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Bringing Cross-Cultural Communication Education into the 21st Century - Virtually

Fall 2010 vol. 11, No. 3

By: Bram Groen and Alexandra Parrs 

Virtual, global communication has been evolving rapidly for several decades. The use of technology-mediated communication to form global virtual teams (GVTs) has become increasingly prevalent, while the range of information and communication technologies (ICTs) available enables cross-cultural communication in more sophisticated ways than ever before as a means of doing business around the world. Beyond business, GVTs are also used by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups to engage in international policy-formulation processes and for capacity building GVTs are not only useful for the completion of specific projects, but are proven to be effective for cross-border educational exchanges, and most specifically also for cross-cultural education.

These insights are the foundation of a joint virtual cross-cultural communication education project we have conducted since fall 2007 between American University's School of International Service (AU), the Modern College of Business and Science in Oman, and the University of Bahrain (ME). With technical and financial help from the U.S. State Department, we have organized semester-long class projects conducted between the students at each institution in the form of GVTs and mediated biweekly video conferences. Our goals with this project were rather simple: a) connect students from vastly different cultures by introducing them to the complexities of communicating and collaborating virtually in preparation for their career realities; and b) enhance "grassroots" communication between American and Middle Eastern students; all this, while applying what they learn about intercultural differences in the classroom.

This article is intended to put our initiative into professional context, and to encourage those in our profession who teach cross-cultural communication to jump on this global, virtual bandwagon, if not done so already, as a number of US academic institutions have in other disciplines.

 Virtual Learning Defined

Much has been studied and written about virtual collaboration and learning, and a brief summary of the most important academic observations may provide context. Distinct from distance learning—which entails a separation of the learner from the teacher with students working individually or in teams through a variety of communication tools—cross-cultural virtual teams are comprised of team members who are, in part, collocated or geographically distributed, but who work together via ICTs to learn by completing interdependent tasks. We apply this method by forming teams of three or four AU and a similar number of ME students and asking them to engage in an agreed-upon study project requiring a joint class paper, while separately reporting on what they observe and learn cross-culturally from the practicum.

 Defining virtual learning as a cross-cultural teaching model primarily facilitated by video-conferencing alone would be too limiting. While direct teleconferencing is generally cost-prohibitive (particularly with the availability of cost-free alternatives); we encourage students to use Facebook, Skype, and email at their discretion. Not surprisingly, some students find written communication (via e-mail and Facebook) less effective than may be assumed: we have noted frustrations on both sides (particularly for the American students) associated with slow responses to written messages. As a result, spontaneity can be affected considerably. For example, the ME students will often end their e-mails with valedictions such as, "your loving Omani friend," but do not always see this warmth reciprocated and then find the tone of their American counterparts  "cold." Any e-mail user can attest that without the contextual clues provided by tone of voice, body language, or facial expression, the intended tone and purpose of a message may be misinterpreted online. On the other hand, as Pnina Schachaf notes, when email (and perhaps Facebook) is used there is usually less miscommunication about details than in videoconferencing; e-mail can also improve language accuracy and mitigate intercultural miscommunication. Our students have acknowledged as much, particularly in relation to project planning and task assignments. 

 Thus, for the GVT learning environment to be most effective in classroom settings, it may be advantageous to utilize various tools, benefitting from their strengths while mitigating their respective weaknesses. Similarly, Cogburn and Levinson find specifically that combining both synchronous and asynchronous technologies is important in developing an effective distributed collaborative learning environment. Moreover, Pnina Shachaf finds that using synchronous textual chat and screen sharing during teleconferencing make these modes of communication more effective. We may introduce this approach in the future (via collaborative software such as SharePoint or Elluminate) now that we have gained experience with this program. Considering the increasing ease with which students utilize multiple modes of communication on a daily basis (e.g., social networking sites, textual chat, etc.), integrating various ICT tools into the learning environment may constitute a natural atmosphere for today's classroom experience.

 The Virtual Cross-Cultural Learning Experience


The subject of the "structure" of the GVT may have important implications for the ability of students to work together and to learn. Cramton highlights that without applying some structure, members of geographically distributed teams may fail to identify the differences in context and situation of their remote partners, which could lead to conflict and misunderstanding and most importantly lack of mutual trust. Jarvenpaa, Shaw, and Staples, studying heterogeneous teams, argue that the need for mutual trust is most likely to be highest in situations with weak structure, but will play little role in situations with strong structure. This conclusion would suggest that a strong project structure is beneficial because it presumably lessens the need to develop trust. In contrast, Piccoli and Ives contend that a relatively high degree of structure in distributed teams actually increases team vigilance near project deadlines and thus also magnifies the salience of team members' failures to fulfill obligations, which in turn may lead to declining levels of trust. Thus, perhaps not all structure is helpful, and since learning about "trust-building" is one of the ingredients of the participants' assignments, in our case we would caution against building too much structure into cross-cultural virtual teams and their assignments.

 Structure and direction from the instructor may be culturally relative too. In the US, we help the students form the virtual teams and provide them with some overall objectives and guidelines, but then leave them as free as possible in finding their way through the challenges of the entire experience; in the Middle East, the teachers tend to play a more integral role in the entire project principally because of the students' tendency to place high regard for authority.

Nevertheless some structure is needed at the beginning of these projects; although we do allow students to jointly "self-select" a study subject, more typical is that we  assign them  subjects based on our and their preferences. These subjects and include "Family," "Religion and Culture," "The Role of the Female,"  "Advertising and Culture," or "Entrepreneurship in Small Business." We shy away from relatively taboo subjects such as romance or government policies. Not surprisingly, these subjects often end up being discussed by the teams informally.

 Trust building

Teams that report high levels of trust may be more capable of managing the uncertainty, complexity, and expectations of the virtual environment. Trust plays a pivotal role in our virtual classroom approach and is quite difficult for the students to come to grips with. After the initial excitement of forming the cross-cultural team and engaging in several written exchanges and a first video conference, the students discover the difficulties of moving their projects forward.

Initially, the Omani and Bahraini students are typically mostly interested in asking the American students relationship-building questions. They usually find it inconsiderate to discuss the project without having taken some time to review family well-being and health or the latest news. However, in later meetings they stereotypically expect that Americans "areall business, less interested in talking about families or making greetings, and being very organized." When the joint team does not seem as organized, they're unsettled. This comment by AU students in fall 2009 is telling:


"We quickly realized that, although we had made an effort to get to know their likes, dislikes, and aspects of their culture, we had not built up the level of trust that is necessary in high-context cultures…Even without the proper foundation, we had to forge ahead with the project because we had a deadline."

The "Time" Barrier

Time zone and Western versus Middle Eastern "weekend" differences, as well as local holiday customs are not surprisingly one of the most challenging aspects of organizing this teaching model among the chosen geographies. Eight to nine hour time differences require the teams to meet early in the morning or late in the afternoon, respectively. Eid, Ramadan, snowstorms or unannounced holidays add to this complexity, while enhancing the overall learning experience. This sometimes unpredictable and often complex environment provides the teams with the latitude and opportunity to organize creative and alternative virtual ways to communicate. 

Time is also a barrier in respect to the way it is perceived by different cultures—i.e., monochronic versus polychronic—and we note many frustrations about the "indirect/different sense of time" of the team members. These comments from the students on both sides sum it up quite succinctly:


"Life seemed, in general, less planned and less rigid. An example to illustrate this would be the difficulty we had in planning the Video Conferences . While we, the American team, tended to know our schedules weeks or even months in advance, the Omani and Bahraini students did not." - AU student


"It was a new challenge for us in Bahrain, which involved team work, meeting deadlines etc., since the overall time for this project was very short, especially when we also still had to do our midterms.  " - ME student


Generally, we are as yet not sure whether the students fully understand the impact of this complex cultural difference on their teams' work.   

 Leadership, Communication and Decision-Making

Cramton and Hinds assert that cross-national learning in distributed virtual teams is facilitated by an attitude of mutual positive distinctiveness, that is, "the extent to which the group respects differences among members in views, values, competencies, and practices and sees these differences as a potential source of advantage for the group as a whole."[1] They identify two factors that create an attitude of mutual positive distinctiveness:

  • Motivation to engage across differences—produced by striving for common goals, where team members have equal status and receive institutional or social support; and
  • Information sharing—produced when inclusive and contextual (e.g., local customs) communication is encouraged.

 Both factors are evident in the student projects, and relate to how the teams organize leadership, communication and decision-making. Although this subject has dimensions beyond the scope of this article, it is apparent that our students encounter numerous surprises and frustrations in this regard. We intentionally avoid guiding them on team leadership or decision making in their teams, to allow them to deal with potential complexities creatively. Some complexities are linked to culturally specific differences exemplified by the usually predominant role of male team members in the Middle East, and the rather linear sequence to project planning and decision making in the US. These two comments reflect the diverse perceptions our students have about this subject:

 "[Bahraini Male Student X] simply took the lead in all of our conversations…and seemed rather uninterested in our ideas. It took us a while to recognize that some of this was an expression of the masculine culture he is part of."– AU Student

 "We had not heard anything for two weeks, and when we submitted our part of the paper, they simply changed it at the very last minute without even consulting with the entire team" – AU Student

We have grown convinced that this teaching method should become a regular component of any cross-cultural communication and intercultural skills development curriculum—from introductory to advanced levels.

 There is no question that our students experience their projects as very worthwhile, and that our two goals—real-time cross-cultural virtual team education and facilitating contacts between American and Middle Eastern students—are being met. The students learn how essentially different the two cultural and social environments are, and they tell us, with few exceptions, how enriched they feel by the experience and how it significantly reduces stereotyping and prejudice. Our participant surveys support this contention, both sides reporting to be more optimistic about mutual understanding between American and Middle Eastern people [students] after the project than they were before. We have now formalized our survey methods and expect to report longitudinal findings in future.

 There is ample reason to teach cross-cultural communication, virtually:

  • the technology is available;

  • students relate to this approach naturally, due to their familiarity with modern communications technology and global acquaintances;

  • any barriers imposed by governmental authorities or legal systems, if any, are offset  by internet-enabled connections between people;

  • the operating expense has become minimal; and

  • the "return on teaching investment" is demonstrably high

 The complexity results largely from logistical requirements and resource availability. Instructor time must be invested to build the necessary collegial relationships across borders to align classroom approaches and project expectations and standards, which in our case were greatly facilitated by the support of the US State Department. Most importantly, it is necessary to gain administrative support for resources and leveraging cross-border academic connections. These are the caveats, and all of them seem to be on the side of the education provider.

 The students are already "sold" in our experience. By connecting students from such different worlds as the United States and the Middle East, we may be able to help ameliorate the sometimes frustrating lack of mutual understanding while preparing them for their virtual job experiences, which are precisely the business of our intercultural relations discipline. With the "butterfly effect" in mind, to date, several hundred students on both sides have already benefited from our initiative and we hope many more will do so in future.


References and Further Readings

Cogburn, Derrick and Nannette Levinson. 2008. Teaching globalization, globally: A 7-year case study of South Africa-U.S. virtual teams. Information Technologies & International Development 4, no. 3: 75-88.

Cramton, Catherine D. 2001. The mutual knowledge problem and its consequences for dispersed collaboration. Organization Science 12, no. 3: 346-71.

Cramton, Catherine D. and Pamela Hinds. 2005. Subgroup dynamics in internationally distributed teams: Ethnocentrism or cross-national learning? Research in Organizational Behavior 26, 231-263.

Jarvenpaa, Sirkka, Thomas R. Shaw and D. Sandy Staples. 2004. Toward contextualized theories of trust: The role of trust in global virtual teams. Information Systems Research 15, no. 3: 250-64.

Piccoli, Gabriele and Blake Ives. 2003. Trust and the unintended effects of behavior control in virtual teams. MIS Quarterly 27, no. 3: 365-95.

Shachaf, Pnina. 2005. Bridging cultural diversity through e-mail. Journal of Global Information Technology Management 8, no. 2: 46-60.

Shachaf, Pnina. 2008. Cultural diversity and information and communication technology impacts on global virtual teams: An exploratory study. Information & Management 45, no. 2: 131-42.


Bram Groen, PhD, is a full-time member of the International Communication faculty at the School of International Service at American University and an Instructor at the Intercultural Management Institute. His research interests are in Virtual Communication and Islamic studies.

Alexandra Parrs, PhD, is an adjunct professor of cross-cultural communication at American University. Her research interests are Arab American political activism, political Islam and interethnic relations in the Middle East.

Research support for this article was provided by Michael Schmitz, M.A. Candidate at the School of International Service at American University.