Developing intercultural competence for the knowledge society: The Open University A buen puerto website

Authors: Tita Beaven and Inma Álvarez


This paper aims to provide evidence of how ICT can contribute to the development of inter-cultural competence and develop the sense of belonging to a learning community in the context of distance education.

This article was added to our website on 18/12/02 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents


This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


Preparing students for the knowledge society has become one of the aims of many educational projects. In this paper we argue that intercultural competence is one of the main skills that students need to operate effectively in the information society. In turn the Web seems to be a good medium for the development of this competence.

Many authors (e.g. Castells 2000 and Weber 2000) have commented on the impact of the Internet on culture because of the massive access people can have to information and knowledge. Much has also been written about how access to this information necessitates the development of new skills on the part of the users. For instance, a 1997 document entitled 'UNESCO and an Information Society for All' states that:

... individuals, groups and communities will need to develop not only new tools of analysis but also very different mentalities and attitudes in order to adapt to the emerging 'new' civilization based on information and knowledge.

What can happen if these new tools, mentalities and attitudes are not developed? The Unesco document explains that information technologies can:

give learners access to knowledge available in different parts of the world' and 'ensure dialogue - the main factor in effective learning - both among learners and between learners and sources of learning

but also warns that:

some groups of media users may prefer cultural specificity to diversity and dialogue, and thus run the risk of shutting themselves into a cultural ghetto. (UNESCO, 1997 a)

A consequence of this preference (i.e. relying exclusively on information that is specific to one's own culture) is that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the user to develop the knowledge, the skills or the attitudes that will enable them to make the most of the information available to them in the diverse, multicultural world which we inhabit.

There have been a number of specific educational projects which aim to develop the sorts of skills the UNESCO report discusses promoting dialogue and avoiding cultural ghettoisation. One example is the one developed through the 'Red Averroes', the Andalusian Education Web (, on-line since 1997. One of its principal aims is training Andalusian schoolchildren to operate in the knowledge society. The project establishes clear links between the Internet and intercultural competence, as they see the Internet as a

means of communication, understanding and cooperation with people from any continent, ethnic origin or culture, and which therefore promotes a spirit of tolerance and cosmopolitanism.

The project also states that the use of the Internet has the potential to help understand:

the linguistic and cultural diversity of the different peoples, which enables us to develop an attitude of interest and respect towards them.

In the debates about the Internet and the knowledge society there have also been dire warnings about how globalisation can crush local cultures and promote a monolithic, Americanised culture. However, we agree with Weber that globalisation is a phenomenon that demands a:

new way of being that obliges the subject to place himself without traumas or frustrations between, on the one hand, the coherence of his own traditional culture of origin, from which he has started looking at the world and adhering to values that structure his personality, and, on the other hand, the new coherence towards which he is pushed by the new technologies. [These] force him to renew his vision of the world and to redefine the values that he thought were immutable. (Weber, 2000)

When designing language learning materials or courses that demand that students deal with the wide variety of information in the target language that is available on-line, we feel it is essential that we also prepare students by enabling them to develop the critical awareness and intercultural skills that will make it possible for them to understand cultural diversity and to reassess their own culture and values.

In this paper we would like to present the website of the OU advanced Spanish course in the light of the above comments. We hope to show how, to make use of the rich and varied material available on the Internet and to engage in computer mediated communication, that is, to operate in the knowledge society in the context of a particular university course, learners have to develop intercultural skills.

The course website

The course website was designed in the context of the Open University Learning and Teaching strategy document (, which defines the OU policy that will enable the University to:

contribute to shaping a democratic and civilised society by enabling students to develop, through the best possible learning experience, a sense of responsibility for what they know, and the skills of knowledge management, critical inquiry, and rational discourse.

More specifically, the OU's aims in relation to ICT include the following:

  • to exploit the communicative potential of the Web in order to foster the OU community
  • to provide course information on the Web
  • to provide access to library services
  • to prepare students for the knowledge society, which involves a focus on independent learning and skills development. ICT also puts a greater emphasis on project work, student-directed research using on-line resources, and skills such as group work and information handling.

In the academic context, website complements the advanced Spanish course, A buen Puerto, a third level, 60 credit course which aims to develop grammatical, strategic, sociolinguistic, sociocultural and intercultural competences to a level equivalent to the Vantage level of the Council of Europe. Common European Framework of Reference levels.

One of our concerns, both in the course in general and in the website in particular, was the development of intercultural competence. This is an aim we share with many other language programmes, as the development of intercultural competence has slowly become one of the twin pillars of language courses, together with communicative competence. Many documents acknowledge its importance, and many authors have attempted to explain how to develop intercultural competence in the language classroom (Iglesias Casal 1997). The notion of intercultural communicative competence itself has been defined, amongst other things, in terms of the development of a body of knowledge, skills, attitudes and a political education that enables learners to become intercultural speakers (Byram 1997). Regardless of how we define intercultural competence, what is clear is that we live in a multicultural world - a world in which different cultures coexist and interact.

The idea behind our website was to enable students to engage in tasks which would allow them to come into contact with a much broader range of materials than the printed and audiovisual course materials could include. However, we felt that in order to take advantage of the information available on-line, students would also have to develop their intercultural skills in this particular context. In order to facilitate this development, the homepage includes a section in which the course team posts activities of two types on a monthly basis. One sort of activity relates to the discovery of new information and to the broadening of students' knowledge of the Hispanic world, mainly through reading the press on-line. Students are asked to discuss their findings in an on-line forum. The second type of task is directly based on activities in the course material, and is designed to provide students with the opportunity to share ideas and to get feedback from their peers. In order to explain the types of activities we have developed more systematically, we will be looking at them with respect to two types of intercultural competences, cognitive and affective, as described by Alsina (1997) , broadly following Chen and Starosta (1996).

Cognitive competence

Chen and Starosta (1996: 366) have pointed out that someone's intercultural cognitive competence is greater the higher their degree of both self awareness and cultural awareness. According to Alsina (1997), this means that one has to be aware first of all of one's cultural characteristics and communicative processes. Intercultural communication allows us to become highly aware of our own cultural characteristics, which we might not otherwise notice. In common with most courses that include an element of computer-mediated communication (CMC), the first activity is for students to present themselves. Instead of merely asking them to introduce themselves, however, we start by presenting ourselves in our own complex cultural identity (bilingual, bicultural, members of multicultural families etc) and ask them to do the same. This relates very well to the first module of the course which deals with issues of identity and cultural diversity in the Hispanic world. In their presentations, students often show awareness of themselves as culturally complex individuals, so that the issues of identity and cultural diversity studied in the course materials can be read not as some 'exotic' and 'foreign' issue, but as something relevant to their own cultures.

Alsina also reminds us that images from other cultures that appear in our own are often media interpretations. He therefore insists on the importance of engaging in activities that make us look at ourselves through the eyes of other cultures. We have done this by asking students to look at the way particular news items about the UK are reported in the Hispanic press. These are usually current issues, for example, the Spanish press reported earlier on this year on the UK's attitude to the Euro, or more recently on British, Spanish and Gibraltarian views on the future of Gibraltar. The sorts of activities requiring students to look at how other cultures see theirs, always seem to interest and motivate learners, partly because they are quite accessible. Students understand the context and the content of the news item, something which does not always happen when they read 'home' news from the country whose language they are studying. Students are also able to see their own culture through the eyes of another by completing these tasks.

In the literature on intercultural communication, knowledge is systematically pointed out as a key issue. In order to be interculturally competent, the intercultural speaker needs to know both about their own culture and about those of the other groups (Byram 1997, Alsina 1997). A course website can play a crucial role here, as it enables students to have a much broader and up-to-date access to different cultures than any other course materials. We do feel however that 'discovery' activities need to be focused and guide students through the enormous amount of information available ensuring that electronic discussions do not become too fragmented. We set specific tasks, such as one in which students are asked to go to a Hispanic media portal, select three Latin American on-line newspapers, and compare the type of articles they contain. The following message shows the first contribution to that activity:

Subject: Noticias 3

Siguiendo la sugerencia de Inma, he mirado unos periodicos latinoamericanos, por el portál .Me resultó interesantisimo, y he guardado esta página en mis favoritos. [Al hacer la prueba], me ocurrió una actitud de escepticismo hacia la idea que hay una unidad de cultura latinoamericana, y era desde esta postura que recorrió con la vista de los titulares de los diarios de tres paises, de hoy, el 7 de Mayo:
El Mercurio de Valparaiso, Chile;
La Nación de Buenos Aires, Argentina; y
El Mundo de Caracas, Venezuela.

[the student then goes on to describe the headlines of the three newspapers and concludes with the comment:]

Lo que veo aquí es evidencia de culturas más distintas que parecidas. ¿Que tal esta unidad de cultura latinoamericana?

In doing this activity, this student not only acquired some knowledge of the foreign cultures, but also brought his own set of questions to the task relating to issues around Latin American cultural identity discussed elsewhere in the course units and assignment.

The previous contribution to the discussion forum initiated a lively debate about British cultural identity. Students went on to talk about the complex history of Latin America, and the different cultural influences it has had. They then compared these cultures with respect to their similarity and uniqueness to the cultures of the English speaking world, continually making connections between the cultures they were learning about in the course and their own. For a discussion and specific examples of this exchange, see Álvarez and Beaven, 2002.

This type of exchange exemplifies how the communicative potential of the Web can be usefully exploited for the development of intercultural competence. In addition, this communicative potential is obviously particularly important in motivating and supporting students at a distance. However, what we also see time and again how virtual communities can encourage students' exchanges, collective negotiations and constructions of meaning, as well as a collective development of intercultural awareness (see Álvarez and Beaven, 2001). According to Alsina (1997), intercultural communication forces us to change, forces us to work with alternative points of view, and it is the interpretive alternation that develops our level of cognitive complexity. He also states that people with a greater cognitive complexity have a vision of others that is broader and more subtle, and make interpretations that are less rigid ands more adaptable.

As well as negotiating meaning together, another type of interaction that often takes place in the discussion is a metacommunicative one, i.e. participants have to explain what they mean when they say something. For Alsina, this is also an important aspect of the development of cognitive competence in intercultural communication, as in this context:

presuppositions and assumptions need to be explained.... [as] we should not assume that our interlocutors are going to interpret our message as we intended it. (Alsina, 1997)

This issue is very closely related to norms of good netiquette which are themselves culturally specific. Both in intercultural communication and in CMC, it is essential to be able to 'metacommunicate', in order to be able to explain misunderstandings. Managing this effectively helps develop a sense of community, tolerance and respect.

Affective competence

The second aspect of intercultural competence Chen and Starosta (1996), and Alsina (1997) deal with is affective intercultural competence, which occurs when '[...] people are able to project and receive positive emotional responses before, during and after the intercultural interaction (Chen and Starosta, 1996: 358-359).

The four elements that make up affective competence are:

  • the desire to find out about things, the desire to learn
  • the desire to break down cultural barriers
  • the wish to find out about ourselves,

The first two of these elements are also present in other models: Byram includes curiosity and interest in the attitudes necessary for intercultural competence. The UNESCO report, Learning: the treasure within, for instance, highlights the importance of 'the pleasure that can be derived from understanding, knowledge and discovery', as learning 'encourages greater intellectual curiosity, sharpens the critical faculties and enables people to develop their own independent judgements on the world around them' (UNESCO,1997b). What is important in the activities we set for the learners is that they should be stretching and motivating, and enable them to develop those positive attitudes towards learning.

Another of the elements of affective intercultural competence is, as we saw before, the desire to break down cultural barriers, i.e., being ready to change and to accept that cultures have their own internal coherence which they call truth, so that if we engage in intercultural communication we need to understand that truth is plural and relative and that different cultures have different values (Weber 1996). Therefore, learners should be encouraged to examine different cultural values.

We have found that the sorts of activities that work well for this purpose are ones in which students are presented with an aspect of the foreign culture that is very different or opposed to their own practices. In putting across the views of people from other cultures, even when they may not support those views themselves, students become aware of them and respect them. We found evidence of this in a parallel project on developing translation skills (see Álvarez and Beaven 2001). A metaphor in a text they were translating provoked a heated discussion on bullfighting. One student described himself as 'someone who has never been to a bull-fight, and is rather disgusted by the sport' and therefore considered he may not understand Spanish culture. A fellow students replied:

An interesting point about Spanish culture, .... In fact the aficionados do not regard bullfighting as a sport but rather as an art form. I do not agree with bullfighting (how can you?) but I am fascinated by it, and by the Spanish attitudes to it. (The plural form is deliberate)

What I find most interesting about these issues is that you could translate a passage in any way you like, but there is no way you can convey to anybody who does not know Spanish culture the passion and the emotion of a bullfight, or of the imagery it conveys.

I find this a fascinating subject.

This example shows the student's ability to present a belief he does not agree with, and how he manages to acknowledge his fascination for something he objects to - something that is not so easy to do publicly. He shows an understanding that, as Alsina puts it, 'our cultural values are not unique, but only perhaps preferable, and that other cultures also have valid elements' (Alsina 1997). His intervention also shows an awareness of cultural difference within Spain on the subject of bullfighting.

Finally, affective competence also entails the wish to find out about ourselves, to reconstruct our identity. This often entails discovering or becoming more aware of the intercultural nature of our own culture. A discussion on lexical borrowings in Spanish produced a very animated discussion which culminated with the following remark, in which a student seems to have related the discussion about Spanish to a more personal and relevant reflection about his own language and culture.

Subject: Re: Los préstamos
En estudiando gaélico, encontré una cosa que me resultó interesante, e ilustró para mí que no existen lenguas puras. Se dice que el gaélico, una lengua muy antigua como el euskera, tiene sus orígenes en el Sanskrit, de India.Para ilustrar eso, mi profesor ofreció la palabra 'rey'.En gaélico, se dice 'Rì' (pronunciado con 'i' alargado.En español, por supuesto, 'rey'.En francés, 'roi'.En ingles, se habla de 'royal' y 'regal'.En hindú, 'rajah' y 'raj'.Lo que me interesó más era la coneción con el hindú.
(Claro que 'king' y 'koenig' son de raíz diferente).

This intervention illustrates the way that, through a discussion about the intercultural nature of other cultures learners can develop an awareness of the intercultural nature of their own culture.


Course websites are often a means to circulate information to students, to provide access to course-related documentation, and to enable communication between students and between students and staff. What we have tried to show in this paper is that they can also be used to do much more than that, that is to enable students to develop their intercultural competence, which in turn will enable them to operate more successfully in the information society. Indeed, successful intercultural communication necessitates the development of intercultural cognitive competence (i.e. self awareness and cultural awareness, the ability to look at ourselves through the eyes of others, knowledge of our own cultural practices and those of others, and the ability to metacommunicate), and of emotive competence (i.e. the desire to find out about things, the desire to learn, the desire to break down cultural barriers, and the wish to find out about ourselves). We believe these competences are also the ones that are necessary to operate in the information society, as they enable individuals to go beyond what is known and comfortable - the cultural practices they are familiar with - and achieve a much more rounded and critical perspective by accessing a wide variety of information.


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