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Intercultural Training

Cultural Models and Differences

The effective design of intercultural training programmes is key to their success. However, the design of any intercultural programme is itself a difficult undertaking as there is a lack of coherent theory of intercultural competence despite it’s being the catchall phrase for such concepts as lifelong learning and knowledge society.

The definitions of culture are as diverse as the differences between cultures. Lederach (1995) claims that culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them. Thus culture can be seen influencing a way we receive information about the world around us but also, at the same time, culture influences the way we process that information (Matsumoto, 1996, as cited in Gunawardena, Wilson & Nolla, 2003, p. 757). According to Hall (1998, p. 53) culture is communication; a system for creating, sending, storing and processing information. 

When it comes to online teaching, Bates (2001, as cited in Gunawardena et al., 2003) underlines some tendencies showing the differences between the "Western" courses and other cultures. In western courses students are encouraged to critical thinking and discussion and their opinions are considered important. In addition, teachers views can be challenged. This is not the case in other cultures where there is a great respect for the teacher and teacher is never challenged.

The following video clip presents one basic difference between cultures concerning communication.

Low Context Conversations

It is proposed that cultural models can be used to identify the differences in cultures that affect how computer supported collaborative learning environments (CSCL) are used (Vatrapu & Suthers, 2007).

  • Low Power Distance vs High Power Distance - Put simply it means that a high power distance is the distance between the authority of a superior and a subordinate in a social hierarchy. An example of the difference would be  where a Large Power Distance would be teacher centred education, while a Small Power Distance would be student centred education.

  • Individualism vs Collectivism - Based on socio-cognitive conflict theory (Doise & Mugney, 1984) collaborative learning effectiveness is thought to be influenced by the extent that students identify and discuss conflicts in their knowledge beliefs. This works better in an individualist culture. (cf. the video clip below)

  • Femininity vs Masculinity - The more “feminine” cultures have a greater flexibility or ambiguity in what is expected of each gender.

  • High Uncertainty Avoidance vs Low Uncertainty Avoidance - Low uncertainty avoidance cultures feel much more comfortable with the unknown.

  • Culture and Communication - In some cultures a member needs to be clearly asked to respond to a particular question or idea and may feel it necessary to respond in a positive way, while in other cultures students may be more likely to use initiative, innovation, and disagree with a teacher (Hall, 1976)

These are only some of the variables when considering CSCL in an intercultural context. It is also important to remember that the technology used in these programmes is only a means of affordance and that cultural and social rules of behaviour still apply even in interactions online. It is also possible that different groups may have different understandings of the tasks presented, or different concepts of the desired learning outcome or goals. Perhaps these issues should be addressed in a more concrete manner in order to facilitate more productive intercultural collaboration and thus learning.

While the examples provided above represent the bipolar extremes of possible cultural differences, there are invariably areas where the divergence is not so great, or where there is room to facilitate these differences to promote both understanding and encourage collaborative learning on a cross cultural basis.

One possible solution may be to provide opportunities to learn from peers from other cultures to help gain a better understanding of their own educational culture and the contexts that affect it (Davis, 1999). It is doubtful that there is, or can be, a simplistic techology rationale that can facilitate cultural diversity and establish a type of intercultural homogeneity, but there is the possibility of making the transition to a more culturally diverse, inclusive, and by extension collaborative learning experience.

An example might be to promote the idea of blogs as an intercultural sensitizer. Participating students from different backgrounds would be encouraged to write their thoughts about relevent issues of a particular web course in which they would be involved. Students would then be required to comment on each others blogs, which would give each participant the opportunity to make an analysis of what they read through an intercultural lens.

Another potential tool to bridge problematic cultural differences might be the use of digital storytelling. This describes the practice of ordinary people who use digital tools to tell their story. Because the contributors choose their own media and content, they have ownership and engagement. Furthermore, there is an emotional connection because the content is personal and the voice is authentic, which allows viewers and/or listeners the opportunity to reflect in a way that reading text might not allow.

These are merely suggestions as to how to deal with cultural differences, but while we live in an expanding technological society each group will retain it's own socio political perspectives. 

Individualism and Collectivism

Between the differences and a common culture

Arya, Margaryan and Collis (2003) have studied different approaches in facing cultural differences in a course design. Their study is about multicultural learning in the context of multinational organizations. They distinguish three approaches: cultural localization, cultural unidimensionality and cultural leveraging. Cultural localization refers to adaptation of the course for the values and learning preferences of all the students taking part in the course (McLoughlin & Oliver, 2000 cited in Arya et al. 2003). In the cultural unidimensionality approach the group is treated as homogenous since all belong to the same corporate culture (Henderson 1996, cited in Arya et al. 2003). The third approach, cultural leveraging, means leveraging the cultural differences in a way that an underlying focus of the course is better understanding of other students. This can improve better communication and collaboration. Hence there is a better outcome (Arya 2003, cited in Arya, Margaryan and Collis 2003). 

Reflecting these approaches to the scenario of this chapter, the cultural localization might not be feasible because creating localized versions could take too much time and resources. However, the two other approaches, cultural unidimensionality and cultural leveraging, can be applied and adapted to this scenario and taken into the context of a multicultural university web course. This is the aim of this chapter - to give instruction on how to create a design for a multicultural web course with a combination of cultural unidimensionality and cultural leveraging. 

This means giving instructions that take into consideration, in a most appropriate way, the cultural and individual differences. And, at the same time, to give ideas and instructions on how to create a common culture where each student would have a same understanding of assignments, evaluation, grades, etc. This facilitates the collaboration and collaborative learning for the students but also demands a lot of preparation from the teacher / course designer.

How to Improve Intercultural Sensitivity


Arya, K., Margaryan, A., & Collis, B. (2003). Culturally sensitive problem solving activities for multi-national corporations. TechTrends, 47(6), 40-49.
Davis, N. (1999). The Globalisation of Education Through Teacher Education With new Technologies: A View Informed by Reaseach Through Teacher Education With new Technologies. Educational Technology Review, 1(12), 8-12.
Doise, W., & Mugny,G. (1984). The social development of the intellect. Oxford: Pergamon Press
Gunawardena, C.N., Wilson, P.L., & Nolla, A.C. (2003). Culture and online education. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds), Handbook of distance education (pp. 753-775). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Hall, E.T. (1976) Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday
Hall, E. T. (1998). The Power of Hidden Differences. In M. J. Bennett (Ed.), Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Selected Readigns (pp. 53-67). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.
Lederach, J. P. (1995). Preparing for peace: conflict transformation across cultures. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.
Vatrapu, R., & Suthers. D. (2007). Intercultural Collaboration. Culture and Computers: A Review of the Concept of Culture and Implications for Intercultural Collaborative Online Learning., 1, 260-275.     


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