weller, Scanlon, & Kinsley, 2012). However, Pearce etal. (2012, p. 169) cautioned that technology is “a necessary but not sufficient condition” for true scholarship. The question is, given the potential and reality of technology, what else is needed to fulfil the obligations of a modern ‘digital’ scholar?

Argument statement 

This essay will argue that the dominance of a Western cognitive constructivist tradition in online and offline education, led by British, Australasian and North American (BANA) institutions limits knowledge, understanding and progress not only of its students, but of its scholars as well in exploiting the true potential of open educational tools and resources.

There are four main reasons for situating this essay in the context of teaching and learning, in particular, a critical reflection of digital scholarship practice in relation to multi-cultural multi-lingual (MCML) learning environments. Firstly, demographic shifts in education are occurring at an unprecedented rate as a result of globalisation, immigration, migration, and war (Boelens, 2010; Boelens, Cherek, Tilke, & Bailey, 2015).  Secondly a significant shift to online education where the global market is showing a 9.2% five year annual compound growth rate and is now worth $107 billion led by India and China (Pappas, 2015). Thirdly, work and employment increasingly is global, remote and disaggregated with globally mobile and fluid workforce and both employers and employees requiring “just in time” rather than “just in case” skills and knowledge. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is a moral, ethical and value-based argument. On the one hand, MCML students are prejudiced by the dominance of a Western cognitive constructivist tradition in education (Catterick, 2007; Sadykova, 2014; Zhang & Kenny, 2010) and on the other, ignoring the MCML dimension limits critical reflective practice, the potential of international digital scholarship and knowledge and understanding of a large part of the educational scholars’ field.

Interpretive Discussion


Traditionally, creating culturally-responsive accommodations for MLMC students has faced considerable institutional opposition. The response of educational institutions, comprised a narrow range between non-accommodation and intervention in the form of student induction into ‘the system’ i.e. modify the student not the program (Catterick, 2007; Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010). Arguments against interventions cite costs, quality control, and expectations of the students themselves and their future employers that they are “Westernised” as a by-product of their education (Catterick, 2007).

Parrish and Linder-VanBerschot (2010) acknowledge these issues and suggest that institutions distinguish between entrenched cultural values and superficial practices, and create interventions with constructivist and instructivist alternatives or choices in learning activities and instructional format only where these are critical to learning success.  Researchers sound a word of caution against cultural generalizations that lead to stereotyping and discrimination (Gazi, 2014; Hardy & Tolhurst, 2014; Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010). This can be ameliorated through a combination of embedding cultural considerations in each stage of the instructional design process, ensuring an iterative practice of reflection and modification and encouraging student interaction and feedback (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010; Young, 2009).

Models designed to foster awareness of cultural implications in education vary in their orientation. Initially research done in corporations (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010) and physical classrooms led to classroom or systems originated and oriented models such as the Inclusion, Attitude, Meaning, Competence (IAMC) model of Ginsberg & Wlodkowski (2009, cited in Suzuki & Nemoto, 2012) and the Cultural Dimensions Learning Framework (CDLF) (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010) which were adapted for online learning.

In contrast, the Culture Based Model (CBM) framework of Young (2009) and the Cultural Adaptation Process (CAP) model (Edmundson, 2007b) are product oriented with the aim of guiding designers to incorporate culture in the design of digital and online educational products. (See Appendix 1 for illustrations of these models).

Reflection on teaching and learning in a multi-cultural environment

Educational institutions are not the only suppliers of teaching and learning. Commercial entities, particularly multinational companies, go to an enormous amount of effort in creating culturally compatible user interfaces - see Edmundson’s (2007a) book “Globalized e-learning cultural challenges”. One could argue that this effort directly benefits their bottom line, however all institutions would benefit from this approach.

Fortunately there are some researchers open-minded enough to examine the assumptions of their own culture, reflect on the embedded cultural practices of teaching and learning and those of the digital platforms and applications and thoughtfully researching ways to reconcile the two so as to optimise the learning of their students (Chan & Rao, 2010; Looker, 2011; Ren & Montgomery, 2015; Sadykova, 2014).  Critical examination of one’s own culture and introducing new technologies in a more considered and less forceful way, appears to result in more success and acceptance. Pedagogy aligned with sociocultural context allows scaffolding of current to new practice and understanding (Chan, 2010; Chan & Rao, 2010; Law et al., 2010; Rao & Chan, 2010).

Chan (2010) demonstrated aspects of the Confucian approach to teaching and learning were highly compatible with the values of digital scholarship, and showed how modifications in the way technological tools for collaborative learning were introduced positively impacted their acceptance by teachers and students in a high school setting.

More recently, in examining Korean students’ experiences of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Ahn, Yyon and Cha (2015) built on the CDLF of Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot (2010) showing how awareness, cultural sensitivity and relatively minor adjustments could enhance the online learning experience of such students without detracting from the quality  and substance of the courses.

The introduction of digital innovation in the learning environment does not automatically lead to universal acceptance, but can resoundingly be rejected in any culture when it is felt basic assumptions and expectations are being violated – as the study of an online peer-to-peer review workshop tool revealed (Wilson, Diao, & Huang, 2015). Even if peer-to-peer review and data analytics have meta-cognitive benefits, their implementation is often poor and occurs within a context where cooperation and collaboration is espoused but underlying assumptions and pressures of competition and the importance of good grades prevail (Durall & Gros, 2014; Wilson et al., 2015). Similarly, suboptimal outcomes are seen if the social-emotional needs and group formation process is neglected in online scholarship or learning and made subservient to certification and task performance (Carabajal, LaPointe, & Gunawardena, 2003).

Current trends, futurist predictions, theoretical perspectives

Disaggregation and re-aggregation appears to be a theme in many of the discussions on trends and the future of education - something technology allows in ways previously not possible.

Ware, writing in 2011, predicted that the publication of academic research would be disaggregated between the repository process of registration and dissemination of work and the certification process which includes peer review and branding – an idea that harks back to the learned societies of the 18th and 19th centuries. (Ware, 2011). Four years later this is the reality in open access repositories in China (Ren & Montgomery, 2015).   Retractions of research papers have also resulted in the calls for the publication of the complete research work flow including raw data – something that is now technologically possible and feasible as interrogation and data analytic tools develop (Larsen, 2008; Oransky & Marcus, 2010; Ware, 2011).

Technology enhances the agency of the self-directed learner (SDL) to re-aggregate OER to suit their learning needs. Mike Caulfield’s idea of choral explanations in OER textbooks:
“the text branches off into multiple available explanations of the same concept, explanations authored individually by a wide range of instructors, researchers, and students. You can keep reading until you find the explanation that makes sense, or you can start with simpler explanations and work your way to nuance.” (Caulfield, 2016, para. 63)
opens many possibilities for expanding textbooks to accommodate linguistic and cultural diversity – something international students already do when they purchase two (physical) textbooks, one that is not only in their home language but also in their home pedagogical culture (Bailey, 2016; Kim & Mizuishi, 2014)

Bates cautions that there is still an agency role to structure and accredit that knowledge acquisition (Bates, 2011), but in a globally mobile and fluid workforce, those aggregators will need to accommodate different cultures of learning.  Public/private educational entities such as Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education are taking a regional lead in exporting their vocational training through their educational services division (Chong, 2014; ITEES, 2015; Li, Yao, & Chen, 2014).

Similarly consideration could be given to using the models and algorithms in the field of adaptive learning (Charles Sturt University, n.d.) and personalisation in order to create cultural adaptations based on parameters set by students.

Two universities, although very different in design are using innovative online technology, Kiron University to give refugees the opportunity to further their education (Bates, 2015) and Minerva University to give fee paying students a global education that is location independent for both students and professors (Wood, 2014).  Such disruptive models of higher education raise all kinds of questions on the implications of digital learning including whether scholarship and research will continue if scholarship is not directly visible or rewarded (Harry Lewis, cited by Wood, 2014).
Implications for scholarly practice
In order to understand the role of technology, Kalantzis and Cope (2015) go back to the etymology of ‘media’ as agents bridging meaning across space and time to facilitate communication, understanding and learning. This has huge implications for scholarly practice.

Literature on global collaboration in the classroom (Higgitt et al., 2008; Thombs, Ivarsson, & Gillis, 2011), the research process (Siemens & Burr, 2013; Siemens, Cunningham, Duff, & Warwick, 2011) and online conferencing (LaPointe & Gunawardena, 2004) enumerates many benefits of such collaboration. These include but are not limited to the opening of and access to new knowledge; flattening of hierarchies, easier discovery and connection mechanisms; extending the reach and equity of scholars and reducing costs. Some of the problems however, include issues with technological difficulties and failure, differences in equipment standards and capabilities, scheduling issues due to time differences, misunderstandings due to language, the nature of computer-mediated communication including its text-basis, time-independence, asynchronous nature and inability to interpret culturally based non-verbal cues (Pearce et al., 2012; Selwyn, 2010; Veletsianos & Kimmons, 2012a, 2012b; Weller, 2011).

Of these, language remains a significant barrier to open access international research and learning. Even where all members of a research team are proficient in a language (usually English), research in other languages may not be accessible to non-speakers (Loan & Sheikh, 2016; Ren & Montgomery, 2015),  and language and cultural norms may be intertwined where nuance can result in misunderstanding (Siemens & Burr, 2013). As translation software continue to evolve will more students be able to study and do internationally recognised and disseminated research in their home language, (Cheesman et al., 2016; Palaiologou, 2007; Sadykova, 2014)? Or will the dominance of English prevail – albeit with a move to “global English” as envisioned by Schell (2007) and what will be lost as a result?


Digital scholarship within the context of international and globalised education could benefit from additional critical reflection into the assumptions concerning and attitudes towards multi-cultural and multi-lingual students and fellow researchers.  Given the plethora of technological tools, research, knowledge and practice in non-BANA educational institutions, of intrepid researchers in BANA institutions and of multi-national corporations there are ample examples of best practice and the potential to positively impact student learning and educational scholarship in the digital realm.


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Appendix 1: Illustrations of Models

Figure 1: IAMC model Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009 (cited in Suzuki & Nemoto, 2012 p. 25)

Figure 2: Cultural Dimensions Learning Framework (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010,  summarized in Ahn, Yoon & Cha, 2015, p.207)

Figure 3: Culture Based Model, Young, 2009, p. 38

 Figure 4: Cultural Adaptation Process (Edmundson, 2007b, p. 269)