Designing Distance Instruction for the Arab World: Linguistic and Cultural Considerations

Article excerpt


The job of the instructional designer is to create sound instruction that will lead to appropriate learning. However, the instruction design process has, traditionally, not taken into consideration the variables of language and culture and their impact on learning outcomes. Prior to the demands of today's global marketplace, this approach did not prove problematic. Today, however, the need for sound global instruction in English is on the rise-especially in the Arab world-with no end in sight.

What, then, is the job of the instructional designer? Should it be to continue with business as usual? Or should demand prompt changes in how the design of global instruction is undertaken? What is the marketplace demanding, and what should be the response of those who are responsible for creating these learning modules? This article discuss the rise of distance and/ or virtual higher education in the Arab world, will look at their modes on instruction and at linguistic and cultural interference and, finally, will examine the necessity of including culture and diversity in the design of global instruction if we are to affect positively learning outcomes and completion rates in the Arab world.

Before beginning this discussion, it is necessary to define the terms culture and language as they will be used in this context. Culture here is defined as "whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members, and to do so in any role that they accept for any one of themselves" (Wardhaugh, 2002, p. 19). Language is defined as "what the members of a particular society speak" (Wardhaugh, 2002, p. 1).


Over the past 20 years, Arab higher education institutions have made large strides in the area of distance education. As a result, several distance education institutions have been established. Their modes of delivery vary from being completely stand-alone virtual universities, to being off-shoots of traditional universities. The Arab world has adopted the worldwide trend of having traditional universities provide conventional and distance education simultaneously. One example of this is the Open Learning Centers in Egypt (Mohamed, 2005). There are also examples of single mode distance education universities, where the purpose is solely distance education. One example of this model is the Arab Open University, which was established in 1999, with the main campus in Kuwait and branch campuses in Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia (Mohamed, 2005). In terms of virtual universities, the Syrian Virtual University is the first, and only, online university in the Arab world using this model (Mohamed, 2005).


Although the delivery methods differ, the one common denominator between all these types of distance learning institutions in the Arab world is that the language of instruction is almost unanimously English. Whether the mode of delivery is printed materials, videos, audio lectures, or interactive user interfaces, the language of instruction is English. This is especially true in the areas of technology and science (Findlow, 2006). The reasons for choosing English over Arabic are varied: lack of instructional materials in Arabic, the need to fit into a global learning environment, the need to appear modern and forward, the lure of economic and social prestige, as well as need to suppress Islamists and Islamist rhetoric within higher education. To this end, Arabic language in higher educational institutions in the Arab world is routinely relegated to areas of cultural and religious studies (Findlow, 2006).


At the first stage of the instructional design process, analysis, instructional designers are encouraged to take into consideration the learners for which a piece of instruction is being designed. Traditionally, this has meant knowing such things as: age, gender, level of education, socioeconomic status, and learning style and preferences. …