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Synchronous eLearning: Localization Challenges

As mentioned in the previous two blogs in our series of challenges with eLearning localization, cultural limitations in eLearning platforms can inhibit the achievement of equitable learning outcomes. We first discussed the different types of eLearning, which are synchronous, asynchronous and self-paced. These are used in the academic, business and corporate training environments. We then discussed the localization challenges with asynchronous eLearning.

In this blog, we’ll discuss the localization challenges in the synchronous environment, which are typically manifested in webinars. Webinars are live events in which the presenter can choose to lecture to the audience or to interact with them. Examples of webinar platforms include LiveMeeting, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Zoom, etc. In addition, we can include similar synchronous communication tools like Skype in this category, although they may not be as robust with interactivity features. Some of the localization challenges are similar to those found in asynchronous environments. For example, the content needs to be relevant and contextualized, and in a language that the targeted learners can easily understand. Instructional approaches still need to be culturally inclusive, which we’ll discuss in this blog.

However, in webinars, we have additional challenges:

  1. How to design the course in a way that is inclusive for members of all cultures.
  2. Facilitators/instructors need to have highly developed cultural skills so that they can effectively communicate with members of other cultures.
  3. Ensure that the platform is technologically accessible in other countries.

Course Design

Webinar Platform Features

Webinar platform features, such as the lecture format, engagement features and collaboration features, dictate many aspects of course design. While many of these features are a good fit for a U.S.-based audience, challenges can occur for learners outside the U.S.

For example, instructors typically present content in a lecture format supported by PowerPoint slides. A lecture format can be very appealing to non-native English speakers because there is limited interaction with the speaker, and the PowerPoint slides can support what the speaker is saying. Thus, editing and localizing both the lecture and the slides are important cultural adaptation techniques.

Engagement Features

The instructor can further engage the learners by using engagement features such as polls, chat and whiteboards. While polling is helpful for gathering information, opinions and attitudes from participants, we recommend a cultural review to ensure that the language is clear and to avoid culturally inappropriate questions.

The chat feature provides another way to communicate with the instructor and with classmates. The benefit of chat is that it allows non-native English speakers to participate without speaking. The challenge of chat is that these same participants must be able to type well, and often, fast, in a language other than their native one, which can be difficult.

Whiteboards allow instructors and participants to collaborate on drawings, lists, etc., but they present the same challenges encountered when using chat. The webinar sharing features are more likely to create technical challenges rather than cultural ones, which we’ll discuss below.

Collaboration Features

In contrast to the lecture approach, most webinar platforms offer many opportunities for participants to interact and collaborate. For example, breakout rooms allow participants to work on tasks in small groups in an electronic version of the way it’s done in face-to-face classrooms. However, many learners in non-U.S. cultures will be unfamiliar with this approach and/or hesitant to participate. For example, learners from hierarchical cultures expect the instructor to be the expert and, subsequently, they do not understand the value of a typical American approach to building knowledge and skills using collaborative activities. In addition, using such activities requires concise instructions.

A cultural analysis of the instructional approach can offer best practices and approaches to using the webinar format, engagement features and collaboration features.

Facilitators/Instructors and Cultural Competence

If you’ve ever learned a second language, you are familiar with the challenge of listening to someone speak in a non-native language. What helps us, as learners, is to be presented with simple, well-constructed language supported by gestures, tone and inflection. In fact, you’ve probably analyzed the essence of a conversation in an unfamiliar language, perhaps while watching a movie, simply by watching the gestures and registering the speakers’ tone and inflection. Thus, your instructors should be culturally in tune with your audience.

Unfortunately, many American instructors are unaware or forgetful of this need, especially in the online environment where one cannot see other participants. As a translation agency, we cannot control how your instructors speak, but we can edit content to ensure fast digestion by non-native English speakers. We can also recommend, via a cultural analysis, how to prepare your instructors for the cross-cultural online environment.

Online facilitators require two other skills:

  1. The ability to detect cultural issues.
  2. The ability to mediate communications between learners from different cultures.

For example, an online instructor needs to recognize that the learners in China are probably not participating in a group activity because of cultural and language issues.

The instructor also needs to provide opportunities for members of all cultures to communicate their ideas. For example, American learners can easily overpower those from Asian cultures simply because Americans have more direct communication styles. It becomes the instructor’s responsibility to offer other venues of communication in the webinar. With a cultural analysis, we can recommend approaches that specifically align to your learners’ cultural needs and preferences. For more information about culture correctness and the online consumer, check out our white papers at Website Globalization and E-Business.

Technology Concerns

We mentioned earlier that webinar platforms could present technology issues. These can occur domestically, but they are more prevalent in an international environment. In many cases, the voice-over-IP (VOIP) provided within the webinar platform to support internet-based conversations is not supported by end-user technologies or by international infrastructure, nor is the use of webcams or streaming media. The use of phone lines often poses additional expenses to the learners. You should be aware of these issues and test them.

We can’t rebuild your technology, but we can advise you on using alternative techniques. In addition, if you plan to use media, we can help you design and prepare culturally appropriate versions.


From the perspective of a localization company, we cannot regulate all of the challenges we mentioned. For example, we cannot control the level of cultural competence of webinar instructors or facilitators. However, what we can do is identify those things that may be culturally questionable. As our customer, you would benefit from a cultural analysis of those materials to mitigate any challenges related to course design before we initiate translation and localization of your eLearning and training courses. We are uniquely equipped to provide cultural adaptation to eLearning that goes beyond looks and language, we address learning.

In our next blog, we’ll review the localization challenges self-paced eLearning.