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Intercultural Understanding in Action (By Teresa Mackinnon)

I think I know how Darwin felt when he returned from his travels to explain to incredulous Victorians, how it felt to recount what he had seen and how he now thought. He must have agonised for many hours, knowing that his theories would be discredited and that he would be considered a fantasist, a man tainted by his travels preaching wild, anti-Christian dogma. That is pretty much how it feels to explain to academics and administrators the power and transformative effect of virtual exchange. However, just like Darwin, in time the emergent truth will become self-evident.

My presentation to AMIN was rooted in my experiences as a secondary teacher of setting up “real” exchanges as part of a commitment to increasing understanding of rural school students into the context of life for those who spoke the languages our students were learning. Intercultural understanding which opens the mind to other ways of seeing or doing is best arrived at through scaffolded personal experience. Those experiences include that of culture shock which can be reframed through critical incidents and reflection (Spencer-Oatey, 2013) which in school exchanges can be mediated by accompanying staff, or in family trips are a shared experience where sense-making occurs together. Intercultural competence is a vital component in the making of an effective language learner and is an essential facet of the classroom language learning experience. It is part of Byram’s model of intercultural communicative competence which forms the central construct of language acquisition, the foundation of language proficiency assessment today (described here by Müller-Hartmann).

The AMIN network are interested in academic mobilities - how and why staff and students are mobile, or indeed the factors that prevent mobility. So my Bildüngreise served to explain how virtual exchange is now as much a part of intercultural exchange and competency building as the opportunities arising from physical travel to other countries. Drawing on my many international connections and networks which have flourished through the affordances of the internet and social media, I presented input from collaborators in Egypt and Poland. I shared some of the publications which I have produced collaboratively with peers working on the other side of the world, in some cases without ever meeting “in real life”, working as a tag team through google documents.


I know that these co-created works would not have happened without the mutual trust which can be developed through effective use of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and which can result in strong interpersonal relationships. This is a field of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) research which is widely used to support mutual understanding between individuals whose societies are deeply divided such as in the work of SOLIYA . Those who use it recognise that it is not a replacement but rather a support and often a driver for increased physical mobility. Such has been the experience of the Clavier project which was born here in Warwick. Online Intercultural Exchange (OIE) enables the integrated development of digital capabilities relevant to making sense of human relationships in the digital age. The task based approach supports and recognises such skills through open badges, helping our students to better understand and mediate their presence online in the journey to becoming effective online intercultural operators. A new academic organisation will help to share the expertise arising from CMC with other disciplines using telecollaboration to cross national boarders in their efforts to internationalise the student experience. Such skills are valued by employers as they facilitate the formation of global teams.

Our biggest challenge by far however is that of increasing digital capability of teaching staff in order for them to better understand the rapidly changing landscape for communication. Language teachers have made strides in this area with many schools around the world engaged in etwinning and staff engaged in online networks and communities of practice. The LangOER project will make policy recommendations to further support the sustainable development of teachers who can instigate this crucial area of communicative competence, through increased use and production of Open Educational Resources (OER) and open practice. Virtual Exchange is not a simple enterprise, it is not a replacement for travel, but it does offer a meaningful way to connect across borders and can support very real and transformative experiences which bring mobility and mutual understanding, it can help support individuals such as those in situations where there are very real restrictions to their physical mobility.


Byram, M. (1997) Model of Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) in Müller- Hartmann, Andreas / Schocker-von Ditfurth; Marita (2007). Introduction to English Language Teaching. Stuttgart: Klett.

Hauck,M. and MacKinnon,T. (2016) A new approach to assessing Online Intercultural Exchange. In O’Dowd, R & Lewis, T. (eds), Online intercultural Exchange: Policy, Pedagogy, Practice. (pp.209-231), Oxford:Routledge.

MacKinnon, T., Pasfield-Neofitou, S., Manns, H. & Grant, S. (2016). A Meta-Analysis of Open Educational Communities of Practice and Sustainability in Higher Educational Policy. Apprentissage des langues et systèmes d'information et de communication (Alsic), vol. 19, n° 1.

MacKinnon, T. (2015). Learning to swim in new waters: A meta-narrative about the design and implementation of a virtual learning environment for language learning and teaching. In K. Borthwick, E. Corradini, & A. Dickens (eds), 10 years of the LLAS elearning symposium: Case studies in good practice (pp. 57-66). Dublin: doi:10.14705/rpnet.2015.000267

MacKinnon,T. (2013) Creating and nurturing a community of practice for language teachers in Higher Education. In Bradley, L and Thouëseny, S. (eds) 20 years of EUROCALL: Learning from the past, looking to the future. Proceedings of the 2013 Eurocall conference, Evora, Portugal (pp175-182), Dublin:Voilans,

Spencer-Oatey, H. (2013) Critical incidents. A compilation of quotations for the intercultural field. GlobalPAD Core Concepts. Available at GlobalPAD Open House

Thu 22 Dec 2016, 11:09 | Tags: AMIN, intercultural