A well-known result in social group theory is embodied in the Similarity Principle (Byrne 1971) which says that interaction partners that perceive themselves as similar are more likely to feel positive about each other and to display empathic behaviour. Since it has been shown that such effects are in part automatic and happen outside of awareness (Chartrand and Bargh, 1999) and that cross-cultural interactions often involve considerable dissimilarities between interactants, education in cultural awareness and understanding can be seen as having to consciously work counter to the similarity principle.
A way in which it is thought the Similarity Principle can be countered is expressed in contact theory, the idea that inter-group prejudice can be reduced through contact between the groups under specific conditions (Allport 1954). The conditions given are: equal status between the groups in the situation; common goals; intergroup cooperation; and the support of authorities, law, or custom. Contact theory is controversial and some work argues against it, but a recent survey (Pettigrew &Tropp 2006) of existing studies gives support to it and it has been applied with some success to the integration of child refugees (Cameron et al 2006). Engineering real-world contact of the right type is clearly challenging – eCUTE will apply virtual characters so that virtual contact can be established under the conditions the theory suggests are required.
Bennett’s developmental model of intercultural sensitivity (Bennett 1993) fits within the overall approach of Contact Theory. Bennett models the dynamics of how individuals handle cultural differences between themselves and others. The model is formed of six stages along a continuum of intercultural development, of which three are ethnocentric (denial, defenses, minimization) and three are ethno-relative (acceptance, adaptation, integration) see table 1.
Apart from the ORIENT system (Aylett et al 2006) produced by four of the partners in this proposal in earlier work, this theory had not been systematically applied to the design of pedagogical systems. ORIENT targeted stage 1 of Bennett’s model through a scenario in which users did have a reason to know something about a foreign culture; eCUTE grounded its VLE development solidly in this theoretical perspective and target further Bennett stages, looking in particular at stages 2 and 3.