Expanding localization services in education and training

Because elearning is software-based, clients seek translation and localization services for any elearning courses they are distributing globally. However, a range of new business opportunities presents itself with elearning, because in addition to providing traditional services, translation and localization companies can offer value-added services such as cultural auditing, editing, internationalization and various levels of course customization.

In particular, the opportunity exists because the education and training clients are, as yet, relatively unaware of the need to adapt their products culturally for global markets. Hence, with a bit of internal education and training to supplement their already broad base of cultural expertise, localization companies could position themselves to offer new services in the relatively nascent market of globalized elearning.  

Consider this scenario: a well-known software company was planning to roll out an online course on disability awareness to its customer service staff in 13 countries. The learners were technical support staff who worked online or on the phone with software end-users. The goal of the course was to ensure that the technical support staff understood the company’s policies with respect to disabilities; that staff could recognize that an end-user might have a disability; and, if the disability was interfering in some way with the support, the staff would know how to modify their interactions. In principle, the goal of the course was common among US companies. In practice, however, the course suffered from a range of challenges that made it practically useless to most of the target audience — non-American employees. The most regrettable aspect was that all of the challenges could have been avoidable if the client had been coached or trained on culturally appropriate instructional design.


Culturally appropriate instructional design

Instructional design is the process in which a learning event is intentionally structured to ensure that learning occurs. Unless you are in the field of instructional design, you are likely unaware of the multifaceted effort required to create an effective course, such as aligning course content and context to the learners’ environment; creating activities that allow learners to recall information and practice new skills; and designing content (from text to media) in a way that enhances learner comprehension. However, instructional design is a cultural artifact because its resulting products are imbedded with the cultural nuances and preferences of the designers. For example, in US training courses, instructors prefer to use problem-solving activities in their courses, but in other countries, lecturing is often more common, with the task of rote memorization placed on the learners. Both approaches reflect values that are culturally different — not good or bad, but different. In the United States, we value independence and individualism, and thus, problem-solving activities reflect those values. In other cultures, members value group harmony and conformance, and thus, memorizing the words of an expert supports those values. So imagine the probable surprise and confusion of learners in the harmonic cultures when they participate in the US courses. 

Culturally appropriate instructional design is a process in which the content, instructional techniques and media are adapted to the culturally-nuanced needs and preferences of the targeted learners. When translation and localization
companies receive elearning projects, they are doing their clients a favor by offering advice on cultural adaptation. The disservice is to allow inappropriate or ineffective courses to be translated and distributed when they actually require critical adaptations.

Designing an online course requires the orchestration of contributions from multiple professionals. Instructional designers create the framework of elearning with the intent of improving learners’ knowledge and skills on a certain topic. Good instructional designers understand adult learning theories and use them to structure content, activities and assessments to ensure that learners achieve the goals of the course. However, to design courses that produce the same learning outcomes across different cultures requires cultural awareness and competence, for which most designers do not have training or experience. 

Thus, the ultimate opportunity for translation and localization companies in the realm of elearning is to offer consultation as a service that precedes translation and localization. For example, the disability awareness course began with a case scenario requiring responses from the learners before they had access to the content. The strategy of the US instructional designers was to show learners what they did not know about disabilities in an effort to convince them that the course was worth taking. However, a culturally competent instructional designer would immediately recognize that learners in countries with high scores on uncertainty avoidance (as per Geert Hofstede’s and others’ research) would likely be uncomfortable with that approach because they would not have the facts before being “tested.” As it happened, the culturally-aware designer modified the sequence of the content and activities for learners in these types of countries.

In addition to instructional designers, the course development process includes content specialists, scriptwriters, graphic artists and media producers. For translation and localization companies, understanding their contributions opens the door to providing further services and consulting while at the same time facilitating the translation and localization processes. 

Content specialists tend to use language replete with trade jargon and local references, which can hinder the translation process. In the disability awareness course, reference to the US Americans with Disabilities Act meant little to the targeted learners outside of the United States. Even the title of the course, Disability Awareness, was misleading: Why would one want to be aware of disabilities? A better title might have been How to Work with Customers Who Have Disabilities. In addition, the content included many undefined terms, such as screen readers, cognitive impairment and so forth. The culturally competent instructional designer recommended including a glossary and, wherever needed, links to more information about those topics.

Even more critical in the course content was the concept of disabilities. In the United States, Americans are very aware of including persons with disabilities in the workplace, not just legally but philosophically. However, the perceptions of and reactions to people with disabilities varies dramatically across cultures.

For example, according to the website Disabled World, Mainland China has more than 60 million people who experience a form of disability. Prior to the year 1980, the Chinese tended to refer to people with disabilities with discriminatory terms such as can fei, which means, “the handicapped and useless.” While attitudes and policies have evolved in a positive direction, “there is still a great deal to be accomplished in order to realize the full equality, participation, and sharing of people with disabilities in China.” Brazil, on the other hand, has a “legal framework that provides multiple protections for the rights of people with disabilities including Law 7853, which criminalized discrimination based on disability,” according to Disabled World. In order for course content to ring true to learners, it should be presented in a manner that acknowledges their context. In the Chinese version of the course, content was reworded to acknowledge that these concepts may be new to them. In contrast, content for Brazil acknowledged that it was “on top of” disability challenges. It’s not just the words that need translation; their form of expression requires modification as well. 

Script writers typically write the scenarios and case studies used in elearning as the foundations of learning activities. The nature of such content calls for somewhat informal speech so that they seem very natural and spontaneous. However, such informality often lends itself, unfortunately, to sloppiness: poor grammar, structure and punctuation, plus an overuse of idioms and colloquialisms. Anyone who has learned a second language can attest to the value of correct grammar and punctuation because they serve as cues to the meaning of content. Content that is grammatically correct and devoid of idiomatic language is much easier to translate. In addition, in many cultures, the tone of speech is important as well. For example, employees in the United States would likely feel comfortable speaking directly to their employer. The disabilities awareness course included scenarios where employees actively challenged their bosses. However, in hierarchical cultures, the scenario would be much more formal, illustrated by formal interactions between employees and supervisors, including the use of formal versus informal versions of the language. Thus, translation and localization companies could offer editing services to their clients to address context, language usage and tone. Even in this article, small edits would be beneficial before translation, such as changing “roll out the course” to “introduce the course” and “for content to ring true” to “for content to be meaningful.” 

Graphic artists contribute images, icons, page layouts and so forth to elearning. Translation and localization companies are very familiar with the need to adapt these items to the context of the recipient cultures. However, they can assist their clients by providing explanations of what is or is not acceptable in another culture and explaining why.

For example, in the disabilities awareness course, the designers inserted images of assistive technologies, such as screen readers, which were virtually unknown in many of the recipients’ cultures. Here, translation and localization companies have the opportunity to educate their clients so that the course design makes sense in the first place by addressing contextual differences, and furthermore, ensures that they do not repeat the errors in future courses.

As a service, companies with elearning clients should maintain a database of reusable learning objects to facilitate the localization process. Reusable learning objects are packets of alternate content, images and so on that can be plugged in for different course audiences. For example, an image of an American in a wheelchair should have counterpart images of people in other cultures in wheelchairs, because the people, the chairs, and the background images will all be different. Thus, translation and localization companies can assist their clients by advising them to simply describe the intent or purpose of the image, but to leave the space blank so that the localization team can insert culturally appropriate images based on the target audience.

Education and training services

Translation and localization companies have a unique opportunity to introduce consulting services to elearning clients. The following services, presented in the order in which they should be offered, would greatly improve the quality of elearning being exported from the United States to other cultures.

For elearning, the first desirable process is to neutralize any cultural nuances of the course (internationalization). This is a two-step process, in which a culturally competent instructional designer completes a cultural audit and edits the content. The goal of internationalization is to remove indications of who designed the course as a precursor to customizing the course. The process is similar to painting: you first apply a primer to cover the original paint. Then it is much easier to apply fresh paint.

With course design documents presented in Microsoft Word, a consultant with instructional design and cultural experience gives a cultural audit, reviewing the entire course (including media) and uses the Track Changes and Comments tools to identify for the client which content, techniques or media are likely to require cultural adaptation.

Based on recommendations from the audit, a skilled cultural editor modifies the content to respect rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling; to remove or replace idioms, colloquialisms, jargon and word phrases that can be replaced by a single word; and to identify words that will likely vary across cultures (for example, a burlap bag may be called a gunny sack in the United Kingdom). In addition, the editor addresses the tone of the content, indicating where more formality (such as politeness or titles of respect) may be required.

Clients are often concerned that the process of cultural adaptation will be too expensive and require too much time because they envision multiple iterations of the course for every target audience. However, many cultures share similar characteristics, and thus the culturally competent instructional designer can create regional variations. For the disability awareness course, the culturally competent instructional designer modified the foundational content intended for use in 13 different countries into five regional variations, based on critical concerns and elements of the course, looking at things such as cultural dimensions and the status of disabled persons. For instance, modifications in different versions were made based on the countries’ laws and business guidelines, peoples’ attitudes toward persons with disabilities, and cultural dimensions that could affect learning, such as uncertainty avoidance, communication style and so on.

The original version was edited to comply with the principles of global English, removing idioms, colloquialisms and informal language and replacing them with grammatically correct language, as well as localizing the spelling for various other English-speaking countries. This internationalized version was suitable as the basis for several westernized countries as well.

In another version, three Asian countries lagged significantly in their accommodations for people with disabilities compared to the United States, both historically and philosophically. Thus, while the course strongly stressed compliance to the American company’s policies and US laws, the tone was modified to be respectful of the progress that has been made in these face-saving countries.   

In yet another version, two European countries had laws and attitudes toward people with disabilities similar to those in the United States. In addition, they tended to be direct communicators like Americans, so the wording was not modified for tone. However, compared to the United States, they both had high degrees of uncertainty avoidance, as per Hofstede’s indexes. Since the original version of the course lacked in-depth explanations of many aspects of disabilities, assistive technologies and legal issues, links to additional information were provided so that learners could better understand the reasoning behind the company’s policies.

For the disability awareness course, these differing iterations addressed critical cultural concerns. Note, however, that for every different course topic, regional variations could be clustered completely differently. What the client needs to know is what is critical for this particular course to succeed. The more culturally nuanced a topic is, the more likely a course will need full cultural customization. A course that teaches how to use a spreadsheet tends to contain very few cultural nuances because the way in which spreadsheets are used is universal. On the other hand, a course that teaches leadership tends to evoke values that vary across cultures. A US-designed course that encourages leaders to be independent risk-takers would not fit well in many Asian countries, where good leaders are those who prefer thoughtful decisions and promote the well-being of the group. In cases like these, the client would benefit from knowing in advance that the current version of the course would likely fail in certain countries!

Overall, translation and localization companies can offer their elearning clients “value-added” services such as audits, editing, internationalization, regionalization and customization, which will make courses more successful.