Lancaster – Graz intercultural Web-based project: intercultural learning across the Net

Author: Birgit Smith


This paper presents a web-based, cross-cultural project designed to develop foreign language students’ awareness of both their own culture and the target culture. In addition to the cultural sensitising aspect of the project, students also benefited in terms of their language learning, in particular their reading and writing skills in the foreign language. This was a joint project with Karl-Franzens University, Graz.

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Table of contents

Languages in Higher Education Conference 2008: transitions and connections

This paper was originally presented at our conference: transitions and connections , 8-9 July 2008.

Aims and objectives

Over the past two decades, the emphasis in language teaching on intercultural awareness and competence has increased (Fenner 2008). There have been a variety of attempts to define the term “culture”; for example, “culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them” (Lederach 1995: 9). Or it is:

the values, symbols, interpretations, and perspectives that distinguish one people from another in modernized societies; it is not material objects and other tangible aspects of human societies. People within a culture usually interpret the meaning of symbols, artefacts, and behaviours in the same or in similar ways. (Banks, Banks and McGee 1989: 11)

Culture is “at base an all-embracing socially constructed world of subjectively and inter-subjectively experienced meanings. Culture must be constructed and reconstructed as a continuous process” (Berger in Wuthnow, Hunter, Bergesen and Kurzweil 1984: 25). However, while such definitions are helpful, they still fail to convey truly to teachers and students alike the essence of culture. The danger is that culture remains an abstract and distant concept. Culture is therefore a complex concept and different approaches to studying culture have influenced language teaching.

Aware of this, and conscious of the fact that “intercultural competence is not a ‘natural’ or ‘automatic’ by-product of foreign language learning” (Meyer 1991: 136), Dr Sarah Mercer of Karl-Franzens University, Graz and I developed the idea of placing an emphasis on cross-cultural training before students go abroad, either as part of the Erasmus scheme or on work placements within Europe or further afield. We thus attempted to find a way of bringing different cultures closer together in a more tangible, real sense.

Our focus was on helping students to identify aspects of their own cultural identity and raising their consciousness about general aspects of culture, before working on culture-specific themes and issues concerning the target society. So we tried to give a twist to learning a foreign language in the social context within a cooperative project based on an internet platform.

Students were given a set of tasks and materials from the respective cultures to work through, analyse and compare collaboratively with a fellow student from the partner university. In viewing similar items from two different cultural perspectives, the students are better able to see both the similarities and differences which are embedded in the respective societies (Byram 1997). Many students tend initially to look for differences between cultures and it was hoped that such an approach could emphasis the similarities between the two cultures as well as any possible differences. Further, given the direct authentic interaction between the students it was envisaged that, through additional reflection and in-class tasks, students could develop their intercultural competence in this form of communication.

We took an experiential approach, which aimed at encouraging independent and reflective learning on both an intellectual and personal affective level (Kohonen 2001). Students were presented with the opportunity of interacting with students of a similar age from another culture, using their respective target languages in order to complete tasks together which explored cultural aspects of life and attitudes. It enabled the participants to raise their awareness of another culture, as well as their own, through personal experiences and direct interaction with others. At the same time it helped learners to improve their language skills through regular authentic task-based use and peer correction. To facilitate communication between the students from the two countries the Internet, email and an e-platform were used. The various benefits of integrating email based activities into the language learning programme have been well documented. For example, Van Handle and Carl (1998) describe an email exchange project between two intermediate German classes in the US. Their students improved not only in linguistic accuracy, but also had an expanded new vocabulary. In terms of increasing cultural awareness, Haas and Reardon (1997) designed an email exchange between 7th grade Spanish students with Chilean students. Their students gained an insight into the culture of the Chilean people (p.239). So while email exchange is not a new idea, we wanted to take this further by having an e-platform where students could discuss topics not only on a one-to-one basis, but also as a group.

The main aims of the project were:

  • to allow learners to learn from each other experientially
  • to make students aware of their own culture and its influence on personal approaches and perspectives
  • to attempt to break down stereotypes and allow learners to see other points of view
  • to increase awareness of diversity within cultures
  • to develop knowledge of the respective target culture through direct contact
  • to develop socio-cultural and communicative competence
  • to practise language skills through authentic communication tasks.


We completed a pilot study which resulted in the refinement of the tasks and the e-platform. We had previously used a free Yahoo platform, but decided last year to use the Lancaster University-based LUVLE platform which is designed in-house. The site also includes a Wiki so that students can work collaboratively on the production of a text.

Our study involved 28 2nd year students studying German at Lancaster University and 25 students studying English in the first half of their studies at Graz University/Austria. The data for this study were obtained in 2 forms: (1) from the actual e-platform discussion site; (2) from seminar notes taken after the seminar;  (3) through a written questionnaire.

At the beginning of the term, students were asked to write a brief profile about themselves to enable us to find a suitable partner with similar interests. Based on the information contained in the profiles, we matched the students on a one-to-one basis. Although we did consider allowing partners to select their own partner, for reasons of expediency and to ensure everybody ended up with a partner, we ultimately made the pairings. Students then wrote to each other via email to get to know each other before embarking on the set tasks.

Primarily students were given tasks on a range of topics, some general culture and some culture-specific, to work collaboratively with a partner from the other university. These tasks were completed online, with students writing directly to their partners and/or posting messages on the e-platform message board or on the Wiki.

A further important stage in the process was the in-class seminar discussions where students could share their observations after having worked with their partners. By comparing their findings with those of other student pairs, they were able to discover additional information that they would not have noticed individually. Additionally, this helped to highlight the variety of possible responses even from within the same culture. Students actively discovered a larger picture about the other culture by revealing patterns and similarities, which in turn led to further renewed discussions with their own partners.

To discover students’ motivation and understanding of the other culture, they were asked to complete a questionnaire at the end of the programme, and some chose to complete portfolios with a reflective conclusion about the project.


Four tasks were set over a period of 12 weeks. For task one, students had to find out some personal or cultural details from each other by asking three questions. In task two they had to work on stereotypes and prejudices associated with their own country and national character. For the third task students were working together on the Wiki. Students had to compare and analyse texts from national newspapers on topical issues.

The tasks were posted on the e-platform LUVLE. Students could either discuss the tasks on the e-platform, on the Wiki, or write emails to their partner. They could thus discuss their respective answers in this more personal and private way.

Here is an example of one of the tasks1:



The Graz students had the option of gathering the information and commenting on the results in an assessed portfolio. The Lancaster students could do the same if they wished, but their portfolio was not formally assessed. The Graz students conducted the activities in English, while the Lancaster students wrote in German.


23 out of 25 Graz and 17 out of 25 Lancaster questionnaires were returned. The mean age of the Lancaster students was 19.7, while Graz students were slightly older with a mean of 22.9 years of age. The majority of the students were female, with 19 in Graz and 11 in Lancaster. All Austrians had German as their L1 with the exception of one student whose L1 was Polish. 12 students of the English cohort were English L1 speakers, two students were L1 French speakers, two were L1 Italian speakers and one student was a Greek L1 speaker. Of these non-English L1 speakers, five were Erasmus students on their year abroad in England.

The Austrian students rated their proficiency in their second language, English, on average as good, while the Lancaster-based students rated their L2 German proficiency as average to poor.

Student responses

Perhaps unsurprisingly students in both countries had the same expectations before starting the contact with each other, expecting above all to make new friends abroad. Their main aim was to learn about Britain or Austria respectively, to develop their language skills, to make friends and develop a long-lasting contact in another country.

All except two students evaluated the email contact with their partner in a very positive light and stated emphatically that they had learned something about the other culture. Students said that they gained real insights into the other culture and the email exchanges were “the next best thing to going to live there”. Students very quickly realised that their original view of the respective country might not be a realistic one, and one that they revised very quickly into the exchange:

They have the insider knowledge of the culture that is special and not accessible from afar. The tasks give us the opportunity to experience a small part of the other country firsthand without being there, because you can exchange personal information about the culture.

As students could ask each other questions freely, they were able to find out in detail about each other’s lives and habits and could find out more than in a classroom situation alone, as “a native speaker has more knowledge of the country than one can read in newspapers or other media”. Another student in her portfolio expressed it as follows:

J. gave me the impression that she enjoyed the project very much, just as I did. In my view this cultural exchange programme was a fantastic idea and an interesting experience. Unfortunately not everybody had a partner with whom the communication worked as well as with J and me. Although some of my questions kept open I was very satisfied by all the information J. gave me about England, Great Britain, festivals, stereotypes and culture. 

I still communicate via email with J. and I can ask her cultural or language questions whenever I want. I hope we can keep the contact because it is not only very useful for our whole studies but it is also very nice to have contact with a girl from Great Britain to chat with.

British students explicitly stated that they valued the information given about Austria as it supplemented a lecture given on Austria which made the information and new concepts given more real and interesting. As Austrian culture is often neglected in favour of German culture within the English educational setting, this was felt to be particularly valuable. Equally the Austrian students were able to learn first hand about daily British culture and life in a real direct way, which was an ideal complement to their course which focussed specifically on British culture:

I really think that because of my email exchange with R. I learned things about English culture which will stay in my mind!

Getting to know certain aspects of a culture by people who actually live there is something completely different from reading mere facts in a book; it gives a real and genuine impression of the country, its culture and the people living there.

British students also commented on the surprising stereotypes that the Austrian students had developed about English culture indicating that they were made more aware of their own cultural identity and how others view them: “I liked the stereotype task most because it was funny to see how somebody from a different culture sees my home country”. Equally Austrian students commented on the frequency with which British students referred to the film The Sound of Music and were in this way made aware of how their culture is perceived and perhaps stereotyped outside of Austria: “exchanging stereotypes – finding out how cultural stereotypes differ from country to country and where are parallels, why are there parallels as well as similarities etc.” Students’ awareness of their own culture was thus increased. Additionally, their evaluation of the other culture was much deeper and beyond the traditional view of the respective countries.

The students on the whole felt that the tasks themselves were interesting, as it gave them a reason to exchange ideas with each other, and it facilitated communication, as they otherwise might not have had anything to say to each other. Students also stated that the tasks enabled them to talk about “interesting things I wouldn’t normally talk about”:

For me, the project with the Lancaster students was a very interesting experience. I felt that working on the assigned topics with my partners gave me the opportunity to get closer to them. When studying a language at university the most important thing, in my opinion, is to get in contact with people from other nations and to try to understand them. Therefore, I enjoyed the email exchange and the conversations I had with my partners.

However, a couple of students thought that the tasks were too academic and they suggested that it should be left to them to identify topics for discussion. Some students felt that they only communicated because of the tasks and would have preferred other, more personal topics. In the future we will consider perhaps a combination of some fixed tasks (necessary due to curriculum requirements) and a choice with other tasks.

The majority of the students exchanged views and information about the tasks at the social, political and cultural level thus getting to what is considered to be core elements of cultural literacy. However, those who also talked about their personal lives found the experience more rewarding and provided noticeably more positive feedback. These partners also stayed in contact well after the project finished. It would be interesting to discover which partnerships profited more in the long-term but it seems clear that if students engage on a personal level the learning will be deeper and more lasting (Rogers and Freiberg 1994).

Although there were some problems with some learners not replying to each other, partly because of the project not being assessed and partly due to other commitments of the students, there were some great success stories with several students still in contact after the project has finished and in fact two students have already even been to visit each other.

Language learning

With regards to language learning, most agreed that the project motivated them to use the language that they had learned in the classroom. However, students especially valued the possibilities the project offered to acquire informal language and colloquialisms, which are not normally used in class: “to speak German that is used by people my own age”.

Students worked collaboratively on the tasks which the example below taken from the Wiki clearly shows. Both students exchange their views in their respective L2 language with each paragraph being alternatively in German or English. They set out to describe in detail how they are working on the task together, finding out about facts about The Times and Der Standard before moving on to analyse the language in each paper in more detail. The correct L2 language indicates that students corrected each others errors. All students could read this exchange, and comment on it if they so wished.

Task 3 Screen shot

We were initially concerned that the Erasmus students could pose problems given both their varying levels of language competence. However, given the learners’ stated desire for contact with native speakers, we were pleasantly surprised that none of the students saw this as a problem. In fact it ended up having an unexpected benefit as one student even commented that:

S. also encouraged me to spend a year studying abroad…. What they could tell me about their experiences was very interesting and will probably help me in making my own decisions about going abroad.

They also stated that they were glad to have the opportunity to practise writing in the target language and receiving feedback and corrections from the partner in a non-threatening environment. They valued the feedback that they received from their partners, as it was “non-judgmental”. However, they not only appreciated the feedback given about their own writing, students also valued the opportunity to “help the partner with their language skills”.

They did not want to make mistakes and so proof-read their emails carefully. Some students even asked the tutor to read part of their e-platform posting before sending it, or asked questions on some aspects of grammar use. The majority of English students improved their language skills by having “to think about their grammar”, in particular if their partner corrected them.

Students also extended their vocabulary by having to learn new expressions, because they wanted to express new ideas and so had to look up phrases in the dictionary: “I have learnt new vocab, more colloquial language, young tendencies/habits in writing.” They also valued the input from the native speaker in that “any conversation with native speakers is useful in order to enlarge one’s vocabulary, grammar, structures”.

However, one student expressed her fear that her German language skills were inadequate which obviously worried and inhibited her. She also claimed that she did not gain in confidence during the project, which is a problem that we will need to address with future cohorts. We may need to incorporate more teacher-learner feedback sessions to assess how the students assess their role and contribution during the project. However, the questions we then also need to address are how far does one go in correcting the language that students produce for private or public consumption, what influence, if any, does this have on the language development of the participants, and in what way does the affective component play a role in the success of the exchange between the two partners. 

Practical problems

One significant problem was the difference in the university timetables. While Graz operates in two semesters, Lancaster has three terms so while the two systems overlap in part, they do not concur completely. This caused problems as the students had different vacation times, and some tasks took longer to complete than we originally anticipated. As the discussion of the results of the tasks was built into in-class seminar work, this proved also difficult on occasion to organise. Another problem was that the students taking part in the project in Graz completed and left the course after one semester whereas those in Lancaster remained in the same class for a year. Fundamentally it was possible to run it adequately for one semester but it would have been more rewarding for all concerned if it had been possible to keep the same students in contact for a year.

Conclusion and future plans

The L2 language learner is often confounded in their language learning to a limited number of contact hours. Individualisation, for example working in a digital laboratory, can often leave the learner feeling isolated. Language learning in a social context is important. Most students claimed that taking part in this project has increased their motivation generally, raised their interest in the target culture, increased their cultural awareness and sensitivity as well as benefiting their language skills. These positive outcomes are very encouraging, and we will now work to develop the partnership and project further over the coming years. It is planned to introduce Skype so that students can talk to each other rather than just communicate in written form, and also to introduce video conferencing in addition to the LUVLE platform.
We would also like to make tasks compulsory for both cohorts of students as some Lancaster students dropped out before the completion of the programme, citing too much course work in other subjects as the reasons for lack of involvement. Commitment between the partners is crucial if this type of learning is to be a success. We are also planning to involve students more in the end of project assessment by asking their partners for comments on the accuracy and validity of their observations regarding the other culture. Further, given the feedback we would like to involve students more in designing and setting their own tasks as far as this is possible within the institutional constraints.

When setting up projects such as this one, one has to be sure that the expectations are similar on both sides. One also has to consider culture specific features. Cultural learning is a dynamic and ongoing process. We hope that this way of learning will facilitate student’s cognitive, behavioural knowledge and emotional development. It will also help to develop cultural awareness and understanding between the students in an interesting and motivating context.

1) This may make less sense to readers than to the students without the accompanying classwork but it was considered appropriate to retain the original format.


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