Can E-Learning Foster Intercultural Competence?



This article focuses on strategies and materials devised to enable students both to approach their period of residence abroad in Spain with greater confidence, and to make best use of time spent there. The basic premise is that students risk denying themselves the full potential benefit of their period of residence abroad by not appreciating the need to prepare themselves adequately in advance for the tasks they may be expected to carry out, and for the culture in which they will be operating. Materials were devised for students to access independently in WebCT to help address this deficiency in provision.

Hilary Rollin and Anne Harrap


The Background

The starting point was needs analysis. During tutor visits, interviews were conducted with placement supervisors and University coordinators in Spain and with students on placement. The need was perceived not just for greater confidence in all four language skills, but intercultural skills in general, and in the study-work environment in particular. A series of exercises and quizzes was devised, which students may work through at their leisure, and to which they are invited to contribute additional ideas. Other exercises, based on authentic materials such as company catalogues and brochures, and focusing on actual tasks placement students may be required to carry out, complement these, and can be exploited in class or be used as self-access resources. Student feedback on these materials and on exams linked to the use of these materials has been extremely positive.

This article reviews three main areas, before detailing work in progress. These areas are: e-learning in language learning and teaching, for which we shall outline the use of ICT in the Department of Modern Languages, in Spanish in particular, and the steps being taken to comply fully with the University’s e-learning strategy for learning, teaching, and assessment. Secondly, it defines intercultural competence, a concept which is crucial to the understanding of the significance of the project under discussion (and the topic of my Teaching and Learning Fellowship project), but this must not be allowed to distract us, as it is not the prime focus of this article. The third issue is ‘Why use WebCT?’ Is e-learning, and more specifically WebCT, the most appropriate medium for delivery of these materials? If so, why and how? Is it a fleeting fad? Or can we say after piloting, monitoring, and evaluation that it truly enhances learning?

E-learning in language learning and teaching

First, it is necessary to dispel any lingering myths about language learning and teaching. Language acquisition is not merely a case of learning irregular verbs by heart. ICT has a major part to play, as can be seen from the following summary of the main ways in which we currently benefit from e-learning, into our provision in languages. Inevitably this differs from practice in other subject areas.

Online electronic dictionaries

These are here to stay, whether freely accessible through the internet or as networked CDs. In June 2003 students and staff beta-tested the latest OUP major Spanish dictionary in its online form. Any reluctance to use electronic dictionaries was very quickly overcome; timed tests left users more than convinced of the user-friendliness of such dictionaries, an example being the time saved when searching through long entries in not having to scour columns of print under, say, ‘go’ to locate ‘go in for’ or ‘go all-out’, etc. As a result the Department has subscribed to OUP’s Oxford Online Spanish and French networked dictionaries. These are available in the pooled computer rooms.

Electronic correction

Electronic correction of student work (using highlighting, etc.) is not encouraged by the Department of Modern Languages when marking assignments for student feedback. We nonetheless find it has its uses when students are on placement. The disadvantages are that it is time-consuming for staff, and can pose problems of reliability; receiving the corrected version whether in Australia, Scunthorpe, or on campus with a laptop, can depend on the technical specifications (e.g. the version of Microsoft Office) of the computer at the receiving end.

Computer-assisted language-learning (CALL)

Use is made of both in-house authored materials and bought-in exercises. The former were created with EMU (now OCSLD) funding by the authors of this article, and equipped students of Foundation Spanish with a bank of graded exercises to reinforce each week’s learning. These had all the known advantages of CALL (instant feedback, requirement of 100% accuracy, opportunity to repeat exercises, relative privacy/mistakes not witnessed by the class), and were also integrated into the programme’s materials of in-house booklets and graded audio and video recordings). Less convincing, however, was our ability to convert these batteries of exercises from Question Mark in DOS into another usable format when University computers were upgraded to Windows and a decision was taken not to use Perception, the successor to Question Mark.

The bought-in programme (KC-CALL), the result of a private arrangement with John Butt (of Kings College, University of London), author of the seminal work ‘A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish’ (2004) is compulsory for Year 1, post A-Level. A facility for monitoring from staff PCs was built in, ascertaining student progression in terms of the number of exercises completed, number of answers correct first time, second and third time, and number of questions abandoned. Surprisingly, despite our explaining at length to students that we monitor their progress, they can be taken aback to learn that we know so much about their performance.

Use of the optical mark reader (OMR)

In the Department of Modern Languages, use of the OMR is restricted to content modules; this is because the kind of testing it can carry out does not match the learning objectives to be assessed in language learning. In some content modules, however, apart from being economical of staff time in marking, OMR allows us to test students’ levels of understanding right up to the end of a module, thereby cutting possible final-week absenteeism when students tend to work towards the most urgent deadline, to the detriment of modules that have no such deadlines and submission dates.

The u: drive

Among the main advantages of the u: drive is the fact that it is accessible off-site.

The material placed on it for Spanish modules consists largely of video clips; it is therefore perceived by the students in question, rightly or wrongly, to be a particularly attractive mode of delivery. From the teaching perspective, it enables better use of contact hours; it avoids any debate about the incompatibility between Language Centre opening hours (or even access to Hallnet) and student timetables, and—let’s be realistic—outside work commitments. Students can use the materials at a time and place to suit themselves, as genuine preparation for in-class activity.

The arts and humanities portal (A&H Portal)

The A&H Portal in WebCT was the way chosen by Arts and Humanities in the first instance to comply with the requirements of the University’s e-learning strategy to create a web presence for all modules by September 2004 as a step towards integrating e-learning into programmes as a core activity. The function of the Portal is to enable students to locate up-to-date module-specific information, allowing staff the flexibility to include as much or as little information as they choose (module description, teaching and assessment schedule, assessment criteria, bibliographies etc.). This brings everyone into the WebCT ‘Mode of Engagement number one’.

Why is intercultural competence important?

Intercultural communication is a concept that has fascinated many linguists since long before the term was invented. Due to their real-life experiences of the culture of the target language country, language teachers bring to their professional lives a considerable part of their personal lives. As noted by Starkey (2003), these biographical and personal factors have a remarkable propensity for affecting approaches to teaching and learning. Typically, many language teachers have lived part of their lives in a country other than that of their birth, have acquired privileged access to the foreign culture, and consider themselves to be successful intercultural learners.

After exploring their complex identities as citizens, they often wish to help their pupils broaden their horizons and espouse values of tolerance and equality. Command of language or lack of it can lead to an awareness of one’s vulnerability to discrimination and exclusion. The insularity of the British is no secret, and British language teachers in particular tend to want to enable their pupils to counteract their insular view of the world, to understand difference, to appreciate why others are the way they are, and not to judge and condemn them for it. Herein the paradigm shift. Language teaching traditionally viewed culture as the transmission of information, emphasising facts rather than an understanding of attitudes, beliefs, and values (Guti̩rrez Almarza and Pe̱a Calvo, 2004). Now, we are able to emphasise the importance of interculturality, and not merely bring it into our teaching as an aside.

On a different level, Samovar and Porter (2004) draw attention to the discourse strategies used by people from different cultural backgrounds in face-to-face situations. Research on intercultural competence has become increasingly important in language teaching and has spawned a multitude of -isms and -ologies, and generated a vast body of literature: Hofstede et al. (2002); Beamer and Varner (2005); Trompenaars Hampden-Turner (2002). This embraces cultural differences, and culture as an ‘explanatory variable’, namely how traits, states, styles, and situations affect the nature and effectiveness of communication across cultures. The prime aim is acquiring the ability to understand the context and culture of the other speaker, leading to the ability to interact meaningfully in the other culture.

Recent theory on language competence is not therefore just a technical exercise in communication skills. For many people language-learning is equated with books and verbs and getting it wrong. This is as outdated as it is misguided. Meanwhile, the epidemic of multi-media courses, perceived by some as progress, is largely responsible for undermining perceptions of effective language-learning, by claiming that Course X can enable one to achieve native command of a language in days, with no effort.

Must not confuse competence with skills

Another common misconception is that skills and competence are the same. Skills can be defined as ability in listening, reading, speaking, and writing, whereas competence is the ability to put these skills to use in transmitting and receiving information accurately and meaningfully. Intercultural competence means engagement with the other speaker’s world, namely the capacity to function in another culture. It involves reflecting on one’s own culture and own identity, recognising patterns and attitudes and eliciting their meanings and connotations. Cultures share and differ in certain beliefs, habits, and values. Moreover, these can differ not only between cultures, but also within cultures. The fewer culture-general aspects shared and the more culture-specific aspects identified, the more a culture is perceived as being different. Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) classify the dimensions of national culture: collectivism versus individualism; large power distance versus small power distance; femininity versus masculinity; uncertainty avoidance versus uncertainty tolerance; short-term orientation versus long-term orientation.

Why should intercultural learning be relevant to University language courses?

We have always been convinced of the benefits of the period of residence abroad that is traditionally part of a languages degree. It is to no small extent thanks to the Learning and Residence Abroad project (LARA, 2000), funded by the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE), that a more scientific approach has been taken to the skills and knowledge acquired during the Year Abroad. It has for some years been the practice for institutions to monitor student progress through the logs they compile while on placement, the reports they send back, and the debriefing on return. These all tend to be very positive, which is cause for rejoicing, but it seemed that it might well be that by probing beneath the surface, by exploring students’ levels of competence while they were out in the target language country, we might be able to identify gaps in skills and knowledge (and thereby offer enhanced pre-departure training). When better to do so than during the placement visits? A needs analysis was therefore conducted through semi-structured interviews with university and work place supervisors, and students during placement visits in Spain to companies, universities, and our much smaller number of teaching assistants.

The interviews pinpointed very effectively where there were shortcomings in both confidence and command of language, and more significantly in intercultural awareness, as in handling the social side of interaction both in more formal situations, and in use of telephone skills in the workplace. Such deficiencies were not highlighted by students, or even mentioned in logbooks or reports, but could be detected in informal conversations with them. Moreover, the time spent discussing these areas for improvement also identified ways of remedying the shortcomings. I was able to collect authentic materials (company brochures, catalogues, university library user guidelines, etc.). After scanning in graphics and text (not without authorisation), these were used as the basis of oral and aural work.

Enhanced preparation for work placement, assistantship, and study placement

In the light of information gleaned, we were able to create materials (to give additional support for the development of writing, speaking, reading, and listening skills), oriented to the tasks students are most likely to carry out. The tasks devised from these materials had added authenticity, being those reported by students as being areas of need, in the particular contexts (same university and even in the very same companies) to which subsequent cohorts of students would be going.

Students often risk not benefiting fully from the residence abroad as they do not realise the enormity of the challenge they are facing, and fail to prepare in advance in terms of command of the language or intercultural awareness and competence. Individuals lacking confidence in their own environment, and not accustomed to success will face additional challenges in another culture. By creating a safe environment for rehearsing their skills and improving their expertise pre-departure, at a time to suit their schedule, we thought it should be possible to enable them to cope more effectively in the new environment. It is axiomatic that some of the students most in need of additional pre-departure support are among those most reluctant to come forward to avail themselves of it. There seemed to be a case for believing that if the materials were self-access, any reluctance and embarrassment about seeking support might be overcome, and that it might thereby be possible for weak students to raise their level. On the other hand, despite the incentive for students to reach the highest possible level pre-departure, we were only too aware that as with previous in-house CALL packages, it could turn out that only the better students availed themselves of the materials, thereby increasing the gap between the most and least effective communicators.

Why use WebCT as a tool for enhancing delivery of intercultural learning?

Considered as an adjunct, rather than an alternative, there is a strong argument that WebCT enables us to cater for different approaches and learning styles and to reinforce material delivered in other formats:blended learning, indeed. In terms of effective learning, not only are there benefits such as increased variety, but for many students, even for linguists, this is a more effective idiom than the traditional printed format. Subscribing to the theory that medicine does not have to taste bad to help the patient, one can even go along with the ‘instruire et plaire’ approach favoured by La Fontaine (1954). Enjoyment is part of effective learning. I am not advocating dumbing down, but there is a case to be made for captivating students’ interest, generating enthusiasm and the desire to learn, and in particular, instilling an interest from within, namely discovering for oneself, then having a base on which to anchor new knowledge and theory. If the learner sets the pace, material is more likely to be absorbed and retained. If self-paced, the learning also has scope for repetition and reinforcement. The ultimate flexibility is in choice of time of day. Factors such as lack of time constraints, the opportunity of making one’s mistakes in private, going back over the materials, etc., inclined us to believe that these materials could not fail to be popular, and that the only students who might be less than ecstatic, or at least enthusiastic, might be the minority that is inherently averse to computers.

What makes this approach attractive to students?

It is challenging; it is personal; it is real-life. Students like quizzes: even the least competitive person gets a kick out of getting answers right. This in itself reaps rewards as it is motivating; unfortunately, teachers can forget the need for students to be asked to do something that they can get right. The materials were not designed for assessment, but if they were so used, it would be formative, with a view to feedback and discussion, rather than summative. Currently, students’ scores are not calculated, but in response to student requests, the policy is being reconsidered.

A great strength of some of the materials is the scope for weaker students to spend time on pre-class preparation, and perform in front of their peers with greater confidence. Materials designed with this in mind disguise as a quiz both grammar and vocabulary, which lead into a range of in-class debates on social interaction, and behavioural norms and values.

Instant feedback is rewarding, and enables students to appreciate the sequence of learning and see evidence of progress. This needs no further comment. Suffice to say that it eliminates the element of doubt and uncertainty about right and wrong, confirming the correct form close to the time of doubt. Not only is feedback immediate, it is personal and it is private. The student is spared any potential embarrassment about his or her stupidity, ineptitude, or slowness in latching on.

Furthermore, given what we now know about multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993), it is essential that this is reflected in current practice, and that we cater for the full range of learning styles. Additionally, variety in approaches to learning is both enjoyable and beneficial. There is nothing more boring than lack of variety. So, using a wide range of approaches fits with multiple intelligence theory; the screen is after all the medium of the era, and allows some students to excel online when they might not be stars in the classroom. Extending the repertoire of tools available in the learning environment may help some students overcome barriers, and in keeping with the theory of ‘threshold concepts’ proceed to a higher level of understanding (Meyer and Land, 2003.) Not only this, but the virtuous feeling derived from doing that little bit extra can in itself be motivating, and the ensuing self-esteem can be a big step towards improved performance.

What makes the online approach attractive to staff?

The online approach conforms in many ways to best practice, enabling students to take increased responsibility for their learning. Autonomy, a powerful tool, can be an excellent way to build students’ self-esteem, and be particularly helpful to staff wishing to support students not accustomed to success. Students can be reassured and encouraged, rather than scared off. If, as mentioned previously, computer-phobia is detected, it is possible to arrange for students to work together. Although time-consuming to develop, we believe in the long run online materials enable staff to focus their time better. If this is not achieved, we have gone badly wrong. Other reasons for staff to favour this approach are that it is self-correcting; there is nothing new about the advantages of discovering mistakes for oneself.

One can also maintain that self-correction reduces e-mail queries from students:an observation on which no further comment is needed. However, it is only realistic to admit that it is very easy to allow technology to defeat its own ends. Just as the mobile phone, designed to give children independence, merely results in their phoning home for advice, there is little point in having self-access materials that generate a multitude of individual queries requiring individual responses. Finally, WebCT complies with the University’s policy of using a wide range of learning styles. From the teaching and learning angle, the argument is convincing. We will now focus on some of the technical considerations.

The materials in this package

Most materials require a response from the student. Those not so doing are few, and are included to convey information, one such being a piece on understanding intercultural competence. This text clarifies the difference between intercultural, cross-cultural, and multi-cultural.

One of the first items written, piloted on students before it was decided to use WebCT, is a multi-cultural quiz on Behavioural Norms (under the Society section). This is a prime example of material designed for use at one level, but found to be applicable at other levels. This quiz promotes familiarisation with new lexical items at the same time as inducing students to think about how others live. It could thus be described as fulfilling the role of a text book on how people live in other cultures; because students are required to respond to the range of answers, they are active learners which makes this approach to acquisition of information both more enjoyable and more memorable than the text book approach.

‘Finding your way around the city’ is an example of a true/false exercise. This type of exercise is much quicker to compile than multiple-choice questions as the author does not have to rack her brains to create a range of equally plausible distractors. But correspondingly such questions are less fun to write and much less fun to do.

‘Finding your way around campus’, meanwhile, is based on definitions, which again have the merit of speed of preparation, but are similarly less fun and less challenging. Monitoring and evaluation will prove the relative merits of different approaches, as perceived by different cohorts of students. In all instances, students are invited to contribute additional questions. Response to this invitation has been poor, and when examples have been dreamt up, the results have not been too convincing, as the creators have themselves agreed. Problems have ranged from difficulty creating distractors that fit the same lead-in; issues that are not of prime importance, do not fit the pattern, or material that is decidedly discriminatory.

Pop-ups have been included where it was necessary to create an opportunity for students to reflect, rather than respond to a specific clue. An example of this is the intercultural dilemmas section comprising delicate situations, where the user finds an outline of a situation where cultural difference can lead to misunderstanding of the intentions of others. The user is required to think up possible explanations and alternative ways of remedying the situation or advising on solutions, before referring to a pop-up box which offers a possible explanation and/or strategy.

The majority of the exercises are in Spanish as it is helpful to take every opportunity to reinforce the use of the target language, and particularly to foster lateral thinking and problem solving in the language, rather than adopt the approach of the 1960s and 1970s of teaching language through mechanical drilling (Dakin, 1973). The linguistic dimension has been kept to a minimum, with only occasional reference to false cognates and examples of misunderstanding arising from linguistic error.

One section focuses specifically on possible demands of the workplace. These units include an audio component and consist of tasks such as students might be required to carry out, based on actual placement experience. One such unit features a Meli hotel (Don Pepe, Marbella), and another is based on Habitat Madrid. Relevant pages of their brochure and catalogue respectively were scanned in and form the basis of oral-aural work and reading comprehension in one package.

Another eminently practical unit is ‘Opening a bank account’, also with an audio component. This was created from a non-scripted dialogue, based on prompts, and on learning in reverse, e.g. by listening to a Spanish-speaker enquiring about banking procedures in this country the learner acquires information and lexis. The cues for student production are sequenced strictly to ensure that no exchanges are required of the students before similar information has been heard in Spanish. This approach, therefore, extends both passive and active knowledge.

Historical, geographical, and cultural awareness

A bit of fun is the unit on street names, designed to raise awareness and to stimulate intellectual curiosity and perhaps knowledge about the historical, geographical, and social background behind these names and their associations. I had planned to take photos of street signs on a digital camera, then found a short cut in the form of a postcard bearing the illustrations of street names. This unit is still under construction, and I await further contributions.

Some cultural awareness units are based on social issues, selected for special treatment, among them El botellen, the trend that has developed over the last few years towards under-age drinking in public places. These quizzes are generally multiple-choice, grammar-based questions. By selecting the appropriate distractor, students find themselves introduced to some of the leading arguments and vocabulary necessary to engage in debate on the particular topic of particular relevance to contemporary Spain. The function of such units is partly to serve as an exercise in themselves, but primarily to enable students to expand their active vocabulary and their confidence in expressing views on issues of current concern in Spain.

Grammar, lexis, behaviour, values, and social norms: these units are all of that, and appeal to students as the focus on topics such as the alcohol problem prevalent among young people in Spain is unquestionably relevant. The fact that these materials are in electronic form means students are more likely to arrive at the class having already thought about the topic, and equipped themselves with the relevant vocabulary. It leads to more meaningful use of class time, and in some cases has clearly enabled the more reticent to contribute in a way they would not had the preparation been book-based and less appealing.

Technical Aspects

Most of the exercises referred to were prepared as quizzes in Respondus, which describes itself as “a Windows application that enhances the functionality and usability of WebCT’s quiz, survey, and self-test tools”. (It is available through the Brookes Virtual/Media Workshop website under Associated Technologies.)

At the time of the presentation for the July 2004 E-Learning Conference ‘Embedding and Enhancing’, the content material with embedded graphics and sound files was uploaded to WebCT as Word documents. Subsequently it was reformatted using Course Genie (CG)—also available from Media Workshop—which allows authoring of online course materials in Microsoft Word for export into WebCT in plain html, WebCT, or IMS formats.

From the Word document this tool generates a set of web pages. Using a combination of special styles and dialogue boxes, the course designer can opt to add features, among them navigation, table of contents, hyperlinks, pop-ups, definitions, and highlighters such as panels and boxes, self-test questions, flash movies, and streaming audio and video.

As the ‘Intercultural Skills: Spain’ site is intended for independent use, meaning self-monitoring with no tutor involvement, the CG Self-test option seemed at first sight more appropriate than a Respondus quiz, as it offers a greater variety of formats with immediate feedback. In Respondus, only the multiple choice and true/false formats can be ‘published’ to WebCT as self-tests. Other types of quiz need release dates and scores for students to be able to see their results.

However, the CG test is probably more appropriate for one factual question embedded in a text, rather than a language quiz where set of questions and distractors occupies a considerable amount of space and needs to be located on a separate page. The latter solution works well enough with the plain html option which creates a table of contents and internal navigation (back and forward arrows within the page). However, as there were problems with the functionality of this version, the best solution seemed to be to use the IMS format which presents the pages as separate files and relies on WebCT’s own navigation (click the bar at the top). Another possible drawback for the designer is that it does not seem possible in the CG self-test to toggle between a Word document and the test input box, disallowing cut and paste.

It therefore seemed more logical to go back to the Respondus quizzes, accessible by a click in the WebCT ‘Action Menu’ through which the linked audio file in the Business section can also be accessed. The CG text-embedded streaming audio had also presented a technical problem—hopefully a temporary one. On the other hand, the CG popup function, as described above from the student point of view, was particularly effective for creating open questions.


Redesign of provision in the Department of Modern Languages and the uncertainty at the time the materials were initially being created about the remit of different modules, led to the added complication of deciding where different methods and materials fitted. This is still unclear and may well remain so, not least given that if we are truly to respond to student need, our materials are inevitably subject to modification. It may be that the answer lies in making some materials module-specific and others open to all. It is nonetheless hard to resolve the dilemma of the need for learners to proceed at their own pace, while also demonstrating student progress.

One of the very real problems, and to me another unanswered question inherent in fostering intercultural awareness, is the danger of stereotyping. Are we succeeding in highlighting difference and otherness without running the risk of students stereotyping and falling into the trap one most wanted to avoid?

Conclusion: monitoring and evaluation

Once materials are created, it is all too easy to take them for granted, to fail to view them critically, overlooking their weaknesses and strengths. As stated by Oliver (2004) in relation to collections, connections, and models of e-learning, what at one time may have seemed obscure, with hindsight can become commonsense. This would seem to apply to these materials; despite the apparent anomaly of teaching intercultural competence through the medium of IT, it may well be the most appropriate mode of delivery. Whether or not this is the case, the next step in the development of the materials is unquestionably ongoing monitoring, evaluation, and modification in response to changing student profiles. The potential query left in our minds is the possibility of built-in obsolescence due to the ever-changing nature of software, with a very real fear about the return on staff time invested: will Respondus and Coursegenie die the death like QuestionMark? However, to conclude on a positive note, we can claim that the materials produced are relatively innovative, student-centred, and embedded, but can we demonstrate that they enhance student learning? Certainly, pre-Residence Abroad and post-Residence Abroad students alike have reported back very positively on the materials being fun, enhancing their knowledge of cultural norms in the target language country, and speak positively of the accessibility and usefulness Web-CT. This seems evidence enough that E-learning has a part to play in fostering intercultural competence.


Hilary Rollin teaches Spanish at Oxford Brookes University where she is Field Chair for Spanish Studies. As part of the project for her Fellowship in Teaching and Learning, she created a battery of WebCT exercises to foster intercultural competence among students of Spanish. This was compiled in conjunction with Anne Harrap, with whom she has collaborated over the years to produce in-house CALL materials for learners of Spanish of different levels.

Anne Harrap is a languages graduate who has developed her interest in learning technology. Her linguistic expertise has enabled her to give technical support over the years to the development of learning and teaching materials including CALL (Spanish), WebCT (French, German, and Spanish) and a pilot project in unifying corpora in French.

Contact Details

Hilary Rollin
Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Teaching Fellow
Department of Modern Languages
Oxford Brookes University
Gipsy Lane Campus
Telephone: 01865 484103
Fax 01865 483791

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Anne Harrap
Languages Centre Documentalist and E-learning Technologist (Arts and Humanities)
Department of Modern Languages
Oxford Brookes University
Gipsy Lane Campus
Telephone: 01865 483723
Fax: 01865 483791

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