Communication Currents

Can Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) Really Facilitate Learning?

December 1, 2010
Instructional Communication

The use of technology and computer-mediated communication (CMC) is prevalent in today's classroom, but is that use effective? Some argue that CMC distances students from the teacher and erodes the social connections important to learning. Others argue that CMC reduces shared meaning, promotes misunderstanding, and diminishes overall academic performance. Still others, however, point to successful outcomes. What makes the difference? What can an instructor do to facilitate an effective CMC classroom learning experience?

CMC researchers identify five important influences of interest to using CMC in the classroom: media richness, social presence, social information processing, social identity, and hyperpersonal relationship development. Media richness describes the ability of a medium—whether that medium is email, a phone call, or a text message—to transmit human emotion, provide feedback, carry nonverbal cues, and convey different tones of voice. Social presence identifies a medium's ability to provide a sense of closeness and intimacy. Social information processing recognizes CMC participants as active, strategic, motivated communicators who, despite the limited nonverbal cues, develop strong interpersonal relationships through CMC. These relationshipsmay take longer and require different communication strategies to achieve, but they occur.

Social identity recognizes that participant anonymity is also an important influence. Anonymity, along with the lack of nonverbal cues, shifts a communicator's attention to a focus on language style and word choice. When the language use, rather than the person, becomes emphasized people can become less thoughtful and treat others more stereotypically. Finally, the hyperpersonal perspective adds that the ability that CMC provides, to edit messages can lead to "hyperpersonal" relationships. That is, a person's perceived control over self presentation through carefully edited messages reduces communication inhibitions and facilitates self disclosure, producing relationships that become more intensely personal than comparable face-to-face relationships.

How can an instructor use these five influences to facilitate a positive CMC classroom learning experience?

Media Richness.  Actively engage the medium—Select the medium carefully, explain its purpose in the course, and train students in its use. Recognize that communicators must use different communication strategies in each CMC medium. For example, the interpersonal uncertainty reduction strategies available to participants differ in asynchronous bulletin boards, interactive text messaging, and synchronous virtual realities. Careful consideration of the means for student uncertainty reduction will facilitate successful integration of a CMC technology into the classroom. 

Social Presence.  Communicate with immediacy; that is, develop a style that is present, interactive, inclusive, interested, and open to student comments. An immediate style increases participation, satisfaction, and learning. Provide students explicit instruction and model the communication skills they will need for effective interaction through the medium. Even today's young adults, so-called digital natives, struggle with the use of technology for educational purposes unless they receive adequate instruction and support. Use present-tense verbs and inclusive "we" pronouns. Show interest and openness to engage student effort and to help them overcome frustrations with using the technology.

Social Information Processing.  Actively manage the communication interaction. CMC group participants need to explicitly take turns as speakers and listeners, acknowledge having read messages, offer responses about what they are thinking and doing, ask direct questions, provide explicit answers, repeat key words to reference a discussion topic, and respond to a person by name. To overcome the additional CMC time demands groups need to: get started right away, communicate frequently, use the medium effectively by working simultaneously and multitasking, increase productivity by being interactive and responsive, and adhere to explicit group deadlines and participation rules. By modeling and encouraging this style of interaction instructors can increase student involvement, motivation, and learning.

Social Identity. Foster a positive group identity and classroom learning culture. An actively involved educator can facilitate CMC groups in which students learn to be more self reflective and to learn from each other as much as from the instructor. Modeling politeness in the use of please and thank you, respect in the use of salutations, and the use of a more formal written language style, can increase the level of professionalism present in student participation in the course. An active instructor and supportive CMC classroom culture can foster the communication of positive social identities, reducing the influence of power, gender, and social status differences, and facilitating thoughtful, inclusive deliberation and discussion. In such a classroom culture introverted and disempowered students can come to feel more at ease than they might in a face-to-face classroom.

Hyperpersonal Relationships. Encourage students to take advantage of the anonymity, lag time, networked communication, and hyperpersonal aspects of CMC. Anonymity can help reduce student communication apprehension. The asynchronous communication lag allows them time to compose their thoughts. The networked nature of CMC encourages active individual engagement in course materials, participation in discussions, and collaborative learning. The hyperpersonal experience of communicating in a virtual world can provide a sense of spatial closeness and comfort while facilitating a re-assessment of roles and learning responsibilities. For example, students and professors communicating in a virtual world develop a different communication relationship as age, expertise, and power differences are masked, and avatar-to-avatar similarities are accentuated. Explicitly negotiating the responsibilities of these new roles and relationships in CMC helps students develop more in-depth peer-group educational opportunities within larger online learning communities.

To summarize, five things an instructor can do to facilitate learning in a CMC classroom are to: (a) Select the medium carefully, explain the reasons for its use, and teach students explicitly how to use it; (b) Develop a social presence by being interactive, inclusive, interested, and open in communication style; (c) Explicitly manage the interaction by offering frequent responses, asking questions, providing answers, using repetition, having explicit deadlines, and engaging in multitasking; (d) Foster a positive group identity that is interactive, supportive, reduces differences, and facilitates a participatory culture; and (e) Take advantage of the medium's anonymity, lag, networked communication, and hyperpersonal relationships to foster team building and facilitate the development of an online collaborative-learning community that transcends the time and space constraints of the physical classroom.

About the author (s)

John C. Sherblom

University of Maine