Japan/Korea and U.S. Students: Cultural Differences in Web 2.0 Environments

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Two recent studies on the educational use of Web 2.0 tools shed light on cultural differences between students in Japan and South Korea, on the one hand, and the U.S., on the other. The first, “Cross-Cultural Collaboration Through a Virtual Community of Practice Using Video and Social Networking,” by Bert Kimura and Curtis P. Ho, from the University of Hawaii, and Mary Kimura and Kenichi Kubota, from Kansai University, Japan, was presented at Ed-Media 2011, June 27 to July 1, in Lisbon, Portugal. The second, “Comparison of Web 2.0 Technology Acceptance Level Based on Cultural Differences,” by Sun Joo Yoo and Wen-hao David Huang, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, appears in Educational Technology & Society, 14.4 (2011).

The Japan-U.S. study by Kimura et al. reports the following differences: Japanese students are nonconfrontational, consensus oriented, shy and modest. U.S. students are the opposite: direct, task oriented, and outgoing and assertive. In communication style, the Japanese students were “indirect,” e.g., they “suggested what they wanted to do” and “would not object if their ideas weren’t considered.” U.S. students were “more direct,” e.g., they “stated what they thought would be a good direction” and “would explain why and how to use their ideas” (italics added).

The Korea-U.S. study by Yoo and Huang looked at specific criteria to explain the differences: communication styles, level of power distance, and level of uncertainty avoidance. The authors found that Korean students’ communication style score was “very high” in collectivism while their U.S. counterparts’ was “very high” in individualism. This difference was further described in terms of high context vs. low context (249). This finding is similar to the consensus orientation of Japanese students reported in the Kimura et al. study.

The other two criteria, power distance and uncertainty avoidance, offer possible insights into the Kimura et al. findings that Japanese students were less direct and less assertive. For example, Korean students scored high in power distance level, and this indicates acceptance of unequal power relationships. For Korean students, Yoo and Huang suggest that Web 2.0 applications such as blogs “might be the better place … to articulate their opinions than other Web 2.0 applications because they do not need to worry about potential criticism by other participants who might be placed at a higher level of the power hierarchy” (249).

Yoo and Huang found that Korean students score high in uncertainty avoidance, which translates to hesitation in actively participating in “online social communities or online virtual communities” (249-250). These communities are considered informal and, thus, uncomfortable for students who function best in more formal environments. This need for a more controlled format for Web 2.0 discussions offers insights into the apparent confrontation avoidance and shyness of Japanese students reported in the Kimura et al. study.

Differences among students from different cultures impact performance in Web 2.0 environments, and these two studies confirm this generalization. However, it will be interesting to see if these differences will hold up in the coming years as web communications blur the geographical, cultural, and political boundaries that have traditionally separated nations. At an exponential pace, individuals from diverse cultures are interacting in social networks. Increasingly, cultural stereotypes are giving way to universal web personas.

The web has, for all practical purposes, turned the world into a village, and interacting in all phases of our lives, including education, with people from around the world has become commonplace. My guess is that, sooner rather than later, we’ll begin to see people interacting as individuals rather than representatives of specific cultures or nations. In fact, this is already happening, and the pace is blinding.

8 Responses

  1. […] Japan/Korea and U.S. Students: Cultural Differences in Web 2.0 Environments By Jim Shimabukuro Editor Two recent studies on the educational use of Web 2.0 tools shed light on cultural differences between students in Japan and South Korea, on the one hand, and the U.S.,… Source: etcjournal.com […]

  2. […] differences between students in Japan and South Korea, on the one hand, and the U.S.,…Via etcjournal.com GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  3. Jim,

    I just glanced at the PowerPoint and the article, and these look like interesting studies. I will spend more time with them later. However, I wanted to share some initial thoughts.

    It looks like the communications were in English. I wonder how much that impacted the communication of the non-native speakers of English? Any time one is studying a foreign language, you tend to learn a more formal type of language than your native-speaking peers would speak. I think this would impact the percpeiton of how shy you are, etc.

    In addition, there is a bit of an intimidation factor when communicating with native speakers, especially if you have had little or no interaction with native speakers before. I have had my students engage in online discussions with students from Israel and Taiwan on several occasions, and that issue came up in the questionnaires we administered. In addition, if the native speaker has had few interactions with non-native speakers they may not realize how colloquial their communication is. I cautioned my students about using too many idioms, etc. but they often don’t realize how pervasive they are in everyday speech.

    Thanks for sharing. Lynn

    • Hi, Lynn.

      Thanks for the tip re avoidance by native speakers of colloquialisms. You’re right. It does take a conscious effort to use forms that are familiar to ESL speakers.

      Second language proficiency is obviously a factor in cross-cultural studies. Thus, investigators try to control it in their designs. Bert and his colleagues mention it in their report.

      At issue is the unknown, the relative influence of cultural variables in international Web 2.0 projects. Assuming that language differences are controlled, what are the differences in behavior and how can they be explained? How can this information be used to improve future project designs?

      In the coming years, it’ll be fascinating to see how the web alters international dialogues. In our journal, ETCJ, Feedjit provides a rough estimate of approximately 50 of the most recent visitors. As of right now, 2/3 are from outside the U.S. — from Canada, UK, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Malaysia, India, Nigeria, France, Germany, Kuwait, Pakistan, Norway, Turkey, and Tanzania.

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  5. One impact of social media in a learning context could be as a catalyst for change for the Japanese students so that they gradually feel more comfortable actively participating in dialogue. Helping them develop and become accustomed to challenging, articulating and more direct and assertive in exchanges.

    • Tom, you bring up an observation that seems to be under the education radar. We tend to think of technology as a passive tool rather than a dynamic medium with the power to transform users. We forget that it not only extends our reach and allows us to transcend our biological limitations but it also changes us, our perceptions of who we are in this world and what we’re capable of doing.

      This means that students, by simply dropping in to Web 2.0 environments, are changing and growing in ways that educators can’t always anticipate. In other words, there are side effects or unintended outcomes. I believe what you’re suggesting — technology, by itself, can serve “as a catalyst for change” — is a natural consequence of immersion. Thus, it’s very likely that Japanese students, for example, would learn to be less passive and more assertive after repeated exposure to discussions with U.S. students. And this might occur naturally without any direct intervention from the instructors. In fact, much of their learning may be in parallel, informal environments and not specifically in formal class activities.

      I’m reminded of all our colleagues who at one time insisted that we needed formal classes to teach students skills needed for online learning. These would be prerequisites. This idea never fully caught on because, as we were debating the issue, students were quietly learning by doing, on their own, naturally, through firsthand formal and informal experiences on the web.

      Today, in my completely online classes, even students who say they’ve never taken a virtual class before quickly realize that they already have the basic web skills to function effectively. I also ask my students to create their own blogs outside the college’s private network. These are used as eportfolios for their papers. Many have never done it, but the vast majority are able to do it with little effort. The remainder are up to speed within a week or two. No special workshops or classes are required.

      The new technology is changing our students often without the direct intervention of formal college-sponsored activities. Thus, learning curve may not be the obstacle that some fear it is. It may, however, be an obstacle for teachers who haven’t learned to simply jump in and are waiting for formal F2F workshops.

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