Synthetic Cultures and Learning

Most existing pedagogical approaches to education in cultural understanding are practitioner-led rather than necessarily based on a strong theory of the pedagogical process. Most of this practice draws on social interaction and for example uses group discussion, often based around case-studies, and collective consideration of individual answers to questionnaires (Brislin and Yoshida 1994).

Role-play and game-based simulations such as Barnga! (Thiagarajan  1990) are also widely used with the aim of creating safe environments in which participants can be exposed to emotional states such as culture shock and those arising from intercultural conflict and then reflect on their own experience. This is the hallmark of an educational domain in which affect is of vital importance and knowledge is on its own insufficient, so that eCUTE ’s technology development will incorporate a strong affective model. Though role-play and game-based simulation are widely used, there is little or no use of ICT to support or enhance this. eCUTE to our knowledge will be the first project to systematically examine how ICT can be used with these scenarios.

In creating what are effectively cultural story-worlds, practitioners usually create synthetic cultures rather than modelling real-word ones. Real-world cultures are much more complex and rich than can be represented in game-based simulation, and a caricature could be distracting, play badly with existing prejudices, or offend members of the portrayed culture. Synthetic cultures avoid these pitfalls and allow exaggeration to be used positively to improve the clarity of the simulation. However constructing such a culture inherently depends on developing at least a dimensional model of culture in general that can be used as a framework.

Indeed a further argument for the use of synthetic rather than real cultures is that they are among very few scripts for cross-cultural simulations available that are based on theory. Bhawuk (1998) compared scripts based on only the individualism-collectivism dimension and found that the basis in theory was effective. The first four synthetic cultures, based on four of Geert Hofstede’s dimensions (Individualism, Power distance, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance) were developed in 1993 (Pedersen & Ivey)as a tool in counselling.

Their successful use and the lack of similar theory-based scripts in simulation gaming led to the creation in 1999 of a 360-degree set of Synthetic Cultures with application in several simulations games (G.J. Hofstede & Pedersen). Experiences with these were the basis of the 2002 book (G.J. Hofstede, Pedersen & G. Hofstede) that placed Synthetic cultures within the scope of available practice. Harry Triandis, former president of the American Psychological Association, writes in his foreword to that book:  “In fact it has been shown (Bhawuk 1998) that theory-based cross-cultural training is more effective than training that consists of scattered samples of beliefs, attitudes, and experiences. Why? It is easier for the learner to absorb the material and generalize to new situations if the training is based on theory.”

Reflection by the learner is an important mechanism through which results from synthetic cultures can be generalised to real cultures, and existing educational practice links role-play and simulation to subsequent individual relflection and group discussion for this reason. eCUTE will support both individual reflection within showcases, for example using Hot Seating approaches from Forum Theatre, and integration with post-showcase group discussion.

Work by Inkeles and Levinson (1969) suggested that in any society three issues are faced by its individual members. The first of these is the relationship to authority.  The second is the conception of the relations between individuals and society, and, related to this, the individual’s concept of masculinity and femininity. The third and final one concerns ways of dealing with conflicts. These ideas were taken up by Hofstede (1991) in empirical work carried out with IBM employees in a number of different cultures and the following cultural dimensions and definitions were then derived:

The importance of these dimensions is that they can be associated with manifestations of cultural difference, thus linking cultural parameters to cultural behaviour. These manifestations have been described (Hofstede 1991) as the internal one of values, and the external ones of: rituals (socially essential collective actions carried out for their own sake); heroes (persons real or imagined acting as social role-models); and symbols (words gestures, pictures or objects with a special meaning only recognised by members of theculture concerned).  For this reason, Hofstede’s work makes a good starting point for a computational account of culturally-specific behaviour (Rehm et al 2007).

One of eCUTE’s partners (G.J. Hofstede and Pedersen 1999, Hofstede et al. 2002) has created synthetic cultures based on these five dimensions of culture. These synthetic cultures will be elaborated upon in eCUTE. Recently, Minkov (2007) has worked on World Values Survey (WVS) data and found a dimension of culture that can complement the Hofstede 5D model. This dimension, labelled indulgence versus restraint, is relevant to showing emotions. eCUTE will be the first project able  to incorporate this innovation into its creation of virtual synthetic cultures.