Translating training content into employees’ native languages is not sufficient to ensure that employees around the world can access and understand it; global eLearning must be free of cultural artifacts and assumptions as well. This can be a challenge, since many people are unaware of how cultural beliefs and traits that they’ve absorbed throughout their lives affect their instructional approach or content.

To be truly diverse, eLearning must reflect many layers of difference: language, gender, nationality, culture, and experience. When preparing eLearning targeting a global audience, whether it’s virtual training, an asynchronous course, or mobile learning, instructors can take specific steps to avoid misunderstandings and to ensure that the eLearning is accessible to a broad, diverse audience. Some of these steps are outlined here.

Scheduling considerations

Scheduling virtual sessions for a global audience can seem like an impossible task. With multiple time zones to consider, finding an hour when everyone is available is the first hurdle. Don’t forget to check holiday calendars and typical workweek schedules.

While much of Europe and North America follows a Monday-to-Friday workweek, weekends in Asia and the Middle East might fall on different days. Some Muslim-majority countries, as well as Israel, observe the weekend on Friday and Saturday; others have a Thursday-Friday weekend.

Holiday calendars vary around the world, too. Christian holidays are often official holidays in North and South America and Europe, but members of other faiths and cultures, for example Muslim, Jewish, and Chinese, follow different holiday calendars. Non-Western countries using different calendars are likely to have different days off from work.

Once the virtual session is on the calendar, it’s time to plan the presentation.

Presenting to a linguistically diverse audience

The good news is that preparing to present a virtual classroom session to learners who are scattered widely and speak multiple languages is similar, in many ways, to preparing any learner-centered content.

Presenters should focus on using simple language—plain English—and they should make an effort to speak slowly and clearly. This does not mean skipping complex topics or speaking as if addressing children. Presenters should not over-enunciate or speak loudly; these do not help people understand and can offend learners. However, presenters should use unambiguous language and short sentences. Presenters also should avoid using idiomatic expressions, proverbs, and cultural references—and if one slips in, they should be prepared to explain it.

Course content should be free of metaphors and jargon, yet it must use appropriate vocabulary for the audience. In some professional settings, this might mean choosing complex terms that are commonly used, and likely to be familiar to the audience, over simpler terms that require a convoluted explanation. Familiarity with learners’ level of expertise and knowledge of the topic area is essential.

Presenters should pause periodically during the presentation—and any time they instruct learners to complete a task—to check for understanding. It’s important to ask if there are questions and encourage learners to use the chat feature to ask for clarification; some learners might be hesitant to speak up unless specifically invited to do so. Keep in mind that learners who are non-native English speakers might be mentally translating everything the presenter says. This is exhausting, so presenters should provide breaks to let the learners catch up.

Presenters need patience and a willingness to repeat material or try a different way of explaining it. Misunderstanding among learners is not a sign of lack of intelligence or professional skill; it’s far more likely the result of a language barrier or cultural differences that impede understanding.

Culturally diverse visual design

An eLearning or virtual presentation that incorporates graphics and photos might need to be reviewed for diversity—which means doing more than simply ensuring that photos include people of different genders and ethnicities, though that is one place to start.

When presenting to a multinational audience, instructors should learn about important symbols and the meanings associated with various colors in the cultures of the target learner population—and adjust graphics and color schemes where appropriate. If teaching to students whose native language is written from right to left or vertically, instructors might need to change the layout of screens or slides.

Presenters might swap out photos or graphical depictions of people, as well as other cultural artifacts, based on the cultural values of the targeted learners. Are people depicted as dressed modestly and professionally—with these terms defined as appropriate for the audience? What are cultural norms around gender roles and age, and how might these be depicted in the content?

While a presenter might choose to use photos or examples that reinforce corporate values that differ from local norms— showing women in leadership positions, for example, in a country where this is unusual—this should be a conscious choice implemented with care, not an error based on lack of knowledge or forethought. The only way to ensure that this is the case is for the presenter to become familiar with learners’ local cultures.

Cultural differences relevant to learning

Cultures vary in multiple dimensions that affect the way instructors should present content and structure activities and exercises. Three key areas that InSyncTraining explored in a recent workshop, Mastering Cultural Dynamics, are:

  • Egalitarian vs. status-focused
  • Task-oriented vs. relationship-oriented
  • Risk-taking vs. seeking certainty

Each of these areas is a continuum, and cultures—as well as individuals within a culture—land at different points along the continuum.

In an egalitarian culture, employees might be accustomed to having their voices heard. These employees also might be willing to challenge the boss if they disagree; whereas in a status-focused culture, the authority of a boss, and sometimes of any older person, is respected and those in authority are treated deferentially.

These differences might affect how willing learners are to speak up in group brainstorming sessions if individuals of different ranks are present. If a presenter divides a virtual group into small “breakout” groups to work on a task, or even to discuss ideas, that presenter should be aware of the status issue. One suggestion, if the learners include members of a more status-focused culture, is to group individuals of the same rank rather than form mixed manager-employee groups. Another possibility is separating the manager and employee groups for all training and instruction. “Silent brainstorming”—where learners write down ideas and the presenter reads them aloud anonymously—works well with mixed-status groups, as this approach permits lower-status individuals to speak up without disrespecting their bosses.

In a task-oriented culture, people are likely to be focused on a goal or schedule. They might take “working lunches” and be more willing to interrupt a meeting or conversation to request information that they need to continue with a task. At the other end of the spectrum, in a highly relationship-focused culture, people might spend long meal breaks talking about non-work topics and socialize extensively with colleagues and their families. In a relationship-focused culture, a person might be hired or promoted based on personal connections and relationships, whereas in a task-oriented culture, these decisions are ostensibly based on performance.

The way a presenter introduces and structures a virtual class session might vary based on whether the majority of learners are from one or the other end of the task–relationship continuum. To build trust among relationship-focused learners, a presenter might use the webcam to introduce herself and share some personal information, then ask participants to introduce themselves and share their role, where they’re from, or some other detail. Task-focused learners might consider that a waste of time. In addition, task-focused learners are likely to become impatient with small-group discussions or activities, favoring individual assignments. On the other hand, instructors of relationship-focused learners who assign individual activities might be surprised to find that learners pair up or form small groups to complete the tasks.

Whether a culture—or individual—favors risk-taking or certainty affects how managers make decisions, as well as how individuals approach learning. In a risk-taking culture, learners training to use a new software tool might jump in and click on menus and buttons, trying everything out. A classroom full of “certainty” learners will want to read the manual or listen to complete instructions from the presenter before trying anything. The risk-vs.-certainty mix of learners should also influence the way a presenter gives instructions to learners. According to the InSyncTraining presentation, learners in Middle Eastern and European countries tend to expect more specific instructions and stated goals than US-based learners.

Finally, presenters should think about the stories and examples they select to illuminate their instruction. Avoiding stories that are deeply rooted in one culture and coming up with examples that are relevant to the learners can be challenging, but the effort can pay off in improved engagement and retention of learning.