Our experience as computer scientists and educators has led us to reflect on our subject area and the students’ learning of it in different cultures. A common view, among computer scientists, at least in higher education and in academic research, is that computer science is universal in its character. The arguments seem obvious: The computers, the utilities, as well as the programming languages are, with few exceptions, the same over the globe. At the same time cultural differences, in how students go about learning, are apparent in teaching and learning settings where different learning cultures meet in the classroom.
While much research on students’ learning in higher education focuses on the “how” of the learning, by which we mean the learning process (in a broad sense), considerably less work has been done on the “what”, that is, on the desired learning within the subject area. Research is still rarer in studies on the relationship between the “what” and the cultural aspects, and it is virtually non-existent in research on learning of computer science in higher education.
We took these reflections, and our own experience from teaching in intercultural environments, as points of departure for an empirically based research project. In this project we explore how Chinese students, studying for a master degree in Computer Science at a leading Swedish university, experience the subject area and their learning of it, as well as how these experiences are influenced by the “new” culture and the cultural changes they meet.
In this on-going project, we have collected data through email interviews, and are currently analysing the resulting qualitative data. The analysis, which leans on a phenomenographic research framework, allows us to distinguish between the students’ experiences of the direct object of learning (that which they learn), the indirect object (the aim of their learning), and the act of learning (how they go about learning). In the next phase of our project, we aim to synthesize our results from this analysis using intercultural competency models and theories of cultural awareness. During the full research process, we put a particular emphasis on tracing invariants and changes in the understanding of the subject area.