Selecting computer programs and interactive multimedia for culturally diverse students

Selecting computer programs and interactive multimedia for culturally diverse students

Timm, Joan Thrower

Although the use of computers in the classroom is receiving ever increasing attention, little consideration has been given to the cultural implications and potential problems in regard to using this approach with diverse student populations.

Shade ( 1997) has suggested that cognitive processes are the result of socialization and cultural experiences and that the environment is interpreted through cultural filters and responded to accordingly. Thus, people who share common experiences develop similar processes of making judgments, analyzing, and reasoning. Teachers need to bear in mind the fact that their students’ perceptions, interpretations, problem solving strategies, and communication styles are the result of their cultural frame of reference. Increasingly, this experience and frame of reference outside of school may impact their performance with computers and computer programs in school.

Shade, Kelly, and Oberg (1997) have suggested a variety of teaching strategies for working with culturally diverse populations and for creating culturally sensitive classrooms, but the cultural filters to which Shade refers have not generally been taken into account in interactive multimedia programs (IMM) that offer a new challenge. Henderson ( 1993a) has suggested that computers, their programs, and their use are not culturally neutral and that the biases of gender, class, and ethnicity generally found in many educational programs are reflected inthe computer software used in classrooms.

Issues to Consider

There is an array of issues that teachers and administrators should take into account both in using computer technology with their students and in making decisions about which computer programs to select. These issues include socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage, prior experience with computers, cognitive learning style, linguistic considerations, the cultural transference of the visual images or icons, culturally sensitive or insensitive sound signals, ambiguous tasks, and culturally biased tasks or problems that do not allow for the diverse cultural referents that students bring to the learning situation. I turn now to a review of these issues.

The first issue to consider is that of socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage in terms of access to and familiarity with computers at home. This issue is associated with the second issue of prior experience. Many, if not most, middle class students have had computer experience prior to entering school, but this is not true for economically disadvantaged families.

The evidence suggests that students differ widely in initial performance when they are introduced to new computer technology. The evidence further suggests that their performance depends on both the “exent of their prior computer experience and…on the similarity or difference between a familiar program (if there is one) and the new one” (Tyler,1993, p.534). Prior computer experience appears to have a beneficial effect not only on students’ use of computers but also on their success with multimedia programs that include text and motion video (Tyler, 1993). Humbert (1992) has suggested that training in computer use for those with no prior experience must include a non threatening approach to basic skills.

The third issue to consider in using computers in the classroom is that of the students’ cognitive style. Although studies on cognitive style and computer use among younger students remain to be done, Reed (1995) reported that graduate students identified as field dependent (or context specific learners) took more linear and non-linear steps in a hypermedia task in comparison with students identified as field independent (or issue oriented learners). In other words, the field dependent students were more active and experimental in comparison with the field independent learners. In light of an array of studies that have reported variability in field dependence and independence among diverse student populations of different ages (Ramirez & Castaneda,1974; Ramirez, Castaneda, & Herold, 1974; Saracho, 1991; Shade, 1986; Timm, Chiang, & Finn, 1998), Reed’s finding has important implications for using computers with students from various cultural backgrounds.

The fourth issue to consider is language. Bradey and Henderson (1995) report that voiceovers and auditory cues in an IMM program made texts more “meaningful” and suggest that the redundancy of this approachprobably benefits weak readers. From an information processing perspective, this audio-plus-visual text approach applies Pavio’s (1990) dual coding theory to IMM. Although bilingual considerations are not included in the Bradey and Henderson study, this dual voice-over-plus-text could benefit students learning and working in a second language.

Another linguistic problem lies in translation. In creating programs in diverse languages, translators cannot assume that terms in English will be clear in another language. Translators should “keep explanations simple, break procedures down into small steps, (and) use frequent summaries with numbered items to aid recall” (MacKenzie, 1993, p. 322 ). Other problems for students learning a new language include decoding processes, word recognition, and unfamiliar sentence structure in the help menus. Programmers writing these menus need to be sensitive to syntax differences across languages and to limit the instructions to short, unambiguous phrases. Teachers selecting programs for students need to check for these problems and for clarity in the menus.

The fifth issue involves icons. Pictorial images are increasingly replacing text as ways to access various functions, but concepts represented by icons may not transfer or generalize across cultures. Trying to find examples that span languages and cultures can be a problem. For example, in one business-oriented program for European markets, a banker “wearing many hats” for his different roles was illustrated by an animation of the “Mad Hatter.” In producing the Polish version ofthis program, the designers learned that the appropriate Polish metaphor was “wearing many gloves” and that the English metaphor did not transfer into that language and culture(MacKenzie, 1993). Interpreting this image requires familiarity with English literary culture, which obviously could be a problem for a culturally diverse, international audience.

In a discussion of this example in one of my multicultural education classes with over 40 students, only three (Euro-American) students were able to identify who the Mad Hatter was and one of the three remembered him from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland because she had just seen the Disney movie on video! None of the students, however, were able to decipher what the metaphor meant.

The sixth issue is the need for cultural sensitivity in the design of programs using sound cues. Some IMM programs include signals indicating an incorrect response. Such signals do not ensure privacy but rather send a public message to everyone in a classroom or computer lab that may provoke shame when students make an error. In addition, in cultures where individual achievement is not valued, the user may also face embarrassment when answers are signaled as correct. Silent cues may be more culturally neutral. Henderson (1993a) has suggested that programs should also allow for several tries in finding correct answers and that color may be used to enhance learning (1993b).

The seventh issue is the problem of ambiguity in the tasks called for in IMM programs. For example, tasks that require students to classify objects according to the designer’s mode maybe ambiguous in terms of interpretation, culturally biased, or both. One such program using click-and-drag action required learners to place examples of specific items into different categories. The instructions were to “drag each example into an appropriate concept box” (Henderson & Patching, 1995, p.321). The categories included cultural innovation, cultural diffusion, and colonization. The items to be classified included, among other things, a fax machine, a church, and a book. Depending on the learner’s interpretation, however, the fax machine could be considered as cultural innovation, diffusion, or both. Similarly the church or book could be interpreted as cultural diffusion, colonization, or both. Such room for ambiguity in interpretation would be a problem for students from any cultural background. My students in a multicultural education class had trouble with these instructions and could not agree on a “correct” answer for any of the items.

The eighth issue involves culturally biased tasks that do not take diverse cultural referents into account. This results in a culturally homogeneous approach which Henderson has described as “an unintentional exclusion and silencing of issues of cultural contextualization because of a `culture blind’ or unconscious design” (1996, p. 89). Students interpret instructions. from their own specific cultural referents.

I have reported an example of such a culturally biased task(Timm, 1996). Hmong students in a Wisconsin school were given a classification test and asked to draw a circle around the item that did not belong in a variety of sorting tasks. One test item included a picture of a hammer, a saw, a hatchet, and a fire. According to the test manual, the “correct” answer was the fire because it was not a tool, but every Hmong student in one ESL class circled the hammer. Rather than assuming that their answers were wrong, their teacher asked them why they had chosen the hammer. All replied that “you would use a saw or a hatchet to cut the wood for the fire but not the hammer.” Whether such tasks are offered through paper and pencil tests or IMM technology, there is a lesson here for all educators. .


In this review, I have not considered the benefits of diverse cultural information on the World Wide Web or multinational learning networks such as the Orillas project involving collaboration among teachers in different countries (Cummins & Sayers, 1996). Indeed, access to such information and collaboration clearly promotes intercultural awareness, understanding, and appreciation on a global scale.

I have focused instead on several factors that should be considered in the design and selection of computer software for diverse students. The design of a program should be done in consultation with members of the target group(s) and incorporate knowledge specific to the group(s). Diverse cultural referents should be part of software programs in our schools. Special attention should be given to the cognitive style of the students who will be using the IMM programs.

Multisensory approaches that include text, voiceovers, graphics, color, animation, and video may enhance learning in regular and bilingual classrooms. Program elements to consider avoiding include ambiguous programs, culturally biased tasks that allow only for unicultural correct responses, and audio signals that do not protect privacy. Special attention needs to be given to icons and images for their ease or difficulty in interpretation. By remembering all these issues, educators may help to empower diverse students to perform successfully in computer assisted and interactive multimedia education.

Copyright Caddo Gap Press Summer 1999

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