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Developing a cross-cultural perspective in science students

Jan Thomas
Division of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences
Romana Pospisil
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
There is a requirement for Australian university graduates to develop an international perspective during their undergraduate studies. However, a global experience is not readily obtained in the Australian contexts that students study in. This is particularly so in the sciences. This project provided a model for the introduction of cultural and contextual influences on problem solving in Veterinary Science for Australian students. Through the use of videos taken by Australian veterinarians working overseas, and online discussion using a Problem-based Learning format and including the overseas veterinarians, students were able to visualise and reflect on the varying contexts of problem solving in the workplace.


Candy et al (1994) developed a notion of life long learning, whereby students are able to develop their skills and a desire to continue to learn and adapt to the changing workplace after graduation. Such skills, often referred to as transferable or generic skills, are now espoused by all Australian Universities and attempts to achieve them in graduates has formed the focus of much teaching development.

Universities now have policies and mission statements that refer to generic skills and attributes that are to be developed by graduates during the course of their university studies. These include such attributes as communication and information literacy. However, policies also frequently refer to graduates achieving "an international perspective' during their study. The ability to be able to work effectively across cultures is becoming increasingly important as industries and communication networks become regional and global. For example, one of Murdoch University's generic graduate attributes, a global perspective, is described as "the ability to understand and respect the social, biological, cultural and economic interdependence of global life", and has several strategies that include, but are not confined to, the following:

"To offer a curriculum which prepares graduates for life and work in an interdependent world"
"To develop international and cross-cultural competencies in staff and students".
Provision of opportunities to develop a global perspective is commonly through undergraduate exchange to foreign universities, and by having a greater percentage of international students in classes. There are some courses where cross-cultural study is a necessary part of the content. In particular, in courses such as social work (Bull et al 1994), strategies have been developed to achieve a global perspective in graduates. However, the majority of University graduates, particularly from the sciences, do not get any formal instruction or opportunities to develop these skills.

In Veterinary Science, development of skills for working globally has never been a thrust in the curriculum. Issues for these courses, such as time constraints and a heavy content load, have limited the opportunities for additional "non-essential" material. The failure to develop a global awareness has been blamed in part for the trauma that new graduates feel during the transition to the workplace (Burnard 1991). Whilst inroads have been made into the development of other generic skills such as communication (Russell 1994; Heath 1996), information literacy (Whithear et al 1994), problem solving (Dimuzio 1993) and critical thinking (Paul and Wilson 1993), there has been no direct attempt to develop skills in working globally.

Australian graduates have opportunities to work in a wide variety of overseas locations, and this is common practice for new graduates within the first five years of graduation. Our concern is whether they are adequately prepared by their university studies for employment in other cultures. King (1996) identified seven habits that characterised a highly effective global veterinarian, and these included being able to be interdependent, to have a cosmopolitan outlook to have vision and a global business perspective. However, current Australian veterinary curricula often fail to achieve this.

Is there a need to formally develop such skills? Australian science graduates have been employed in private enterprise and government across the world. The success or otherwise of this experience depends on the individual's ability to understand and work within substantial cultural and social differences. Failure to do so results in difficulties in transition to the workplace compounding already difficult issues of specific workplace skills acquisition. The increasingly multicultural nature of the Australian population also gives rise to increasing numbers of workplace situations that require cross-cultural skills in Australia. Formal development of such skills will diminish the culture-shock of the first years in the workforce both overseas and in Australia.

Model for integrating a cross-cultural perspective in existing curricula

During 1999 a project funded by a National Teaching Development Grant (Committee for University Teaching and Staff Development) was undertaken in the Division of Veterinary and Biomedical Science at Murdoch University in Western Australia. The aim of the project was to develop a model of teaching science students that could be used in existing curricula and that would prepare them for work in a global workplace by developing a cross-cultural awareness and an international outlook.

The major objective of the project was to provide a model which introduced a cultural understanding in a science unit through the integration of problem-based learning (PBL) and online discussion surrounding problems from various global locations and in differing cultural situations to those found in Perth, Western Australia. A new third year unit, PBL in style, was designed for inclusion in the five-year program of study of the Veterinary curriculum. Its syllabus focussed on epidemiology, clinical examination and diagnostic approaches, and incorporated continuous discussion, and information relating to the human (cultural, political, economic, industrial, social) influences on solving of problems in Veterinary Science. As well as addressing scientific issues, students also studied the process of problem solving in the sciences, the metacognitive aspects of problem solution, and the similarities and differences between problem solving in differing scientific contexts.

The development of video triggers, which were filmed by Murdoch University veterinary graduates working around the world and edited by Murdoch University Instream Media, were key to the success of this project. The videos were used to trigger online discussion in which the overseas veterinarian involved in the case also participated by joining the online discussion. The use of the alumni was beneficial as students could immediately relate to a person who had been through the same study program, and the overseas veterinarians had some understanding of the Murdoch University curriculum and could described their viewpoint as that of a Murdoch University graduate.

We opted to use online discussion groups for full-time on-campus students to enable the overseas veterinarians to participate in discussion of the case with the students adding a great deal of reality and expertise to each case study. This also gave the students added opportunity to experience teaching and input from a wider range of veterinarians than would otherwise have been possible in Western Australia.

It is clear from the literature that computer-mediated communication, such as online discussion, can effectively support collaborative learning (Hiltz, 1994; Harasim et al, 1995; Collis, 1997 and McConnell, 1994). Laurillard (1993) recommends the creation of interactive learning experiences involving knowledge-building that requires articulation, expression or representation of what is learned and the development of shared meaning by discussion with others. In this project we aimed to develop a rich learning environment using a combination of online and traditional media, including both online and face-to-face interaction.

The model is detailed in Figure 1. The PBL trigger is made from video footage that has been filmed by veterinarians in overseas locations. In this project, the veterinarians are all Australian-born Murdoch graduates, who had begun working overseas after graduation. Students work in groups of six, initially in class, and then in a WebCT (WebCT Educational Technologies, 1999) threaded discussion forum. We opted to use a discussion forum rather than an email lists to take advantage of the WebCT facilities supporting a combination of small group discussion and all-class discussion, and including facilities for tracking of student participation. Whilst all of the current group of students were on-campus students, the online environment was used so that the veterinarian overseas was able to interact with students and raise issues of contextual difference as the need arose.

Figure 1: Model for online PBL to incorporate a global perspective

Figure 1: Model for online PBL to incorporate a global perspective in an existing curriculum

Initially, the PBL experience was facilitated by prepared questions to ensure that the scientific knowledge surrounding the problem was learned by students. This was then followed by discussion lead by question prompts that encouraged the students to consider who all the stakeholders in the process were, how the problem was solved in reality, and how the specific context (economic, political, cultural etc) influenced the final solution and outcomes of the problem. A facilitated analysis of the differences between the students' initial proposal for solution of the problem with the actual solution is the next step.

The overseas veterinarian facilitated online discussion of the external influences that affected the final outcome. This ensured that the cross-cultural interpretations and the actual context have reality for the students and also obviates the need for the in class academic to be fully conversant with varying global contexts.

Students were provided with a range of resources including online links to resources, materials such as newspapers from the area, and copies of articles relating to the case.


The online aspects of the unit were implemented in WebCT (WebCT Educational Technologies, 1999), a course development environment adopted by Murdoch University for the majority of online units. The WebCT environment provides a unit Welcome page, Home page and a range of tools of which the Bulletin Board is used for the creation of discussion forums. WebCT supports the use of multiple group-based discussion forums together with a Main forum that is accessible by all students. This characteristic was ideal for the type of interactions planned for this unit, where students at first interact in small groups and then share their solutions with the entire class in the Main discussion forum.

Online student groups included the same members as the groups designated for in-class PBL and each group was allowed access to their group forum and the Main class forum. This enabled students to work in small groups initially face-to-face and then online. They were able to post questions and interact with the overseas vet within their password protected discussion group. Interaction took place in stages and when ready, groups posted solutions to the Main forum for the entire class to read. Submissions were assessed prior to the commencement of the subsequent stage where additional video and textual information was provided.

The WebCT course environment was also utilised to provide additional information to students. This included an information guide detailing the unit's administrative requirements. Additional WebCT tools such as the Calendar and email were also utilised. Of the facilities provided the students used the unit information and discussion forums intensively, with less need for the additional tools that were not integral to the unit's requirements.

A graphic artist was employed to develop an attractive interface for the online unit that made the online environment more appealing for students in many cases had not experienced online learning in their studies to date.

The following structure diagram (Figure 2) illustrates the flow of the problem-solving interaction, both face-to-face and online. Students met as a class every week for two hours. In this time they were shown segments of the video 'Chicken Deaths in Hong Kong' which detailed the Avian Influenza outbreak in Hong Kong during 1997 and 1998. The video introduction initially served to trigger the PBL episode and additional video footage provided enriched perspectives and new information, both for in class group-based discussion and development of assessable work for submission.

Figure 2: Flow chart of the problem-solving interaction

Figure 2: Flow chart of the problem-solving interaction (face-to-face and online)

Students interacted in three in-class sessions followed in each instance by a week of discussion and submission preparation. Prior to each session students were given a questions (worksheet) online to complete before the subsequent class. The transfer from group-based face-to-face discussion to the online environment was fairly smooth, but since students were spending considerable amounts of time on campus much of the discussion continued outside the online environment.

It is important to note that students did experience some problems in using WebCT. Prior to commencement of the project the students were questioned about their level of IT competence and their self-perception was that their computing and technical expertise was very high. Based on this, tutorials explaining the use of online discussion groups and the WebCT environment were made optional and few people attended. However, when students were asked to use the WebCT environment, there were substantial problems and the lecturer spent a great deal of time with individuals and small groups explaining how to use the environment. In the 2000 version of the unit the WebCT tutorials are compulsory, and problems of entering password-based, threaded discussion groups, posting URLs and navigating around sites should be minimised.


Students were assessed on their individual contributions to their group and overall group submissions. This was in terms of quality (and to a lesser degree quantity) of contribution to discussion, scientific accuracy of final submissions and effective reflection and understanding of contextual issues around the case. A single problem (such as the avian influenza outbreak) was addressed over 3 weeks and constituted 15% of the total unit assessment.

Students made three submissions for assessment of the Avian Influenza case. The first submission aimed to identify knowledge gaps and problem-solving process, the second submission involved a scientific solution and in their final submission students were asked to reflect on the human influences in the case, identifying the stakeholders and how the actual solution varied from the ideal solution because of the context. The online submissions were assessed independently by both the teacher and the overseas veterinarian. Marking guides were distributed to students for online and in class problems. Remaining assessment was divided between in-class typical problem based learning, practical assessments, essay and final problem-based, open book examination.


Students are being quantitatively evaluated in an ongoing manner to assess the actual effectiveness of the unit as students progress through clinical years and subsequent graduation. Qualitative feedback and preliminary assessment of student attitudes to this material was generally positive. Comments included:
"I found it a real eye opener. It was fascinating to see how the vet interacted with people from a Confucian culture. I would never have considered bartering down to a set point for treatment."

"It has been really helpful to see just how influential factors such as finance, industry, culture has on the way real vets work in real life situations."

"I found it very useful because I plan to work in the Asian region."

"Coming from Asia, this was very familiar to me, but I was really pleased to see that some of the stuff I had talked about in other subjects was being included in the course. Prior to this, I had had to pretend to think like an Aussie."

Students reported some concern over the general structure of the unit, as it varied substantially from their experience with other veterinary units where there is a large content which required memorising. For example:
"At first, I was really concerned about getting to learn all the material, but by the end it became obvious that how the techniques are used to help people was just as important as using the techniques themselves."
For others, it was the first time that they had to consider that working as a veterinarian also involved a great deal of work with people. For example:
"I really want to be able to work with animals and I find that having to deal with the human problems is really stressful. If I had wanted to work with people I would have done medicine!"
Students such as this found the realities of the veterinary workplace in conflict with their preconceived ideals of veterinary work. Such comments point to the need for greater information and exposure to such concepts prior to entry into the course and in earlier years, so that students are not faced with reality during their clinical years or, worse still, after graduation.

The use of WebCT for enabling the students to interact with veterinarians located globally was of benefit for students as it added additional expertise for students to draw upon than would have otherwise been unavailable in Western Australia. As well, the use of threaded discussion lists is becoming increasingly common in postgraduate courses and a common format for professional discussion lists. For the majority of students this was a new experience that added to their familiarity with learning technologies.

Whilst there was no specific cross-cultural training in this unit, the learning of science in varying cultural contexts raised students' awareness of the fact that such issues do exist in the workplace. We believe that once students become aware that there are other ways of seeing and knowing, they will be able to observe and learn more about the human influences during their every day clinical exposure, better preparing them for graduation and the workplace. In the past this awareness has come with maturation and experience, but usually occurs well beyond their undergraduate experience.


Most Australian universities currently rely on the students' overseas experiences and on the presence of international students on Australian campuses to provide sufficient exposure to cross-cultural issues for Australian students. Issues of the students' vocational focus, curriculum time, and science teacher confidence in global issues become a problem when attempting to build cross-cultural awareness training into science degrees. Yet scientists are needed to work in the global world and with a cross-cultural competence. This model provides a way for the experience of other Australian graduates to be shared in a scientific context and within existing unit structures, enabling all Australian students to become aware of issues associated with life in the global workforce.


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Authors: Dr Jan Thomas, Division of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150, Australia. Tel: +61 8 9360 2666. Email:

Ms Romana Pospisil, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150, Australia. Email:

Please cite as: Thomas, J. and Pospisil, R. (2000). Developing a cross-cultural perspective in science students. In Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference. Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July. ASET and HERDSA.

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