We have been working on a few projects lately that need to work for students across the globe, and it begs the question: what impact does culture have on learning preferences?


My disclaimer for this post is that I’m not advocating that we teach to “learning styles.” There is more and more data out there actually arguing AGAINST catering to learning styles.

However, my question is – How much should culture influence my design? And how much does my own culture influence the way I design courses?

I first suspected that I don’t want to design to culture, and here’s why: The question was, “This a German audience. They just want facts. Will they want to do hands-on activities?”

My first response was, “Yes!” I think that German audiences would hate death by PowerPoint as much as an American audience. However, wouldn’t there be different tolerance levels for the types of activities based on culture? How can we plan for that in our learning designs? (I would be willing to do a global tour and explore cultures to study it…I wonder if that’s in the budget?) Of course, how different is an industrial German city’s business culture from that of America? Not so different, compared to how foreign American culture seems in other parts of the world.

Social media and increased connectivity are resulting in a more homogenous culture and unified learning preferences. We use the same gadgets and websites as our friends abroad…or at least that is the direction things are headed. But this does not mean we are quite “there” yet. A recent client trip to a rural area of Arkansas introduced me to a demographic of Americans I had never come into contact with. It soon became clear that a reliable 3G signal and WiFi are taken for granted by American city dwellers. For these individuals, the online learning experiences we often design and advocate for our clients would not be a viable solution.

It goes without saying: different cultures have developed customs, values systems, and aesthetic preferences that will shape their learning experience. The difference is particularly vast between Eastern and Western cultures. The music, religious practices, and dietary preferences of these people differ in many ways. Through these experiences, brains become wired differently and anticipate different experiences. Will this affect learning? Probably…but I don’t think there is one right or wrong answer here.

Should we take culture into consideration when designing a learning experience? Well, yeah…but depending on the cultural differences of your learners, a one size fits all approach may not be quite what’s called for. It all depends on how different your learners really are.

My best recommendation would be to create a dead-simple user interface that will be easy to use for any human being, then make small changes to the text and script of your course to account for the varying cultures you are writing for. There may be a need for some subtle changes in your approach from one area to the next, but the best learning solution will be effective regardless of cultural variations. People are still people.