E-learning for intercultural competence: What is important to know?

As the global economy is becoming more and more co-dependent, businesses’ reliance on partners from abroad grows. Each year, new countries enter the global arena, and marketers and salespeople find themselves at a loss as to what the culture is like in these countries.

If a salesperson or a marketer is unaware of the culture of the country where their company conducts business, this may hamper business relationships or prevent some partnerships from happening completely. Employees who want to relocate need to be aware of the culture they’re moving into as well.

This is why intercultural competence is becoming one of the major learning trends. Training managers should be fast to pick up this trend. Learn the basics about integrating intercultural competence in the training program you manage and it can help you engage a new demographic.

What is intercultural competence?

As defined by Kein & Chen in their 2001’s article “Working with children from culturally diverse backgrounds”, intercultural competence is the ability of a person to gather information about their own culture and cultures of others, use cultural resources, reflect on the differences, appreciate both differences and similarities of the cultures and value all cultures.

But it’s not just about having a positive outlook on all cultures. There’s a very important detail to be found in Bennet’s “Comprehensive multicultural education: theory and practice”. To be interculturally competent, a person needs to be sensitive to cultural differences and interpret intercultural styles of communication that include customs and body language.

Choose the right material

The leading way of building intercultural competence is starting a discussion. While teachers play a crucial role in the discussion, this role is that of steering the conversation, not actually having it. The main thing for teachers should be gathering the right materials for the discussion. The students need to receive an article, an image, or a video that encapsulates a culture they’re learning about.

There’s a very important detail about the material for classroom discussions. It doesn’t have to be about cultural differences. It has to show cultural differences instead.

To put this in perspective, a video that elaborates on cultural stereotypes of the Chinese is not a good choice. Often, such materials, even if created by people who share that culture, are surface-deep and overly stereotypical. A better choice would be a video where a Chinese student talks about their struggles with family, or a Chinese employee talks about their experiences at work.

Consider working with a foreign university, language courses, or other organizations to procure unique materials. Video or audio files recorded by members of a particular culture would be amazing material.

If the project’s budget doesn’t allow for this, web research is the optimal tool. Opinion articles and YouTube videos made by the people who live in the culture a program focuses on are a great choice. Start sourcing materials for discussion with these 50 case studies or use them as a reference.

Lead a discussion

Since intercultural competence is formed by reflecting upon another culture, the discussion is the key component to forming it. Regardless of the culture and the topic, the most influential intercultural studies cases include having a discussion with the students.

But it’s not up to the teachers to talk to their students. A manager needs to instruct them to act as a host, not as a direct participant in the discussion. Teachers should present the topic, help the students understand it, and guide the discussion, letting the students talk and reflect upon the topic on their own.

Another thing that a manager can do is to gather the right people into a group. The perfect study group for building intercultural competence consists of people from different cultures. Put people of different backgrounds into one group, and it’s going to help the learning process a lot.

A good group composition can allow your teachers to work without presenting the material. As this case study by Livia Ablonczy-Mihályka shows, in a group of people from different cultures, opinions, and experiences of group members can be a basis for the conversation.

Be proactive

A study by Anne Uukkivi suggests that if a teacher is not encouraging students to speak up on the first stages of the discussion, the group may not be confident enough and the discussion will be a failure.

Instruct the teachers to start the discussion by making sure all students are eager to talk. Including warm-up exercises into the lessons that focus on intercultural competence may be a great way to help students ease up and start talking freely.

Gauge language and computer literacy level

The main focus of intercultural studies is intercultural literacy. However, if students don’t know the language of communication or don’t know how to use the programs necessary for the e-learning course, they won’t be as effective.

This is one of the most important things a manager can do to help teachers do a good job. When putting students in a group, learn their language and computer literacy level, and make necessary accommodations.

The best option is to have a group that is on the same level. If that’s not possible, provide links to dictionaries or user manuals of the programs necessary for the course. If some students don’t have a 24/7 internet connection, synch schedules to make it comfortable for everybody.

Use different tools for interaction

Since the main focus in intercultural competency training is interaction, students and teachers need to have a varied set of tools to interact with. Veronica Markey, Head of Communications from a proofreading service, says that for effective online interaction a group needs at least a good chat program and one good video chat software.

For text interactions, Slack, Discord, or a popular messenger like WhatsApp would be the best choice. For voice calls, try Skype, Google Hangouts, or Oovoo. Make sure both students and teachers know how to use these programs well.

Integrate with other competences

Intercultural competence in and of itself is a thing worthy of studying. However, it can be a great studying material as well. It’s perfect to add to the language learning courses, especially if native speakers of the target language can participate in a class.