Cultural Sensitivity Needed in Online Discussion Rubric Language

International student and online course enrollments had noted increases for 2010 at U.S. tertiary institutions (Institute of International Education, 2010 & Sloan-C, 2010). These enrollment data remind us that U.S. campuses are continually becoming more culturally and internationally diverse in their student populations. However, this diversity may not always be apparent in the increasing numbers of students taking online courses as the instructor-student interaction is not face-to-face as in seated classes. The latter interaction allows for more awareness of students’ cultural differences and any immediate adjustment in verbal and non-verbal communication as the need arises.

A key success factor for online courses is vibrant threaded discussions that constitute a significant part of students’ participation grade. Understandably, a discussion rubric is made available to students so that they know what criteria are being used to judge their discussion posts. In reviewing a discussion rubric by Edelstein and Edwards (2002) for use in assessing student discussion posts, which was endorsed by Kimball and Jazzar (2011, January) for building more vibrant online discussions, I had a reservation. I found that the rubric categories were applicable but the language used in describing the various criteria needed to be more culturally sensitive. In particular, international students, the majority of whom speak English as a second language, are not as direct as U.S. students in their communication, so the original language used in the rubric may conflict with international students’ cultural experiences and expectations.

The following rubric includes suggestions for how you can modify the descriptions of your rubric categories:

Discussion Rubric Category Original Wording Culturally Sensitive Wording
Contributions to Learning Community Does not make effort to participate in learning community as it develops; seems indifferent Contributions to online learning community as it develops not evident; suggests indifference
Promptness and Initiative Does not respond to most postings; rarely participates freely Non-response to most discussion posts evident; voluntary participation not evident most times
Expression Within the Post Does not express opinions or ideas clearly; no connection to topic Unclear expression of opinions or ideas evident in posts; posts reflect disconnection to topic
Delivery of Posts Utilizes poor spelling and grammar in most posts; posts appear “hasty” Rules of grammar and spelling overlooked in most posts; evidence of hurried expressions in posts

These suggested modifications use less direct expression and take the attention away from the student and places more emphasis on the contents of discussion posts. This approach lessens the risk of any cultural insensitivity toward students that may impact negatively on future enrollment in online courses.

Edelstein, S., & Edwards, J. (2002). If you build it, they will come: building learning communities through threaded discussions. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, volume V (1). Retrieved February 2, 2011, from

Kimball, D., & Jazzar, M. (2011, January). Enhancing learning through vibrant online discussions. Faculty Focus. Retrieved February 2, 2011, from

Institute of International Education (2010). Press release: International student enrollments rose
modestly in 2009/10, led by strong increase in students from China. Retrieved February 2, 2011, from

Sloan-C. (2010). Class differences: Online education in the United States, 2010.
Retrieved February 2, 2011, from

Debra Ferdinand, Ph.D, E-tutor, University of the West-Indies.