Culture in the online class

Hewling, Anne (2006). Culture in the online class. PhD thesis The Open University.



This study investigates the construction of culture in a remote-accessed virtual class with learners who have been recruited globally. Having reviewed the literature of the field it concludes that using a framework of ideas which equates culture with nationality is problematic, as it tends to emphasise dissonance and difference in classes which are nonetheless functional. Instead the study proposes that culture should be regarded as a process of ongoing negotiation between the different elements involved in the learning context. In the online class this involves not only students, tutors and course materials but also the technology being used. In negotiation, human elements draw on understandings they have previously developed through prior experience of other cultural contexts (including nationality), whilst the understandings of designers and developers are reflected in the structure and functionality of the technology and the course materials provided for the class.

Using a methodological framework based on grounded theory a picture of the practice of negotiation of culture in an online class is developed. Posting messages to class discussion forums is found to be the primary means of negotiation of culture. Examples of discussions, and learners' subsequent reflections on them in interviews, demonstrate how issues are presented, and how and what authorities are drawn on to validate or dispute the positions presented. Core themes of technology, time, authority and control are identified as arising across different instances of negotiation. These are seen to introduce contradictions and uncertainties into the negotiation process, and thus potentially impede its effectiveness.

Overall, the study argues that the construction of culture in the online class is neither the product of essential attributes of the learners, nor a fixed linear process but, rather, an iterative process of multiple incidents of negotiation. Lessons learned over time provide material for future negotiation but cannot in themselves act as predictive tools. Some suggestions are made for the direction of future research aimed at giving participants more control over this process. Finally, suggestions are offered as to how this view of culture as negotiation can assist the facilitation of interaction and learning in the online class

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