Cultural Diversity in Collaborative Learning Systems

Cultural Diversity in Collaborative Learning Systems

Yingqin Zhong (National University of Singapore, Singapore) and John Lim (National University of Singapore, Singapore)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch138
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Abstract

Globalization makes cultural diversity a pertinent factor in e-learning, as distributed learning teams with mixed cultural backgrounds become commonplace in most e-learning programs, which can be study-based (schools and universities) or work-based (training units) (Zhang & Zhou, 2003). In these programs, collaborative learning is supported via computermediated communication technologies and instructional technologies. The primary goal of enhancing learning with technology aids, aligning with the goal of education at all levels, is to engage students in meaningful learning activities, which require learners to construct knowledge by actively interpreting, acquiring, and analyzing their experience (Alavi, Marakas, & Yoo, 2002). In accordance, meaningful learning requires knowledge to be constructed by the learners but not by the teachers. In this regard, collaborative learning, an activity where two or more people work together to create meaning, explore a topic, or improve skills, is considered superior to other individualistic instructional methods (Lerouge, Blanton, & Kittner, 2004). The basic premise underlying this is the socio-learning theory, which advocates that learning and development occur during cooperative socialization among peers and emerge through shared understandings (Leidner & Jarvenpaa, 1995). This highlights the criticality of the communication and collaboration pertaining to an individual’s learning process. Since culture reflects the way one learns (Hofstede, 1997; Vygotsky, 1978), group members’ cultural backgrounds play a significant role in affecting the collaborative learning process (Chang & Lim, 2005). Language, cognitive style, and learning style are some aspects of culture that concern collaborative learning in the short term. Groups which have members of different cultural backgrounds are expected to be availed a wider variety of skills, information, and experiences that could potentially improve the quality of collaborative learning (Rich, 1997). In contrast, a group comprising members of similar backgrounds is vulnerable to the “groupthink” syndrome; when the syndrome operates, members could ignore alternatives, resulting in a deterioration of efficiency in making a group decision (Janis, 1982). Accordingly, it is conceivable that groups formed by members of different cultural backgrounds are inherently less prone to the “groupthink” syndrome. However, the advantages of cultural diversity in achieving meaningful collaborative learning are not easily realized, as the basic modes of communication may vary among different cultures and, in consequence, communication distortion often occurs (Chidambaram, 1992). Collaborative learning systems (CLS) are being increasingly researched owing to their potential capabilities and the associated new opportunities in supporting collaborative learning, in particular for distributed groups involving members of different cultural backgrounds (Alavi & Leidner, 2001). Collaborative learning systems provide the necessary medium to support interaction among learners, and therefore modify the nature and the ef- ficiency of the collaborative learning activities (Mandryk, Inkepn, Bilezikjian, Klemmer, & Landay, 2001). The current article looks into how collaborative learning systems may better accommodate cultural diversity in e-learning groups. In addition, this article discusses pertinent issues regarding the role of a leader in building the common ground among learners in order to maximize the potential of collaborative learning systems when cultural diversity is present.
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Introduction

Globalization makes cultural diversity a pertinent factor in e-learning, as distributed learning teams with mixed cultural backgrounds become commonplace in most e-learning programs, which can be study-based (schools and universities) or work-based (training units) (Zhang & Zhou, 2003). In these programs, collaborative learning is supported via computer-mediated communication technologies and instructional technologies. The primary goal of enhancing learning with technology aids, aligning with the goal of education at all levels, is to engage students in meaningful learning activities, which require learners to construct knowledge by actively interpreting, acquiring, and analyzing their experience (Alavi, Marakas, & Yoo, 2002). In accordance, meaningful learning requires knowledge to be constructed by the learners but not by the teachers. In this regard, collaborative learning, an activity where two or more people work together to create meaning, explore a topic, or improve skills, is considered superior to other individualistic instructional methods (Lerouge, Blanton, & Kittner, 2004). The basic premise underlying this is the socio-learning theory, which advocates that learning and development occur during cooperative socialization among peers and emerge through shared understandings (Leidner & Jarvenpaa, 1995). This highlights the criticality of the communication and collaboration pertaining to an individual’s learning process. Since culture reflects the way one learns (Hofstede, 1997; Vygotsky, 1978), group members’ cultural backgrounds play a significant role in affecting the collaborative learning process (Chang & Lim, 2005). Language, cognitive style, and learning style are some aspects of culture that concern collaborative learning in the short term.

Groups which have members of different cultural backgrounds are expected to be availed a wider variety of skills, information, and experiences that could potentially improve the quality of collaborative learning (Rich, 1997). In contrast, a group comprising members of similar backgrounds is vulnerable to the “groupthink” syndrome; when the syndrome operates, members could ignore alternatives, resulting in a deterioration of efficiency in making a group decision (Janis, 1982). Accordingly, it is conceivable that groups formed by members of different cultural backgrounds are inherently less prone to the “groupthink” syndrome. However, the advantages of cultural diversity in achieving meaningful collaborative learning are not easily realized, as the basic modes of communication may vary among different cultures and, in consequence, communication distortion often occurs (Chidambaram, 1992). Collaborative learning systems (CLS) are being increasingly researched owing to their potential capabilities and the associated new opportunities in supporting collaborative learning, in particular for distributed groups involving members of different cultural backgrounds (Alavi & Leidner, 2001). Collaborative learning systems provide the necessary medium to support interaction among learners, and therefore modify the nature and the efficiency of the collaborative learning activities (Mandryk, Inkepn, Bilezikjian, Klemmer, & Landay, 2001). The current article looks into how collaborative learning systems may better accommodate cultural diversity in e-learning groups. In addition, this article discusses pertinent issues regarding the role of a leader in building the common ground among learners in order to maximize the potential of collaborative learning systems when cultural diversity is present.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Cultural Diversity: The composition of members’ (national) cultural backgrounds in a group. It is defined exclusively in terms of nationality, being either heterogeneous or homogeneous.

Common Ground in Collaborative Learning Group: The mutual understanding of the knowledge constructed during the learning process. Such mutual understanding is composed of not only the specific pieces of information but also the awareness that other members know the information.

Convergence Process in Collaborative Learning: The construction of shared meaning for information in collaborative learning activities.

Heterogeneous Group: A group whose members are of different (national) cultural backgrounds.

Collaborative Learning Systems (CLS): Systems implemented to provide computer-supported environments which facilitate collaborative learning. Primarily, these systems serve as a medium through which learners can cooperate with others.

Conveyance Process in Collaborative Learning: The exchange of information among learners in collaborative learning activities.

Homogeneous Group: A group whose members are of the same (national) cultural background.

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