Cross-Cultural Challenges in the Design and Delivery of Online Language Programs

Cross-Cultural Challenges in the Design and Delivery of Online Language Programs

Frederick Kang’ethe Iraki (United States International University, Kenya)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5023-7.ch009
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Whether online, offline, hybrid, distant, or even e-learning, recent developments in technology all over the world have changed the way learning and teaching is designed and delivered. Recently, some university consortia in the US announced that they would be offering large-scale online degree courses, for free. Irrespective of the repercussions of such an initiative, it seems very likely that the future of higher education will be online courses. In recognition of this reality, universities are providing continuous professional development to their faculty, particularly in the area of online teaching and learning. But the challenges are not only technical but cultural too. This chapter discusses the general requirements and challenges (both technical and cultural) that face a designer of an online or hybrid language program that is communicative, interactive, exciting, motivating and engaging for students. More specifically, the chapter details the road travelled by the author in designing and delivering a hybrid Intermediate 2 Swahili program in spring 2013 to American students at American University in Washington DC. The technical, technological, and cultural issues encountered by both the lecturer and the students are reviewed in the chapter.
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We should try to interpret people’s thinking processes and behaviors by referring to their own culture rather than ours. (Rogers et al. 2007)

People are generally slow in taking up technological innovation.1

To be true, ten years ago the idea of offering an online course in Kenya was greeted with skepticism and cynicism. The few universities that had WebCT platform had little inclination to integrate online teaching into their curriculum. Invariably, the acquisition of WebCT was a prestigious gimmick for publicity with little academic value. However, with increasing challenges in providing physical facilities for students and the increasing cost of education, many universities are now looking at online teaching with more seriousness. For now, almost every university has Blackboard, Moodle, etc. as platforms for availing education to many students who cannot get physically to the universities. Further, universities have to outsource faculty from overseas to meet special demands from students. This makes online teaching not only important but also indispensable in our times. Despite the obvious benefits that include access, low cost, quality, inclusion, and so on and so forth, online courses face a barrage of challenges, not only in Africa but also in the Developed world. The first section of this chapter presents the requirements for midwifing an online language program, in this case Intermediate Swahili II. Secondly, the chapter reviews the challenges faced in designing and implementing an online language program, especially from a cross-cultural standpoint. The third section attempts to provide points of reflection in regard to addressing the cross-cultural challenges.


Ingredients Of An Online Language Course

When I proposed an online Swahili program for American University in Washington DC five years ago, the team visiting Kenya then thought it was an impractical idea. To my mind, the objection had at least two sides to it: In the first place, the university was far from enthusiastic about online courses2. Even today, resistance to online courses is just beginning to subside. Secondly, the team may have had doubts about a Kenyan’s competence in undertaking such a daunting task. In view of the skills required to develop an online course, such a reservation may be understandable within the wider context of Africa’s technological challenges. In 2012, the American University was facing the challenge of providing students with an opportunity to complete their Swahili language requirements. Habitually, students are required to cover four semesters of a modern language; in the case of Swahili, the students were now in the third semester of Swahili and I was teaching Swahili Intermediate I. However, it wasn’t clear how they would cover the fourth semester of Swahili Intermediate II since my sabbatical was ending after the fall semester 2012. It was therefore imperative and urgent to plan and design an acceptable online or hybrid course for Swahili Intermediate II during the fall semester for delivery in the spring semester 2013.

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