Managing successful online courses: 1. The Client

When setting up an online course, it is obviously important to try to cater to the clients’ needs and expectations if the course is to be successful (clients being both the students and the training manager in the case of corporate and institutional clients). But in addition to carrying out a classic needs analysis, it is useful to consider how different cultural elements can influence clients’ expectations and how these, in turn, can affect the success of an online course.

There are potentially three main cultural considerations to take into account: each participant’s individual personality and preferences; national or regional cultural implications; and corporate / institutional cultures.

1. Individual personalities

We are all different. Some people are more sociable than others, some people are insecure and need reassurance while others are fear-free and will not be afraid of making mistakes. Some people are linear whereas others are chaotic. Some people will have already done an online course while for others it will be their first time.  However, all participants will have some preconceived idea about what an online course should be and how it will work and this will rarely reflect the reality of the course they are about to take.

This is why it is important to influence as much as possible student expectations prior to the start of the course. We want our clients’ expectations to be in tune with what they will experience. Ways of doing this include pre-course presentations and orientation sessions using webinars as well as providing students with comprehensive support documents in their L1 (in the case of monolingual groups).

2. National / Regional cultural factors

If a group of students is from the same region or country, there will probably be the same national or regional cultural influences which will bring a bearing on their expectations and perceptions. By understanding these common cultural influences, it is easier to select course material which should work well with students with a similar national or regional cultural background and it will also help us to provide culturally appropriate support during the course.

To illustrate what I mean, I recommend thinking about how your client’s national or regional values fit into an adapted version of Geert Hofstede’s five categories. Hofstede used these categories when he researched how IBM employees’ values differed in over sixty countries (Hofstede 2010). Consider the importance of power distance (the accessibility and power of superiors); individualism versus collectivism (importance of the individual or the group); influence of age (the importance of age in positions of power); influence of gender (the importance of gender in positions in the organisation); and attitude to time (the importance of punctuality and deadlines). Hofstede’s categories are illustrated below:

If we come to the conclusion that a culture stresses the importance of hierarchy and respect for age, it prizes the individual over the collective group, that gender issues are important and punctuality is expected, we can also assume that this culture will be more receptive to a highly prescribed course with little group interaction compared with a less rigidly structured course which stresses group interaction and a more organic approach to content.

3. Corporate or institutional culture

When dealing with corporate groups or institutional groups, attention needs to also be paid to the predominating corporate or institutional culture. Understanding the corporate or institutional culture will be relevant in terms of understanding the training manager’s expectations of the students’ performance, it will affect how seriously the students take the course, how well they work together and how well they will respond to certain course material and, as a result, should influence our choice of material to be used in the online course.

By understanding the corporate or institutional culture, we will be better able to make decisions relating to the choice of course material in terms of the importance of issues such as quality and reach. For some training managers with limited budgets the importance of being seen to provide training for a lot of people is more important than the quality of the online course and how much is learned. This should affect our choice of material.

Charles Handy (1993) is recommended reading for anybody who wishes to read more on corporate culture.

So, by analysing these three cultural areas, we will have information which will help us to select appropriate course material and develop strategies to influence our clients’ expectations and bring them in line with the course they will experience. We will also have valuable information which will help us to provide appropriate support while the course is in progress.

References:

Hofstede, G. and Minkov, M. 2010 Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. USA, McGraw-Hill, 3rd Edition. See also http://www.geerthofstede.nl/index

Handy, C 1993 Understanding Organizations. New York, Oxford University Press