Thanks to technology, education is now accessible to almost everyone across the globe through eLearning.

Having a global reach is certainly an excellent benefit for businesses looking to train employees around the world without having to spend time and energy flying back and forth between countries.

However, it can also leave companies vulnerable to a slew of problems regarding cultural sensitivity.

As companies can now develop materials that will be seen by someone in two different countries at the same time, there’s an urgent need for vigilance to include language and content that is truly neutral.

So how do you make sure the materials you publish don’t accidentally offend someone? Here’s what you need to do…

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Assess Your Audience

First, identify your audience.

While creating a target audience usually involves things like age range and gender, it should also include things like culture, location, language and things like grammatical considerations and use of symbols.

In many cultures, certain words or symbols have different (and sometimes offensive) meanings. For example, a thumbs-up in America is a positive signal, while it’s considered extremely rude in Thailand.

That’s why it’s important to identify all the potential countries and cultures your eLearning may reach. Here are a few keys to creating a broad audience profile:

  • Identify all cultures that may be included
  • Identify the top 2-3 countries and make a list
  • Identify any local rules and regulations for each country
  • Identify number and date formats, as well as local currencies
  • Identify language requirements for each country (Will the majority understand English? Do you need certain materials translated?, etc.)
  • Identify any specific tools that may not work in a global setting (Most countries have Internet access, but some block certain sites or prevent downloads)
  • Identify any potential language barriers (will certain countries read text right-to-left or bi-directionally, like Arabic?)
  • Identify any specific terminology that should be included and slang or words to exclude for each country/culture
  • Identify any gender biases (when in doubt, use gender-neutral language)
  • Identify any religious taboos (saying something like “Oh my God” may not translate appropriately to other languages)

Remember that your eLearning may include interactive buttons, images and more. The broader the audience, the more consideration you will have to give to the little details.

For example, cultures that read right-to-left may be negatively affected by left-to-right image placement. Or certain words used for a “Submit” button may not translate accurately in another language, creating confusion.

Researching Cultural Differences

Of course, you may be wondering, “How in the world do I learn about all this stuff?”

The answer is through time and dedication. When it comes to creating diverse materials, you can’t be lazy. You have to put in the time to learn the differences between each culture to ensure you use the right examples and explanations.

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But the good news is you don’t need a degree in cross-cultural studies to figure it all out. A quick search on any search engine will turn up some basic information, and there are also places like Culture Crossing that will help navigate the details of different cultures for you.


It can be helpful to review content with a native speaker that has a clear idea of the cultural sensitivities of the geographical location, too. Using people who speak the language and who have lived in or been to different countries ensures the successful outcome of the eLearning course.

Best Practices for Non-Offensive eLearning

There are several best practices you can put into place before you start developing your materials to minimize creating content with any offensive material.

Understand your personal filters.

It’s important to take some time to examine your own presumptions about a culture, including potential stereotypes you may have. Look at how your background and experience impact the way you see the world and how that might be displayed or conveyed in the courses you create. Consider the role and perspective of others, appreciate the differences and look for ways that you can make your content meaningful across a variety of cultures.

Examine your existing content.

Carefully examine your existing content for potential bias and other details that may be culturally insensitive. Ask yourself the following:

  • Are a variety of cultures represented in the images you use?
  • Does any voice talent showcase diversity in linguistic style?
  • Will the activities be relevant and easy-to-understand across cultures?
  • How balanced are the names of people, places, and things? (e.g., Are all the people in your examples named Dick and Jane?)
  • Is the language gender neutral?
Gather feedback.

The reality is that everyone has cultural filters, and it can be easy to miss things that are offensive simply because they’re not offensive to us (the thumbs-up, for example). The best way to find out if your content is culturally sensitive is to ask your learners to give you feedback, or to seek feedback from native speakers or citizens from other countries. Your learners will be happy that you respect their opinion and will most likely be more than willing to offer suggestions about small—or perhaps big— ways that you can modify your content.

Consider the technical and functional needs of your learners.

Again, it’s important to identify the technology needs and preferences of the user when developing multicultural courses. Using a particular type of media or technology that the users of the geography are comfortable with will ensure that the learner’s attention is appropriately captured and retained.

Do as much research as possible.

Remember that the Internet is your friend. Research as much information as you can and gather and keep a record of important notes about individual cultures that may come in handy for later. And, if you need help, don’t be afraid to use a professional organization (like Jenobi) to help you with translations or find other areas that could be updated.

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Final Thoughts

While it may not be second nature to look for cultural details in your eLearning, it’s important to ensure that it won’t alienate segments of your target audience.

You want to look for language barriers, numbers and symbols, greetings, spiritual restrictions, and even reading format for clues.

If you’re overwhelmed, be sure to get help, but most importantly, don’t run away from the challenge. Embrace the beauty of the world that technology has to offer, and you’ll develop a truly inspiring (and truly diverse) eLearning course.

Jonathan Davis is an accomplished professional with experience helping Fortune 500 companies achieve success in employee communication and training programs. Jonathan focuses on delivering reliable, successful outcomes that increases employee engagement through highly targeted deliverables, creative messaging and robust programs.