Virtual Limits: MULTICULTURAL DIMENSIONS OF ONLINE EDUCATION

Article excerpt

Technology can bridge huge gaps in time, distance, and cost, but, lacking much of the sensory detail of face-to-face communication, it presents significant limitations that must be considered.

For international educators, distance teaching and learning, effective intercultural communication, and community building over virtual online space and real time pose very immediate and powerful challenges. Indeed, Cyberspace remains mysterious in many ways, and particularly so when international educators choose to gather together students, professionals, and personalities from different cultures around the world, invite them into a common intercultural virtual classroom, and set about the tasks of teaching, learning, and community building.

International educators' inclination to bring people together provokes an exploration of new places and opportunities to make this happen. The advent of Cyberspace forces educators to think about it as a "cyber-place" for fresh intercultural contact, communication, and community. Educational considerations, economics, and the Internet's qualities of being "convenient, self-paced, individualized and interactive, faster and cheaper, flexible as to time and a place" (Gladieux 2000) aside for the moment, where does online education and contact fit with the rationales of internationalization? And, particularly, where is a consideration for the social and cultural challenges for students working across cultures in Cyberspace? Our international education instincts and attention to the intercultural experience in such an environment piques the interest.

Cyberspace itself is a culture and is not culture-free (Chase, et al, 2002). Certainly, the Internet provides a host of services, dimensions, and features too numerous to detail here. But Cyberspace operates as a culture that lacks critical face-to-face (f2f) elements, increasing chances of miscommunications, and "further problematizes intercultural communications online by limiting opportunities 'to give and save face' and to intuit meaning from non-verbal cues" (Ibid). The Internet is a place where people dwell, share, learn, and make acquaintances. It is a place of opportunity, but culturally and interculturally speaking, it remains a foreign place; an intriguing space that international educators must begin to understand, negotiate, and discover productive ways to create and facilitate contact within new international communities of learners.

What happens when cultures come flooding into common Cyberspace without the visual, verbal, tactile, and olfactory cues we cherish so much? What are the substance, quality, and texture of intercultural contact online? Clearly, there are limits to such contact as we consider the international educator's inclination to bring people together and to share one another's reality. Make no mistake that there is no substitution for f2f intercultural contact. But lest we throw the baby out with the bath water (for the virtual reality is truly upon us), it seems prudent to begin to identify those limitations, their expressions, and their nature, to differentiate such intercultural associations from f2f encounters, and to ameliorate those limitations for more positive and effective intercultural interactions.

Fight or Flight

How do educational institutions come f2f with the cyberworld and intercultural challenges? For many the institutional mission dictates the relative importance of these challenges. When the content of the curriculum is focused on other than the intercultural aspects of the interaction, the rules of exchange are many times pre-established. This has the bias of coming from the perspective of the originator-in most cases an educational institution with a "western" approach. The clarity of this approach has the potential drawback of not accessing all that each participant has to offer. A more collaborative approach will surface theses intercultural issues, but potentially being more ambiguous. …