Challenges and Opportunities for Intercultural Communication in the online setting

Published on
March 30, 2021

Since March last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Intercultural Communication Skills (ICS) course has been taught completely online. Although a few elements have gone lost in this transition, the course remains a rich place to learn from one another’s cultural background. What challenges and opportunities does the teaching team face in the online setting?

Intercultural Communication Skills

Intercultural Communication Skills is a skills course at WUR, consisting of three sessions of 3,5 hours each, with the main objective that students become more aware of their own and others’ cultural background and the impact of this “cultural luggage” on team work and communication. The course is offered 4 times a year and has between 25 to 45 participants every course. The sessions require active participation and used to consist of interactive presentations of theory, role plays, simulations, discussions and exchange of experiences.

What has changed due to going online?

Since March last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the course has been taught completely online. Unfortunately a few elements have gone lost in this transition: the simulation game Barnga, the Organizing Game and the group work on Exploring Culture. For this last assignment multicultural groups of two or three students had to interview two people from a different cultural background than theirs, preferably at their homes. This of course was not an option anymore and is replaced by an individual assignment for which students interview people, using online media, and create a PowerPoint presentation with voice recording. A few of these presentations are shared in the online teaching session. Other elements like creating a role play and discussing the impact of culture on teaching and learning styles have successfully been transformed into online activities. Moreover we have incorporated a new online tool to practice intercultural competencies: Traintool.

What has been the impact on students?

The results of the PACE evaluations of the course show that students are still very positive about the course; the online role play and other group assignment score very good – a bit to our surprise. For more detailed information, Dine Brinkman (course coordinator), interviewed 5 students from Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and the Netherlands, not only about their experiences with our course, but also about the impact of online education in general.

Main impressions of these students:

  • The advantage of online working, mentioned by all of them, is that it saves time, you don’t need to travel, you don’t need to dress up, it can be convenient. The negative side of it is that the work-life balance gets disturbed: even in the evening or weekend you receive messages of fellow students. Working online in groups is intensive, without teacher supervision, no breaks and less efficient.
  • Main disadvantage: students miss the informal contacts while entering the classroom, during coffee breaks, in group work. These used to be the opportunities to get to know each other at a more personal level and also to spontaneously meet people from different cultural backgrounds. One student shared that she worked in a group for 2 weeks, they were online every day and “suddenly” discovered they had no clue about who was who. Therefore they decided to start the day with a personal question and to include some fun activities during the day.
  • Students were very enthusiastic about our role play assignment, because it was in a small group of 5 students and you can have personal face to face contact. The online feedback of other students was also appreciated. The downside of the online role play is that you miss part of the expressions and body language.
  • Online group work in multicultural groups can cause a lot of misunderstanding. One student discovered that while working in a group in Google Docs, her input was being deleted and replaced, without giving her notice. This caused feelings of frustration and irritation. Another student shared that you don’t see or feel the impact of your words on your fellow student, for example when giving feedback. “Someone can put off the camera and can sit crying on the toilet and you won’t notice”.
  • Another example shared is feeling excluded when working as the only international student in a group of Dutch students: the language in the chat in Teams often was Dutch. “Most times I feel they forget to write in English”.
  • Related to working in a Dutch academic setting: Dutch students tend to focus on the task and try to work as efficiently as possible, where for many international students the process and personal relationships in a group are an important condition for working together. “There is never really a chance for me to speak, you have to ‘say what you want to say’, so most times I keep quiet. You cannot make a gesture that you want to interrupt, which you would do in real life”.

What can we conclude?

In the online learning environment it is harder to practice and train some of the basic intercultural competencies like being curious, adjusting your communication style and showing empathy, because you miss basic communication clues such as non-verbal signals and spontaneous interaction. Teachers need to organise and monitor (group) communication more than in the real life setting, by creating small group assignments, informal and energizing activities, take care of procedures to ensure that everyone has input, etc. In general going online asks for creativity, sometimes improvisation and definitely more time to organize and structure all activities. But WUR’s international classrooms remain rich places to learn from one another’s cultural background.