How culturally responsive is your digital practice?

Technology is not neutral. 

I love to create things. Whether it be in the physical world doing things like taking photographs, sewing, playing guitar, making handmade cards, or in the virtual realm where I pass some of my time playing interior decorating games or dabbling in some graphic design. I love to just get stuck in and watch things unfold. As with anyone else who has ever made something, one would know that these creations almost always are products of the things that we like, the things we find energize us and at times, things that have deeper meaning for us. Sometimes the inspiration to create comes from a simple idea or curiosity to create something new, other times it comes from a desire to reconnect with something from the past. In some ways we could argue that our creations are cultural narratives, short stories that give others insight into our worldviews, beliefs, and values. But what, you might ask, does this have to do with technology, or more particularly digital technology?

Have you ever been unsuccessful in trying to do something either on your phone or computer, only to later be told that “it wasn’t designed for/to do that”? Or wanted to be able to do something on a piece of software only to be informed that it has certain limitations? This is because digital technology – hardware, software, and content – are all designed and made by humans, people with their own personal and cultural narratives which inform the look, feel and function of these creations.

Storytelling, Narratives and Digital Design

Before there was the World Wide Web, there was storytelling – one could argue though that the web in itself is a giant collection of cultural narratives. The practice of storytelling is ancient – not only is it the oldest form of information exchange, it also plays a central role in the way we view the world and the way in which we develop our identity. According to Smith and Sparkes (2008), ‘narrative is conceived as a form of social practice in which individuals draw from a cultural repertoire of available stories larger than themselves, that they can then assemble into personal stories.’

Narratives not only communicate ideas and values but can also be said to stimulate imagination and inspire creativity. According to Spaulding and Faste (2013), design and narrative have always been deeply intertwined, therefore in the designing and creating of any artefact it is almost impossible to avoid incorporating pieces of oneself either into the process or the final product.

But what, you may ask, does this all this have to do with one’s digital practice?

Often technology is seen by many as neutral. We take it at face value as just being a ‘thing’, another tool. However, behind these tools and designs lie particular held values and beliefs of the designer. What digital technologies ‘allow’ us to do (or not to do) are largely dependent on their design. The same can be said for digital (web) content. The ways in which information is shaped and shared are largely influenced by the cultural narrative of the author. Likewise, the ways in which we receive and process information are largely influenced by our own cultural narratives.

How Do We Enable Culturally Responsive Practice through Digital Technologies?

According to Batya Friedman (2004), information technologies have the capacity to support or undermine human values, and therefore careful consideration should be made to keep human values at the forefront of the design process. We as educators may not be able to influence the design of a piece of digital hardware or software, or be able to find a digital product that completely aligns to the values of the community within which we teach. However, we can and should still be active in evaluating whether the benefits of using the technology outweigh its design flaws or limitations. In other words, are the interests of our learners still being served, and are there deliberate efforts to minimise the impact of alternative narratives, through other means (such as exploring digital citizenship for example)?

Being able to meet the needs of increasing culturally diverse learner populations is a situation that many educators face nowadays. When designing learning experiences, not only do teachers need to consider individual learning needs, but there is the added pressure of ensuring that learning experiences acknowledge and nurture students cultural references in all aspects of their learning (Richards, Brown, & Forde, 2007). But where does one start? Casting an evaluative eye over the content you plan to use with your learners can help. Teaching your learners to do the same would be even greater. 

Here are a couple of simple tips that can help teachers evaluate their digital practice:

Know where your web content originates from:

A significant proportion of English language-based content currently available on the web originates from countries such as United States and the United Kingdom. Apart from the obvious differences with things such as spelling, grammar and pronunciation, there is the less obvious issue of cultural narratives. These narratives either directly form the content or indirectly inform the shaping of the content. For example, Easter is more commonly associated these days with chocolate eggs, bunnies, and springtime – all which align with northern hemisphere seasons and German folklore. However, for many tagata Pasifika, Easter is associated with traditional church services and Christian beliefs. This doesn’t mean sites and content from outside your students’ cultural narratives can’t be used, it just means you as the teacher can, and probably should, highlight these points and discuss how these might be similar or different to the classroom or home values and cultures.

Consider the imagery being portrayed in digital content:

Can your students see themselves in the images? Can they relate to the images? Do the images align with your students’ aspirations? Often when it comes to cultural responsiveness, the use of imagery or iconography tend to be the first and simplest things that are incorporated into the learning environment. The same often goes with digital content. For instance, if one were to enter the search term “pasifika” into a search engine, one would find an array of photos depicting tagata pasifika beautifully adorned in bright colours and engaged in dance or performance. While on one hand this can be received as a wonderful celebration of Pacific heritage, it can also become perceived as stereotypical. Another example is that tagata Pasifika are often depicted as aspirational sports stars and musicians, but not so often as successful businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, authors, or scientists.


Lynette is an educator of Niuean heritage who has over 23 years' experience across the education sector. Inspiration and ideas for this blog post have come from her second and most recent Masters in Education where she completed a research project combining her passion for Pacific People’s education with her interests in Educational Technology. For more ideas and discussion on how you can evaluate your cultural responsiveness to digital content, get in touch with Lynette Hay at l.hay@evaluate.co.nz.

References: 

  • Friedman, B. (2004). Value-sensitive design. In BERKSHIRE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HUMAN-COMPUTER INTERACTION.
  • Richards, H. V., Brown, A. F., & Forde, T. B. (2007). Addressing Diversity in Schools: Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39(3), 64–68.
  • Smith, B., & Sparkes, A. C. (2008). Contrasting perspectives on narrating selves and identities: An invitation to dialogue. Qualitative Research, 8(1), 5–35. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794107085221
  • Spaulding, E., & Faste, H. (2013). Design-driven narrative: Using stories to prototype and build immersive design worlds. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2843–2852. https://doi.org/10.1145/2470654.2481394


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