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Giving lectures a voice for a cross-cultural audience

Elicia Lanham and Wanlei Zhou
School of Information Technology
Deakin University
Culturally diverse classes are now a reality that we face in classrooms and online. Research into the understanding and designing for these diverse classes is needed to ensure that all students receive an equal basis for their education. There are two contributing factors for the creation of this research. The first being the increase in the number of international students enrolling to complete courses, and the second being the push to provide online courses. With the current trend to provide courses online and the increase in international students, the way in which we present unit content; and the delivery of that content required further investigation.


The number of international students studying at Australian tertiary institutions has been on the increase over recent years and is expected to continue to do so. Dr Brendan Nelson (2003) stated in a media release that the total number of international student's enrolments in Australia in 2003 reached an estimated 303,324. The media release also indicated that Asia remains the main source of international students, representing more than three quarters of Australia's overseas students market. Due to these figures the two groups which will be the focus of this paper for cultural comparison will be the Australian and Asian cultures.

With the international student enrolment numbers on the rise nationally so to are the number of international students studying in Deakin University. It has been identified by some researchers that students from different cultures learn differently and have different approaches to learning. It has been recognised that the different learning styles become more apparent in the online learning environment. With the current move to go 'online', universities are now faced with designing and providing content for an expanded student audience. When we combine international and local students in one learning environment, consideration is needed to ensure that all students are provided with an equal learning environment.

Andrewartha and Wilmot (2001) have indicated that educational researchers have long derided the university lecture as an effective mode of delivery of educational materials, but currently there are many reports on the advantages offered by computer technology. Hence the creation and inclusion of audio lectures is needed to be explored and developed from a cultural perspective.

Cultural differences

With the high percentage of undergraduate students studying at tertiary level coming from an international background, and at least a basic understanding of their cultural backgrounds is needed. Munro-Smith (2003) acknowledges that managing cultural differences have to date been focused on helping these international students understand the Australian way of doing things, combined with academic staff making adjustments to their teaching styles in the classroom. However with the increase of online components within courses the opportunity to adjust teaching styles to suit different students is being reduced. Therefore more care is needed in the designing of these online courses to ensure that all students learning needs are acknowledge.

Several studies (Conlan, 1996; Munro-Smith, 2002; Chin, Chang & Bauer, 2000) have identified that Australian students are seen to be more accepting, comfortable, and confident working in the student centred environment as opposed to students from Asian cultures who generally prefer the traditional instructor centred approach. As these two cultural groups make up the largest portions of the student audiences at Deakin University and therefore, it is important to provide these learners with an environment that they feel comfortable learning in.

Conlan (1996) identifies that the approach of many Asian students to learning is that of rote learning. According to Conlan (1996), to "know" something for Asian students, often refers to being able to remember, repeat, reproduce, or recite the information in question. From these statements we can see that the reproduction and memorisation of material is considered to be a correct way of learning in the Asian culture.

Munro-Smith (2003) recognises that when a computer stands between a teacher and student, the cultural differences in the student population need to be taken into account, otherwise disengagement and stress can become a serious problem.

Munro-Smith (2003) indicated that many Asian peoples, especially Chinese and Thai, exhibit strong uncertainty avoidance in an educational context and prefer structured learning activities and assessment. In other words they want to be told what they need to know and precisely how to prove that they have learnt it. In contrast Australians prefer to interpret the task their own way.

It is important to remember that not all members of cultural groups; be they Australians, or Chinese, etc., are the same and that culturally stereotyping is a potential risk. Hofstede acknowledges the variability of behaviour within the cultural groups and that differences occur within the cultural groups as well.

Cultural design

If the current approach for universities is toward offering more units in the online environment then providing more opportunities for students to be proactive towards their education are needed. Making online studies part of the tertiary education experience from the beginning will improve students' skills and awareness of their learning environment.

McLoughlin and Oliver (2000) have assembled several design principles for use in culturally inclusive curriculum for online learners. These principles include, adopting a knowledge philosophy that is accepting of multiple perspectives; incorporating "real' learning activities that will build on existing knowledge, values, and skills; knowledge sharing to facilitate online learning communities; providing both internal and external support; encouraging students to be proactive in their learning; providing flexible learning goals to ensure that all students are able to achieve them.

General items that should be taken into consideration in order to reduce the effects on students from other cultures when designing online materials, include the following: providing an environment free of colloquial language and cultural slang; identifying items or language that may be offensive to other cultures; identifying areas in which cultures learn differently, and make allowances for this in the learning outcomes; and providing an environment, which ensures that all students are able to understand the material. These items are just a sample of techniques that can be used to reduce the barriers between cultures in the classroom and in online environments.

Audio lectures

Teaching in the tertiary education sector is moving towards a student centred environment, and there is now a greater recognition that student learning styles vary. In a study conducted by Robert (1994), an evaluation of students use of audio recordings of lectures revealed that students valued opportunity to listen to the lectures they had missed whilst also reducing the number of students seeking academic staff to ask questions.

Roberts (1994) stated that with increasing numbers of students who have English as their second language, the existence of the audio tapes was seen as a means of these students being readily able to revise material without the need to approach staff members.

It is a concern that students may elect not to attend the lectures as they are being recorded. It is not the intension of this study to replace the face to face lecture but to enhance the unit content. It is assumed that students will use the audio lectures to catch up on content missed when they were unable to attend a lecture. This is extended one step further with the expectation that international students will use the audio lecture to revisit the lecture in order to better understand the unit content so that they are able to retain the information presented.

The provision of the lecture in its entirety though audio streaming is seen as one way in which students could be provided with the facility to review lecture material they did not understand the first time through, to add to or amend notes they had taken in the lecture or to take lecture notes from any lectures they had missed. Students can continuously access the lecture to listen to the content presented until they feel they understand the content. This is an important feature of the technology.

Research has indicated that in the weeks leading up to the examination period the number of students accessing the information increased. This may be seen as an indication that students see this as a useful aid to revision.

Creation of audio lectures

The creation of the audio lecture is currently being conducted. The audio lectures are recorded using an audio recording device. The files are then transferred from the device to the computer here they are converted to .wave or .mp3 files. The audio files are modularised into smaller files that correspond to the lecture material. The unit lectures are provided in a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, which is presented weekly. The modularised audio files are attached to the lecture slides, in Microsoft PowerPoint. The synchronised audio and PowerPoint slides are then transferred to the web where they can be accessed by the student enrolled in the unit. This means that the audio files must be segregated into corresponding files that match the Microsoft PowerPoint content.

Cultural advantages of audio lectures

The aim of the audio lecture is not to replace the face to face lectures, but to enhance the unit resource and promote an unbiased lecturing platform for all students. It is the intention to see if the addition of audio to lectures makes a difference to the international students.

If we look at the major cultural groups for Deakin University, being Australian and Asian then we can plan who we are creating the audio lectures for. It has been identified that students from Asian cultures have a tendency towards rote learning. However, how can rote learning occur when a lecture is presented only once. Students do have access to the text based lecture notes, which they can access at any time, but the physical content conveyed by the lecturer within the lecture is only delivered once. Therefore creating an environment where students are able to revisit and re-access information at their convenience.

If we look at the inclusion of audio lecture from a cultural perspective then we can say that the independent Australian learners can simply use the audio lecture when they have missed a lecture and wish to catch up on the missed material. And the Asian culture students can use the recorded lecture to revise, revisit and reuse to remember the information, as per their style of learning.

It may be seen that audio lectures have a niche market for distance education and International students, as these students are seen to have the most to gain. The ability of the students to be able to revisit the information holds a major benefit for Asian cultured students, as it reflects on their rote learning style.

Conclusion and further research

At present there seems to be no major problems with putting courses online; however with the changing student body, the problem seems to exist with designing the course for a cross-cultural audience. We must therefore be aware of the diversity in all units and take into consideration the needs of all students. With current research we have acknowledged that "one size" does not fit all and that adjustments are needed if we are to continue to promote global learning and make the content comfortable for all students.

If we recall that students from different cultures have a different approach and compatibility with students centred learning, and with the expanding towards the online environment, action must be taken to increase student compatibility with this learning environment. The creation of dynamic learning environments will empower students to be proactive in their education and enable them to cater the unit content to fit their individual learning styles.

In all learning environments it is important not to make generalisations in relation to student groups and cultural backgrounds as each student is individual and has different needs, this is even more important when we are dealing with online learning environments.

Further research to be conducted is to expand the audio lectures to include video as well. At present test are being conducted to determine the benefit of the addition of audio to lecture materials, after these test are completed further experiments will be conducted with the introduction of video into the lecture material.


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Authors: Elicia Lanham and Wanlei Zhou, School of Information Technology, Deakin University, Australia. Email:,

Please cite as: Lanham, E. & Zhou, W. (2004). Giving lectures a voice for a cross-cultural audience. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 539). Perth, 5-8 December.

© 2004 Elicia Lanham and Wanlei Zhou
The authors assign to ASCILITE and educational non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document on the ASCILITE web site (including any mirror or archival sites that may be developed) and in printed form within the ASCILITE 2004 Conference Proceedings. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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