Comparing cultural values using research-driven academic constructs can help illuminate opportunities for learning and potential challenges in the classroom. But in the process of making comparisons between cultures, it’s important to stay rooted in research to reduce the influence of bias on our assumptions and decisions. In the academic study of cultural values, perhaps the most practical research has emerged from Geert Hofstede and his organization, Hofstede Insights.
Hofstede’s paradigm uses an influential six-dimensional (6-D) model to explain “the collective programming of the mind” – the underlying cultural dimensions that can explain behavior, preferences and customs in specific national or regional cultures. The six cultural dimensions in the Hofstede model are unspoken but general values that may help explain behavior, including behavior in the online classroom. The 6-D model produces a number on a scale from 1 to 100 to describe a national culture’s values. (More about reading the Hofstede statistical modelling.)
In a series of articles, we’ll define each of the six Hofstede cultural dimensions by comparing Indonesia and the United States. Then, we will explore the meaning of the dimension as it relates to online learning. Each article will marry a given Hofstede dimension to selected professional development materials for instructors on the same topic. The emphasis will be on supporting faculty trained in the United States and working in a university campus in the United States to support non-Western students.
Hofstede Insights provides its 6-D model for public use here. We’ve plugged in “Indonesia” and “United States” to compare the two.
Power Distance is the first of the six dimensions on the 6-D model to present a major difference in score between the US and Indonesia.
Power Distance is “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.”
With a higher Power Distance than the United States, Indonesians might expect more hierarchy, authority, management and direction from their superiors.
In a high Power Distance classroom setting, a teacher is perceived as a lecturer whose role is to impart knowledge to students. By contrast, an instructor in a low Power Distance environment may serve as a facilitator of debate, calling on students for input and expecting students to give presentations to the class.
How does Power Distance impact the online classroom? According to Zhang (2013), instructors who are low in Power Distance and are working with students who have higher Power Distance should anticipate several dynamics:
- Students may avoid conflict or debate with one another in the instructor’s presence. They may be especially cautious about questioning the instructor due to the appearance of challenging or confronting a hierarchy.
- Students may spend effort to be polite and have perfect grammar in written communication, especially communication with the teacher. Emails you receive from the student may appear formal.
- To avoid disrupting the student-teacher hierarchy, students may have recourse to their peers for help rather than contacting the instructor. Giving students opportunities to provide anonymous feedback/questions to the instructor may reduce their anxiety about asking for help.
- Online environments that allow privacy (such as a text-based forum rather than a video chat) and allow thoughtful preparation before a conversation (such as asynchronous rather than synchronous formats) may benefit students who are accustomed to a high Power Distance format.
This has been an introduction to Power Distance and its relationship to the classroom. For more research, see:
- Ferreira, Dan. (2016). Bridging the cultural gap of online learning: Implications and strategies. Language Research Bulletin. 31.
- Kasuya, M. (2008). Classroom Interaction Affected by Power Distance.
 Hostede Insights. Country Comparison. Retrieved 8 June 2020 from https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/indonesia,the-usa/.
 Zhang, Y. Power distance in online learning: Experience of Chinese learners in U.S. higher education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 14:4, 2013 October. Pp. 248-250.