Networked Learning Conference 2008
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Networked Learning and Interculturality: Perspectives on Working in Intercultural Contexts

Symposium convenor: David McConnell
Lancaster University.

Symposium Introduction

Increasingly, higher education is becoming the setting for intercultural education, where those involved are often from different cultures and may therefore hold different beliefs, values and expectations about the nature of learning, teaching, scholarship and research. Higher education institutions in many "westernised" countries now recruit large numbers of students from overseas: these students are a significant source of funds for these universities. Accommodating international students into 'local' higher education settings is therefore a challenge to many HE teachers. Requiring overseas students to merely 'integrate' into the local HE culture is unlikely to be the answer. Moving to forms of interculturally sensitive learning and teaching practices is more likely to prove acceptable to the overseas students as well as being practically and perhaps also ethically acceptable to the teachers and universities involved. Teachers and students alike have to develop new forms of cultural communication. This is the focus of this symposium.

This symposium will look at Networked Learning in the emerging and important context of intercultural learning where teachers and students from different cultural settings are working in geographically dispersed contexts. The six papers making up this symposium consider the nature of culture and interculturality from a variety of different but inter-related perspectives:

Banks, McConnell and Bowskill consider a recent online intercultural course where students and tutors came from the UK and China, and where the course design explicitly tried to provide an integrated and purposeful intercultural experience for all involved (see They consider the possibility of teachers and students developing what some call 'intercultural' competence in these educational settings, and ask the question is that possible?

Bowskill, McConnell and Banks examine the same course but from the perspective of tutor development and integration. Against a literature background of little if any practical and theoretical understanding of how to develop online course tutors for participating in a virtual, intercultural course they suggest that a reflective 'space' in which the online tutors can communicate and share practical and theoretical experiences is a good way forward.

McConnell, Bowskill and Banks (again in the same context) consider higher education teachers conceptions of e-learning in the UK and in China. Their interest here stems from their experience of working over several years in the Sino-UK eChina e-learning programme during which they developed Masters level online courses. During this period they came to realise that intercultural exchanges in course development between the UK and China were paramount, and that it was necessary for all those involved to understand each other's conceptions of learning and teaching in order to ensure high levels of authentic course development.

Reynolds considers the case of international students, the application of participative methods in teaching and the possibility of greater cultural differences at play. The paper examines the experience of teaching multinational students in cooperative learning contexts, and considers the consequences of different research approaches in interpreting the meaning of these experiences.

Trehan's paper focuses on the adoption of a critical psychodynamic approach to our understanding of collaborative assessment processes in networked learning which have the aim of supporting diversity and difference. Her aim is to illuminate the dynamics of these processes, and by doing so show how little these processes do in reality support diversity and difference.

In Zhang's paper we return to the context of the Sino-UK e-learning programme. Here, the experiences of Chinese students taking the course are examined. Despite a prior belief that the technology of the virtual learning environment and the need to communicate in English might impede Chinese students' capacity to take part in the course and learn, Zhang shows that in fact this was not the case. She says that he major factors impeding these students ability to participate in the course was their wish to save "face" in their online communications, and their belief in the authority of the text and the teacher. The implications of this for the design and implementation of intercultural online courses is considered by the author.

Introduction - .pdf

Reflective Practices in Collaborative Intercultural e-Tutor Teams: A UK-Sino Case Study

Nicholas Bowskill, David McConnell, Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University,,,
Sheena Banks, University of Sheffield,


We review the use of an online shared journal in the tutor forum of an intercultural online course. We argue this represents a new methodological approach to collaborative reflective practice in action and on action. This is also an important response to the call by Boud (2006) to create reflective practices that recognise team work and a course context. We describe the use of this approach in an online course with a tutor team made of 3 Chinese and 3 UK tutors. The two major features of the changing context of practice are firstly those associated with its collective rather than individual nature, and secondly its multidisciplinary or often transdisciplinary character. (Boud 2006).

Full Paper - .pdf

A Feeling or a Practice? Achieving Interculturality In an eLearning Course

Sheena Banks, School of Education, University of Sheffield, UK,
David McConnell, Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, UK,
Nicholas Bowskill, Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, UK,


This paper discusses findings from a research study of a Sino-UK online course about the impact of intercultural understanding of e-learning in an online course, involving UK and Chinese higher education practitioners that was jointly designed by a UK and Chinese team. This topic is important because of current policy trends where technology has become one of the key drivers of globalization. Drawing on research data from computer mediated communication in the course, the paper considers processes and factors related to course design that may foster or impede intercultural understanding. The main conclusion of the paper is that course design has an important impact on the successful outcomes of intercultural e-learning, particularly a course design that creates an online learning community where learners can build social relationships and trust to share knowledge, values and goals that facilitate collaborative learning about cultures. Emerging findings are that styles of computer mediated communication can enhance or adversely affect intercultural e-learning and a strong link between social presence and learner support is needed. Finally, the paper identifies the need for more research for the development of good practice.

Full Paper - .pdf

Examining Conceptions of E-Learning in an Intercultural, Sino-UK, Context

David McConnell, Lancaster University; Nicholas Bowskill, Lancaster University; Sheena Banks, Sheffield University


The focus of this paper is on conceptions of learning and teaching in the context of a cross-national, Sino-UK project funded by Hefce that is examining the design and impact of e-learning, and e-learning delivery, in China and the UK. The central aim of this project is to consider teacher beliefs and conceptions in both countries, and how they impact on e-learning pedagogic practice. The paper discusses the findings from two large-scale interview studies of teachers' conceptions of e-learning. One study was conducted in China and involved interviewing 20 higher education teachers and other personnel about their conceptions of e-learning and teaching. The other study was carried out in the UK, and involved interviewing 15 higher education teachers about their conceptions of e-learning.

Our research into Chinese higher education teacher's conceptions of e-learning resulted in a set of preliminary conceptual categories in which those interviewed expressed their conceptions of e-learning. The categories were: 'centrality of the lecture', 'online cooperative learning', 'network learning', 'student learning', and 'infrastructure and access'. Our research into UK higher education teachers' conceptions of e-learning produced a set of categories in some ways qualitatively different to those resulting from the interviews in China. These were: "community", "rhythms and design" and "leadership and strategy".

The paper considers the preliminary results from a comparison of the conceptions of e-learning of higher education teachers in China and the UK.

Full Paper - .pdf

Perspectives on the International student experience: a review

Michael Reynolds
Department of Management Learning and Leadership. Lancaster University.


There is currently considerable interest in understanding international students’ experience of higher education in English speaking settings and the increase in numbers of students visiting the UK for undergraduate and postgraduate education has made tutors more aware of the problems they and their students encounter – from dealing with language to adjusting to different educational and social customs. A particular aspect of this interest is the interconnection between the international classroom and the application of participative methods in that the increased interaction such methods involve make difference of any kind more significant.

This interconnection between difference – whether of gender, nationality, culture – and participative educational methodology - is equally important for us to understand in the context of Networked Learning, especially when it draws on pedagogical traditions with an emphasis on learning as ‘collaborative’, ‘cooperative’, or invokes the concept of ‘community’. The application of these methods usually involves a less directive role for the tutor and a more involving experience for the student. As a consequence, there will be a greater range of possibilities for cultural differences to play a part.

However there is a further link. Our ingenuity in designing participative approaches in higher education – including those involving international student groups - may have outrun our understanding of the social and cultural complexities which characterise them. The aim of this paper is to review attempts to research tutors’ and students’ experiences of multinational programmes in order to identify the perspectives which would seem to offer most to those of us who work with international groups of students – including in a networked learning environment.

So for example, some authors take a psychological position as a way of understanding students’ responses of frustration, confusion and anxiety when faced with unfamiliar pedagogical approaches or focus on purely educational aspects such as student performance, language difficulties or the impact of stereotypes. Other authors emphasise the interconnectedness of psychological phenomena with social and cultural contexts and important differences - whether as regards gender, religion or politics or place even more emphasis on students’ experience as constructed from social and cultural differences, and of understanding classroom experience as society in microcosm.

In an approach that is similar to the one taken in this paper, Archer and Francis have proposed a framework which acknowledges the different perspectives used in addressing the multi-national classroom and argued that these do not simply represent different but equally acceptable alternatives, but that differences are significant in that they predispose educationalists to quite different responses, socially and politically. Archer and Francis propose distinct discourses which can be seen as responses to diversity: for example a compensatory response – as when implicitly positioning students as needing help to conform to the ‘home’ behaviour norms; or multicultural – as when celebrating or subjugating cultural differences in the interests of establishing a collaborative learning environment.

The central theme of this paper will be to establish not simply the range of perspectives employed, but to examine whether some are more appropriate in informing our understanding of working with multinational student groups, particularly in a learning environment informed by cooperative principles. As a corollary the paper will consider whether some approaches are – at least if used exclusively – inappropriate, in that they view complex social events through a psychologistic lens.

Full Paper - .pdf

Engaging with International Students: An Account of practice In On-line Assessment

Dr Kiran Trehan
Lancaster University, Management School, Department of Management Learning and Leadership,


Increasing attention is focusing on the value of Critical approaches to enhancing networked learning (Hodgson & Fox, 1995, McConnell, 1999, Trehan &Reynolds, 2002).

This paper examines how Critical on-line assessment and psychoanalytic processes can be harnessed to produce valuable insights into some of the social processes involved in collaborative assessment and challenges, the implicit assumption that such practices necessarily bring about equality. Interculturality and diversity in student groups influence power relations, which in turn are likely to affect the process of on-line collaborative assessment and its outcome. Psychodynamic perspectives not only explore underlying power and control issues but also actively engage in an examination of political and Inter- cultural processes affecting the development process. Such perspectives provide an opportunity to participate creatively in a collaborative sense making process, where understanding emerges by experimentation and through engagement with diversity and intercultural perspectives.

Psychodynamics and Interculturality

The interplay between psychodynamic approaches and network learning provides an opportunity to explore collaborative assessment at an individual, group and community level as conscious and unconscious processes. Psychodynamic perspectives illuminate approaches that differentiate between behaviours and activities geared toward rational task performance and those geared to emotional needs and anxieties. The application of this approach emphasises the importance of understanding human relationships through the idea of connectedness and relatedness. In doing so, the emphasis is placed on "learning from the conscious and unconscious levels of connection that exist between the self and others, people and systems" (French & Vince, 1999, p7). To develop our understanding of Interculturality within collaborative assessment, we need to find ways of exploring the nature of authority, the exercise of authority and power, the relationship of individuals and the learning communities to their social, political, cultural and economic environment. We also need to examine how emotions (e.g. humour, fear, anxiety) reverberate on the relational nature of collaborative assessment and impact on the International student community.

Applying psychodynamic ideas to collaborative assessment means not just exploring assumptions of power and control but actively engaging in an examination of political and cultural processes that Impact on the learning process in an intercultural context. Another critical aspect of psychodynamic theory to the study of on-line assessment is the interrelation between emotions and International community dynamics. Emotions and the study of the International learning community are central to psychodynamic theory because it reveals emotions as the prime medium through which people act and interact.

The intended contribution of this paper is to explore and identify ways in which the interplay between on-line collaborative assessment and psychodynamics can provide an opportunity to evaluate and reflect on the relevance and impact of Interculturality within the learning process. In doing so, I am proposing an approach that illuminates the quietly spoken aspects of Interculuraltity as a backdrop for unveiling the hypocrisies and contradictions of engaging in on-line collaborative assessment, which can create Isolation, exclusion and discrimination in programmes that encompass students from a variety of International cultures.

Full Paper - .pdf

Challenges for Chinese Learners in Sino-UK Intercultural Online Interactions--Case Study of an eChina~UK Project Course

Zhenhong Zhang, Ronghuai Huang
School of Educational Technology, Beijing Normal University,


Education has gone beyond national boundaries with the help of Internet and other network technologies. People from various countries and places have more opportunities to learn together online through computer mediated communications and collaboration. However, technological possibilities do not mean everything. Cultural diversity has imposed new challenges on intercultural networked learning and makes it much more complex than uni-cultural education. Identification of cultural challenges and understanding of their causes become an important part of pedagogy in the era of cross-cultural networked learning.

This paper studies the case of an online course "Intercultural E-learning Communities" designed and developed collaboratively by partners from Britain and China. It is found that in intercultural online interactions of the course, Chinese learners participated much less, wrote much less, and put forward much less discussion topics than their British counterparts. In-depth interviews were conducted with some of the Chinese learners, analysis of which reveals that information technology and the language of English used in the course are not major challenges to Chinese learners in online interactions. Rather, difficulty in 'speaking' in English, difficulty in understanding British participants' messages, difficulty in putting forward viewpoints, and difficulty in obtaining teacher's direction are the major challenges for Chinese online learners. In view of the impact of Chinese culture, face problem in particular, and traditional education on online learning, it is concluded that the need to preserve face, ask-for-answer tendency in learning, and lack of skills in analytical thinking are the three major causes for these challenges. Conclusions of the analysis shed light on the cultural impact on intercultural online interactions, and offer insights into the design, development, and tutoring of intercultural online courses.

Full Paper - .pdf



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