print article



Alfons Tompenhaars and Charles Hampden-Turner. Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business, 2nd ed. (McGraw Hill, 1997)

Geert Hofstede. Cultures and Organizations, revised edition. (McGraw Hill, 1997)

David H. Jonassen, Kyle L. Peck, Brent G. Wilson, and William S. Pfeiffer. Learning with Technology: A Constructivist Approach. (Prentice Hall, 1998)

What are learning objects? (From UW Milwaukee)

Wayne Hodgins with Marcia Conner. “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Learning Standards but where Afraid to Ask.” (LiNE Zine, Fall 2000)


IDC/World Times index

The Masie Center

Campaign for Learning

Andy Sadler, “How to make WBT Drive Profits: Not drain productivity.” Technical Training, Sept/Oct 1999.

eLearning seems the perfect answer to today’s business needs, especially for large global businesses who have to train and retrain people constantly across national boundaries. The technology is there and so is the knowledge. But it’s not working well. Although most countries are increasing their use of elearning, growing evidence shows that the learners are not happy.

At elearning orientation seminars in the UK we attended, we found a strong theme of distrust and of “not invented here.” In some globally deployed programs we examined, user feedback explicitly mentions culturally insensitive content. Drop-out rates are very high. Andy Sadler’s research in 1999 suggested dropout rates as high as 85%, figures that have not improved significantly according to Forrester Research (80%). Masie Center research shows that 62% of users preferred other methods and a Campaign for Learning (UK) report said that 12% of elearning content was “terrible.”

There are many reasons for this apparent lack of enthusiasm: poor technology infrastructures in some regions; lack of design expertise; fear of technology on the part of users, and so on. But there's one readily identifiable cause that seems to go ignored: lack of cultural adaptation. Based on extensive anthropological and cross-cultural research, we suggest that the lack of cultural adaptation is a leading reason why elearning fails to work for a globally distributed audience.

Culture and Learning

“We learn from experiencing phenomena (objects, events, activities, and processes), interpreting these experiences based on what we already know, reasoning about them, and reflecting on the experiences and the reasoning. Jerome Bruner called this process meaning making.” —David H. Jonassen

Cultural difference has been deeply researched. The Dutch anthropologist Geert Hofstede defines culture as consisting of patterns of “thinking, feeling, and potential acting” that all people carry within themselves, and which he terms “mental programs.” The source of these programs lies within the social environments where people grew up and collected their life experiences. Culture affects who we are, how we think, how we behave, and how we respond to our environment. Above all, it determines how we learn.

The field of constructivist learning extends that by showing that learners, based on their own mental categories (schemata), construct knowledge. They weave new information into a mental network of existing relationships. For learning to be effective, learning activities should be relevant to the learners' interests and background and should occur in settings that mimic authentic ones. Ignoring cultural factors leads inevitably to frustrating and ultimately ineffective learning experiences.

Researchers agree that humankind's cultural make-up is layered. Cross-culturalist Fons Trompenaars illustrates the idea of cultural layers using the image of an onion: the outer cultural levels are the most visible and the easiest to change, whereas the inner core that determines our cultural assumptions is hidden from view, more difficult to identify, and not easily changed.

What about global Internet culture? Internet culture appears to operate very much at the outer layers, rather like global brands. So although learners in Chile, Zimbabwe, Australia, Switzerland and the Ukraine might all be wearing Nike trainers, listening to U2, eating burgers, and browsing on Internet Explorer, the key aspects of their cultural identity—including how they learn—may be fundamentally different.

On a practical level, any professional trainer who has worked in different cultures will tell you that, to be effective, you’ll need an understanding of each individual culture. For example, open-ended, participative workshops don’t work as well in cultures such as Japan and Holland where people feel most threatened by uncertain or unknown factors. Motivational techniques that work well in individualistic cultures (like the US), are guaranteed to alienate collective cultures (like India). Group assessment techniques that work well in cultures such as the UK and Sweden could be disastrous where learners expect to be strongly directed, such as Greece and Italy.

Current Best Practice

Providers and buyers of every kind of elearning product and service have globalized elearning on their agenda. But is anyone tackling the challenge of cultural difference in elearning? Our researches covered the top 15 national markets in the IDC/World Times index. This index establishes a standard by which all nations are measured according to their ability to access and absorb information and information technology. What we found was surprising. Although many elearning offerings are being translated, we found no examples of elearning being either written from the ground up or customized specifically to take into account the different ways people learn in different cultures.

Current best practice appears to be represented by the process currently referred to as “localization.” This generally consists of two stages:

1.     Write (or re-write) content using very basic language (almost always English); avoid idiomatic expressions and any dual meaning or ambiguity; concentrate on communicating at a most functional level.

2.     Translate and make minor changes to examples and context. For example, Wal-Mart becomes Sainsbury’s, Auchan, Tengelmann, or Daiei.

In some markets and content areas this approach can work. As a general approach localization is simply inadequate for globalizing elearning. For the majority of subjects, learners won't pay attention, they won't retain information if they did bother paying attention. Worst of all, they won't act on what they’ve learned if, by sheer good fortune or exceptional effort, they happened to retain anything of use.

The What and the How

So if we want to think beyond localization, what does culturally adaptive elearning look like, and how do you work towards developing it?

As a global industry in its infancy, elearning can learn from global media companies and advertisers—who achieve cultural adaptation. Think about the relatively subtle ways in which global brands or franchised TV game shows adapt their core products to different markets. Big Brother, The Weakest Link, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and all the others retain their format and rules very closely but vary tone, lighting, greetings and pace just enough to captivate local audiences. Nescafe, Heineken, and McDonalds are stringent in their control of ingredients and core brand values, but adapt relatively trivial elements of their packaging and promotion to local markets.

Similarly, culturally adapted elearning can look like any other form of elearning to those who learn with it. Emerging technologies in the areas of learning objects and elearning standards allow for modular and intelligently adaptive learning experiences. They can vary just enough to engage, motivate, challenge, and test learners, while delivering consistent core content and key learning messages (although the size of the “core” will vary by content area, as discussed later).

The remainder of this article describes the main components of our evolving methodology. We bring together two maturing areas of knowledge: cultural orientations theory and learning objects. You will need to consider the following four steps when designing and developing culturally adaptive elearning:

  Find and examine the evidence that adaptation is required.

  Identify cultural adaptation strategies.

  Isolate the minimum elements that need adaptation.

  Design learning objects.

  Look at the evidence.

If you want to deliver elearning globally, you’ll usually have evidence if adaptation is necessary. Based on our research, here’s a story you may relate to.

It's 9:30 in the morning in Boston, MA. An instructional designer is reviewing the feedback provided by students about the online course she designed for Boston-based GlobeCorp Inc. She's confident. She's put a lot of thought into the instructional principles she adopted to create this course, and initial user testing results were excellent. But something is wrong. Among the many very positive comments, she reads: “Who is Dan Rather and why should I believe him?”; “Some scenarios were not relevant for my country”; “Assessment feedback was too direct, a little offensive”; “I really don't care that the tutor is a world-class surfer”; “Who is Wal-Mart; what does she sell?”. It dawns on the mortified instructional designer that the negative comments originated exclusively from frustrated learners outside of North America. But how could she address such a range of problems at so many levels, and for so many audiences? She could already hear her boss asks, “What do you want us to do, develop a different course for each and every audience?”

To some degree, the answer is yes. Don’t ignore what your audience is telling you! Read the feedback. If you’re starting to take cultural adaptation seriously, look for comments that originate from cultural mismatches and misunderstandings. If you’re re-purposing classroom courses, ask the trainers from each territory how they vary their delivery? What content worked well or badly in different countries? If you’re doing a full Training Needs Analysis, be sure to gather data from different countries. Talk to regional management about the business issue you’re addressing with the elearning to get an understanding of the problems in different cultures.

Adaptation Strategies: No Change, Localize, Modularize, Originate

We said earlier that what is currently known as “localization” is inadequate as a general approach to cultural adaptation. But actually, localization can be seen as one point on a spectrum of adaptation strategies that range from Translate to Originate, as the table below illustrates.


Spectrum of Adaptation Strategies

Adaptation strategy





Content type

Simple information/ knowledge/news

Low level, cognitive “hard skills”; simple knowledge/ concepts

Some soft skills; complex knowledge; regulatory/financial information; business strategy– most business skills

Most “softer skills”; attitudes & beliefs—many complex management skills

Content examples

Product knowledge; company procedures

Application software; most e-skilling

Project management, presentation skills, marketing strategy

Negotiation skills, motivation, teamwork, conflict resolution

Content adaptation—what people learn

Translation only

Translation + context/examples as required

Translation + context/examples and some modular content

Significant proportion unique per culture

Instructional Strategy adaptation—how people learn


Some trivial changes

Required at key points; re-ordering, re-presentation, alternative media etc.

Significant proportion unique per culture; may require alternative course architectures

Factors, other than content, also drive the requirement for adaptation—organization culture, professional or industry culture, number of cultures involved, duration of the learning experience, and so on—but the table above offers a starting point for elearning managers to think about the required scope of adaptation.

As elearning plays a more strategic role in organizations, the Modularize and Originate strategies will become increasingly necessary. The rapid growth in online soft skills training and in management development, particularly, where they involve blended activities with other delivery methods, will demand a more sophisticated approach to cultural adaptation than a Localization strategy currently offers.

Adaptation: What’s the Least I Need to Do?

When planning for cultural adaptation, it’s not cost-effective to address every idiosyncrasy, every identifiable cultural trait. To design courseware for cultural preferences, you need to find just those elements that make or break the learning experience, adapt those, and leave the others alone. We must “peel the onion” (to use Trompenaars' metaphor) to get to the core values, the things that really matter. It’s often the case that the easy elements to adapt, superficial context elements such as store names, make no difference to learners. On the other hand, adding a discussion group, introducing your tutor differently, or awarding group scores instead of individual ones may give learners the impression of comprehensive personalization.

One way of identifying “the least you have to do” is by using established theories (like those based on the work of anthropologists Hofstede and Trompenaars) that describe cultures in terms of a set of dimensions or “value orientations.” which articulate distinctive cultural values identifiable in each culture. They are useful because they help us map the deep-rooted elements in specific cultures. To ignore them would lead to pedagogic disasters, while accommodating them may lead to highly effective learning experiences.

For the sake of illustration, here is a brief overview of Trompenaars’ value orientations and Hofstede's uncertainty avoidance dimension.

Please note that although these value-orientations provide a useful starting point, effective cultural adaptation requires the involvement of people from the cultures with whom you are intending to communicate.


Universalism –v– Particularism

Universalist cultures tend to adhere to societal rules and not to make exceptions for particular circumstances.

Particularists adopt a relative perspective, pay more attention to unique circumstances, and feel obligations to personal relationships.

Individualism –v– Communitarianism

Individualists regard themselves primarily as individuals, ideally achieve alone, and value personal responsibility.

Communitarianists regard themselves as primarily part of a community, value group achievements, and tend to assume joint responsibility.

Neutral –v– Affective

For neutral cultures, the nature of interactions should be objective and detached. Feelings should not be openly revealed, and self-possessed conduct is admired.

For affective cultures, it is acceptable to express openly thoughts and emotions—verbally and non-verbally.

Specific –v– Diffuse

Specific cultures tend to separate personal from professional life and people are more direct, purposeful, and transparent when relating to others.

For diffuse cultures, personal contact pervades every human transaction and relations with others tend to be indirect.

Achievement –v– Ascription

Achievement-oriented cultures judge people according to what they have accomplished. They make limited use of titles and respect to superiors is accorded depending on their knowledge and performance.

Ascription-oriented cultures attribute status depending on birth, kinship, gender, and age but also connections and educational record. They make extensive use of titles.

High Uncertainty Avoidance –v—Low Uncertainty Avoidance

Cultures with a high uncertainty avoidance score try to avoid ambiguity. Teachers are expected to have all the answers and students are comfortable in structured learning situations.

In cultures with a low uncertainty avoidance score, students are comfortable with unstructured learning situations, open-ended questions and discussions.

These models of cultural orientations, by providing comparable profiles of individual cultures, highlight the important differences. An instructional designer can then identify those components of an elearning experience that most need to be adapted.

Let’s say our instructional designer wants to develop a course for use in the USA and Italy. Based on cultural dimensions, this is how the two cultures compare:

Cultural dimensions



Uncertainty avoidance

Medium to high



medium to high



medium to high











What jumps out is that, in comparison with the USA, the main issues to consider for an Italian audience are:

  High ascription

  Medium to high uncertainty avoidance

  A combination of a certain degree of communitarianism with diffuse and affective tendencies

Certain components will have to be designed differently for the two audiences. These are a few examples:

  The course Orientation lesson may need to be more thorough for the Italians who, unlike the low uncertainty avoidance Americans, will not want to dive in to the course.

  Because of the affective and diffuse nature of their culture, collaborative elements such as discussion boards, are likely to play a more significant role in the Italian version.

  The Italians, being more ascription-oriented, will expect course tutors or experts to be presented as more authoritative than personable, at least at first.

  Feedback during exercises is likely to be direct and neutral for the Americans, and less direct and contain more personal references for the Italians.

However, much of the course—the majority of content presentations, quizzes and exercises—can stay more or less the same.

Learning Objects Pave the Way for Cultural Adaptation

Once learning object standards are complete and widely understood, they will make cultural adaptation more feasible. Learning objects are small, reusable chunks of learning that can be assembled to produce learning experiences. These chunks are increasingly described using metadata that conform to the evolving elearning standards such as SCORM.

However, object-based, culturally adapted elearning can still be developed. Much is currently being written about how objects can customize learning experiences to address individual learning needs. Pre-testing learners, and by monitoring their progress through a “course,” the learning experience can be adapted to their requirements by offering learning objects that meet their exact needs. The same principle applies to cultural adaptation. Objects are selected that to some extent tailor the experience to the cultural expectations of the learner.

This is roughly what part of a course structure could look like based on the Italy-USA differences:


The great advantage of object-based elearning is that once you have identified some of the key dimensions for your major cultural areas, you can deliver the same objects to those who share similar traits. For example, you can deliver the same “ascription-oriented” tutor introduction to audiences from Italy, Spain, Chile and Japan, while you can distribute the achievement-oriented introduction to North American, New Zealand, and Norwegian students.

Cultural Adaptation? You Don’t Have a Choice!

Global organizations need an efficient way of helping their people learn constantly. Huge opportunities lie ahead if they are able to develop diversity that can generate unique knowledge and expertise, elearning could be a key part of making this happen. We need to stop assuming that we all learn the same way and start devising a culturally adaptive knowledge strategy.

Patrick Dunn has 14 years experience in technology-based learning and new media. He is currently Online Learning Manager for BMJ/Unified, based in London, UK. He has worked with a number of major consulting and e-learning organizations including DigitalThink and PricewaterhouseCoopers. He is a regular presenter at industry bodies and conferences, and contributor to industry journals. Contact him directly at

Alessandra Marinetti is Senior Instructional Designer for DigitalThink, Inc., with 10 years of experience in education both in the private and academic sector. She has worked as an instructor in the US, Germany, and Italy and has extensive experience in cross-cultural communication. Reach her at


Copyright (c) 2000-2004 LiNE Zine (

LiNE Zine retains the copyright in all of the material on these web pages as a collective work under copyright laws. You may not republish, redistribute or exploit in any manner any material from these pages without the express consent of LiNE Zine and the author. Contact for reprints and permissions. You may, however, download or print copyrighted material for your individual and non-commercial use.